Nuno Espirito Santo certainly wasn’t Tottenham Hotspur’s first pick to be their new manager. Indeed, the Portuguese was a long way down the North London club’s shortlist of potential successors to Jose Mourinho with Antonio Conte, Paulo Fonseca and Gennaro Gattuso all reportedly preferred. Mauricio Pochettino was even approached about a return to the club.
Despite his solid record at Wolves, Nuno was a largely uninspiring appointment. While Spurs originally desired a coach with an attack-minded, dynamic approach to wash away the remnants of the ill-fated Mourinho era, the man they ultimately ended up with in the dugout has more than just a nationality in common with his predecessor.
However, the early stages of Nuno’s Tottenham reign have been a victory for pragmatism. The 2021/22 season might only be a handful of games old but Spurs currently sit at the top of the Premier League table as the only team with a perfect record – nine points from nine. Expectations, which had been modest before the start of the campaign, are being recalibrated.
Rather than ripping up Mourinho’s team and starting again, Nuno has built on what was already in place at Spurs. Deployed in a 4-3-3 shape against Manchester City, Wolves and Watford, Tottenham have been focused on keeping tight and compact, and on hitting out at speed on the counter attack.
Spurs have rode their luck at times, most notably against Wolves when the hosts had multiple opportunities to find the back of the net, but the structure is in place for the North London side to once again be one of the toughest opponents to play through and break down in the Premier League.
“That’s the beginning of everything,” Nuno said after a third straight Premier League clean sheet in the 1-0 win over Watford. “Always said the shape, organisation, being solid and compact because we have talent. Being consistent is what we are focused on and we have to keep on going.”
These remarks might not be what Tottenham fans, desperate to see a new, more entertaining style of imposed at the club, want to hear, but it’s worth recalling how Pochettino was another coach who built his Spurs team on a sound defensive basis. This didn’t necessarily make Pochettino’s Tottenham boring to watch, though.
There is a lot about Nuno’s Spurs plan that catches the eye. His central midfielders are given the freedom to burst forward with the ball at their feet, something that looks to suit Dele Alli. Pierre-Emile Hjobjerg has been unshackled from the system that meant he had to stay at the halfway line under Mourinho too.
Steven Bergwijn has been given a second chance, and has taken it with some impressive displays, while Harry Kane looks to have found his stride again after a tumultuous summer. That Nuno has managed to get his top goalscorer firing so quickly after so much transfer speculation says a lot about the Portuguese’s man-management skills.
At the back, Eric Dier and Davinson Sanchez have forged a strong understanding at centre back. Given their struggles last season, this points to Nuno’s capacity as a defensive organiser and his ability to maximise talent, something Mourinho failed to do in North London. Nuno is implementing a more comprehensive interpretation of ‘Mourinho-ball’ than the man himself did.
Of course, it’s far too early to pass judgement on Nuno as Tottenham Hotspur manager – let’s not forget that Mourinho enjoyed a good start at the club – but the early signs are positive. Nuno might not be the manager Spurs wanted, but the Portuguese coach’s pragmatism might well give them the best chance of success this season.
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