Nuno walking a high wire in attempt to lift Tottenham’s malaise | David Hytner
After the implosion came the confession. No, not that implosion, the one Tottenham suffered last Sunday in the north London derby at Arsenal, something so shocking that it fired grave doubts over whether Nuno Espírito Santo could lead the club back towards the straight and narrow.
It was the one before that – at home to Chelsea the previous weekend. First half good, second half not so good, to borrow an old line from the former England manager Sven-Göran Eriksson. Spurs had been really good before the interval only to fall apart after it, shipping three goals to lose 3-0.
Nuno did not hold back two days later, having had the chance to rationalise it. In the Premier League game before that, his team had lost 3-0 at Crystal Palace after Japhet Tanganga’s red card at 0-0. There was mitigation, albeit it had been an insipid performance. And, painful though it is for Spurs to admit, Chelsea are on a different level. Such a loss can happen.
Nuno had been named as the manager of the month for August after wins in the first three league matches, including a fine 1-0 victory in the opener against Manchester City, and it felt as though he had credit in the bank. He might have been expected to straight bat any questions about mounting problems but instead he chose to get real.
Nuno was honest and open about them, highlighting a difficult pre-season when a number of key players reported late after playing at Euro 2020 and the Copa América. Harry Kane, the main man, was the latest of all, for reasons that have been well documented. Tanguy Ndombele also had his fitness troubles.
All in all, not ideal for a manager who took over at the end of June. Then, in early September, there were the injuries to Eric Dier and Son Heung-min and the international quarantine issues that affected Davinson Sánchez, Cristian Romero and Giovani Lo Celso.
Nuno made the point – as he has done since – that with matches coming thick and fast, he lacks the time to instil his style in training. Essentially, he must use the games to find things out and to learn from what does not work – a kind of high-wire act and, again, not ideal.
It was as if Nuno had wanted to scream at his audience. Open your eyes. And you wondered what he was holding back. Maybe how the club did not replace the goals of Gareth Bale during the transfer window. How there is no established, specialist back-up to Kane. How resources could be stretched by the stipulation from the hierarchy for him to take the Europa Conference League seriously, which if the team were to reach the final would mean them playing 15 or 17 games. Victory offers a route into next season’s Europa League.
It is a tough gig, especially in light of how broken Spurs were at the end of last season. Remember the final home game against Aston Villa?
The feeling within the club after the debacle at Arsenal, which reinforced all of Nuno’s worst fears, was one of devastation and soul-searching. Everybody knows there is no magic-wand cure for the many ills – only hard work and patience. But it has not stopped the return of Villa on Sunday from being coloured by an extraordinary amount of jeopardy because, for Nuno, a fourth straight heavy defeat in the league would be unthinkable.
One of Nuno’s biggest problems has been the lack of buy-in from the fans to him. They demand attacking, entertaining and energetic football and had worried his priorities might lie elsewhere. Nothing they have seen has disabused them of this. It is not so much they cannot see the attempt by him to forge an identity; rather it is heading in a direction they do not like and this has put an even greater pressure on results.
Spurs have scored four league goals this season and, according to Opta, they have created six big chances – ranking them 18th in the competition. They are 19th in expected goals and open-play crosses and a rock-bottom 20th in shots, with an average of 9.3 per game. They have made 104 team presses, which puts them 15th in the division.
Nuno has wanted to make a 4-3-3 system work but he admitted he started with the wrong personnel in it against Arsenal: Dele Alli and Ndombele, as attack-minded No 8s, left Pierre-Emile Højbjerg too exposed in front of the defence.
That said, it felt as though Nuno was still unhappy at the failure of his selections to execute the gameplan.
The balance of the midfield is everything and it is questionable whether Nuno’s attempt to recast Alli as a No 8 has been a success. Alli is more dangerous when he can play off the cuff around the last defenders without the responsibility to track back.
It is a surprise Nuno has not tried to use three central defenders – the formation he enjoyed such good times with at his previous club, Wolves – although perhaps it is not a part of Spurs’ DNA.
It could be that 4-2-3-1 is the way forward, with Oliver Skipp alongside Højbjerg and Lo Celso pushing for the No 10 role, where he played well in the 5-1 Conference League win at home to NS Mura on Thursday. Nuno had moved Lo Celso into the position after substituting Alli, who was again disappointing.
The Mura game was strange insofar as Spurs, after an early burst, managed to make mediocre opponents look comfortable. When the Slovenian minnows reduced the deficit to 2-1, it was even possible to fear for another setback. The big guns were needed and on came Kane, Son and Lucas Moura to make the difference, Kane helping himself to a hat-trick. Nuno desperately needs them to fire against Villa.