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Is Nuno Espirito Santo the right manager to arrest Tottenham's slump?

Tottenham
(Image credit: Getty)

Pep Guardiola is the last man to retain the Premier League’s manager-of-the-month award. Suffice to say that the winner for January and February is no danger of losing that status to the August recipient. Nuno Espirito Santo’s sorry September has seen Tottenham compile the worst record in the division, scoring a solitary goal, conceding three in three consecutive games for the first time since 2003.

It is rare a reign seems to be unravelling at such speed. Sunday’s North London derby defeat was the sort of wretched display, where every idea is emphatically disproved, where the team looks disjointed, incoherent and unmotivated, that it resembled the kinds of performances that get managers sacked. Six league games into his tenure, Nuno is not so imperilled. Yet it was so comprehensive, so chastening that it leaves legitimate questions if he can engineer a revival or if the job is too big for him.

His verdict was unusually blunt, albeit without disclosing the details. The performance, gameplan and decisions were all described as “not good”. So, perhaps, was the decision-making above him. Daniel Levy’s programme notes before Tottenham’s final home game last season, when he sought to put the twin mistakes of Spurs’ participation in the Super League and appointing Jose Mourinho behind him, already feel destined for infamy. The promise of “free-flowing, attacking and entertaining” football was followed by a farcical managerial search that culminated in the appointment of a coach increasingly known for passive, defensive football.

Nuno looks Spurs’ square peg in the roundest of holes. Heung-Min Son’s consolation goal at the Emirates Stadium was just the 37th his teams have scored in 42 league games in the last calendar year. Tottenham’s meagre tally of four in six feels depressingly accurate. The ‘Harry Kane team’, as Guardiola once branded them, rank second lowest for expected goals and worst for shots. They have stifled themselves as an attacking force, looking shorn of flair. A seemingly demoralised Kane is goalless and assist-less, Levy’s supposed triumph in keeping him feeling ever more pointless as Kane’s value drops by the week, along with Spurs’ chances of a top-four finish.

Nuno has never had all his premier attackers available at the same time, but nor is there much of a semblance of an attacking plan. Certainly Dele Alli, Giovani Lo Celso and Tanguy Ndombele never felt natural Nuno players. The Englishman was briefly reinvented as a runner, but hooked at half-time against Arsenal. It is tempting to wonder if Nuno knows what to do with any.

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Tactically, Tottenham are falling apart. Nuno’s 4-3-3, which worked so well against Manchester City, now looks fundamentally broken; only Liverpool can be creative with such a narrow shape. The triple defensive midfielder gambit failed hopelessly against Crystal Palace; high pressing had some effect in the first half against Chelsea but without producing many opportunities and Spurs were exposed thereafter, partly by attacking their isolated full-backs. At Arsenal, the gaps between Alli, Ndombele and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg left Spurs with no real midfield. 

Defensively, they have shown that when they concede once, they can be breached twice more in relatively quick succession. After three clean sheets, it suggests a lack of organisation and spirit. The lack of effort at the Emirates showed an emptiness and if Nuno feels a beard-stroking philosopher to some, there may be an element of projection involved there: his usual bland pronouncements offer few clues as to how he could galvanise or reinvent Spurs. 

If Sunday’s gameplan was “not good”, in his own words, if his players did not follow it and as he felt he picked the wrong team, what is the right side? Does he have a better blueprint, those capable of implementing it or believers in him? Perhaps pragmatism worked in August but September has shown a Spurs side that is less than the sum of their considerable if mismatched parts, and there appears no obvious system to suit everyone.

Perhaps Nuno can revert to Wolves’ 3-4-3, to camping behind the ball, operating with a minority of possession and looking to counter-attack. If Kane can rediscover his scoring touch, to accompany Son’s, that might offer a formula for damage limitation. However, it would scarcely fit the lofty aims Levy articulated four months ago. 

But then Tottenham appear a club trapped in an identity crisis just as Nuno may be developing his own; knowing Spurs expect him to attack, unsure how and with the only creativity coming as his side contrive to make a mess. His two-year contract was an initial vote of very little confidence. Now, with the first signs he looks out of his depth, the hole Tottenham dug for themselves is getting deeper.

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