It says everything about the muddled state Tottenham are in just now that Nuno Espirito Santo’s short and unhappy reign at the club could have ended even faster than the 17 games it has taken for the axe to fall.
In the aftermath of game 10, that sorry north London derby defeat at an Arsenal side slowly trying to stabilise their own campaign after a disastrous start that had left Mikel Arteta as the subject of crisis talk, BBC Sport was told that Nuno could not last as manager and it was just a question of time before his services were dispensed with.
The reasons cited – style of play and communication – internally within the club and externally with the media – were slightly odd because nothing had occurred that would be regarded as out of the ordinary to anyone who worked with Nuno at Wolves.
With his rigid three at the back and two holding midfielders, Nuno’s Wolves could never be described as free-flowing. But, for three years, they were hugely effective. It was only last term, when he tried to change the system and become more expansive, that it all started to go wrong for Nuno at Molineux.
Similarly, Nuno liked to keep information tight internally within his coaching team and externally could be best described as a challenge. Frequently, his programme notes extended to no more than three or four paragraphs and his face-to-face media conferences were rather joyless due to his preference not to talk about individuals or tactics. He actually got better with the advent of Zoom calls – and better still when he spoke about matters he had a personal attachment to, such as the impact of the pandemic.
Essentially though, with Spurs in eighth and just two points off Man Utd in fifth, Nuno is being sacked for delivering Nuno-type football, which the Tottenham fans don’t like, which seems a bit unnecessary with the Tottenham board knowing exactly what they were getting when he was appointed.
But, this is now the reactive nature of the Premier League. A few poor results and your managerial future could be in danger. Manchester United’s Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta have already come under severe pressure this season, while even Aston Villa’s Dean Smith is facing growing questions.
Tactical tweaks that did not work
There was no hint of fan discontent when Tottenham opened their season with a fabulous victory over Manchester City on 15 August.
Tottenham fans stayed on to hail the players and their new manager after what felt like a superb performance and a result that offered the promise of an exciting future. What doubts there had been over Nuno’s appointment as Jose Mourinho’s successor after a protracted search lasting two months during which time numerous names were mentioned, then, for various reasons, discarded, seemed to be being dispelled.
Yet even in that success, there were some statistics that would have been concerning. Possession was 32%. Three shots on target. In the moment, the win was far more than a limited smash and grab – but it certainly came straight out of the Nuno playbook.
By the time they reached the Arsenal game at the end of September, the optimism had been replaced by a stark reality. Tottenham had a majority of possession at Emirates Stadium but did very little with it.
The experiment of playing Dele Alli in a deeper midfield role came to an end when he was replaced by Oliver Skipp at half-time. The search for a winning formula that included Harry Kane and £53.6m club record signing Tanguy Ndombele, both of whom missed the Manchester City game, became increasingly desperate.
Alli didn’t play again in the Premier League until he was thrown on 17 minutes from the end of the Manchester United game. Harry Winks was ignored completely. Davinson Sanchez, Japhet Tanganga and Sergio Reguilon were all on the bench against United, meaning three-quarters of Tottenham’s defence had changed from the City game.
Nuno’s decision not to take any of the 11 players who started the Premier League win at Newcastle on 17 October to the Netherlands for the Europa Conference League group game against Vitesse Arnhem four days later was demotivating for some of those, like Winks, who were part of the back-up group. The move backfired as Tottenham lost to both Vitesse and West Ham the following weekend and the storm clouds gathered over Nuno.
Trouble at the top
Nuno wasn’t the only man Tottenham’s fans turned on during the United defeat. Chairman Daniel Levy also got both barrels.
Earlier this year, Levy completed 20 years at the club. Levy has never been one to bother about public perceptions of him but now Tottenham’s amazing new stadium has been added to their state-of-the-art training ground, attention is again turning to his decision-making.
It is difficult to understand how Tottenham lurched from reaching a Champions League final in 2019 to sacking Mauricio Pochettino, to hiring – and firing – Jose Mourinho, bringing in a football director in highly rated former Juventus supremo Fabio Paratici, then ending up with Nuno after talks with Pochettino, Antonio Conte, Paulo Fonseca, Gennaro Gattuso and others got nowhere. But, perhaps, it is a separate matter entirely that highlights how Levy, an unquestioned brilliant negotiator and astute businessman, can sometimes miss the reality of a situation with huge significance.
Despite being advised it was a really bad idea that would look terrible to the outside world given Tottenham are owned by a billionaire tax exile in Joe Lewis, in April 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic shut football down, Levy took the decision to put non-playing staff on furlough. After two weeks of negative headlines, the decision was reversed, with a humbling note of regret from Levy.
More recently, Levy reversed a decision not to meet the Tottenham Hotspur Supporters Trust to discuss their concerns over the direction of the club. Levy has regularly met THST down the years – one of the few owners of a ‘big six’ club to have a line of communication with the fans. On this occasion, he even managed to turn that into a negative.
Kane conundrum and a way out of the mess
No conversation about Tottenham’s future direction can take place without mention of Harry Kane.
Levy refused to grant the England skipper his wish to leave the club for Manchester City during the summer. After missing the City win as part of the summer stand-off, Kane returned for the victory at Wolves the following week, when he was jeered by Tottenham supporters.
Those same fans appear to be turning on Kane again given their reaction during the Manchester United game as the striker failed to add to his single Premier League goal this season.
Kane does have seven goals in all competitions but five of them came in two Europa Conference League games, against Pacos Ferreira and NS Mura. His form generally has been poor, with question marks again being raised about the amount of times he drops deep as he looks to influence a game, rather than push forward as a conventional striker normally would.
Until the Kane situation is resolved – either through him leaving or rediscovering the spark that attracted Pep Guardiola in the first place – any manager will have a problem, no matter who replaces Nuno.
Yet, if Levy can get his next move right – with former Chelsea boss Conte now believed to be their top target – there are reasons for Tottenham to be optimistic.
Despite their patchy form, Tottenham are only five points off the top four and for all the plaudits Arsenal are getting at the moment, their current unbeaten run doesn’t include any victories against a side presently above their north London rivals in the Premier League.
Tottenham are third in their Europa Conference League group with two home matches still to play and their EFL Cup campaign now features a home quarter-final with West Ham, which, if very tricky now, may look different when the game is played just before Christmas.
As Nuno has found to his cost, circumstances change very quickly in football these days. Levy, and Tottenham, can only hope this latest, brutal call gets them going in the right direction again.