October 20, 2021, 22:40

Tottenham’s worrying 3-1 defeat to Arsenal will add to growing doubts over Nuno Espirito Santo’s style of play

Tottenham’s worrying 3-1 defeat to Arsenal will add to growing doubts over Nuno Espirito Santo’s style of play

Nuno Espirito Santo was the Premier League manager of the month for August after taking Tottenham to the top of the table but September has been miserable. If the competition had started once the transfer window closed, Spurs would be bottom.

His team have now conceded three goals in three consecutive London derbies but there has been nothing worse than this. Overrun by an Arsenal side with conspicuously more endeavour and enterprise, Spurs looked so passive at the Emirates Stadium.

It is the sort of performance that supporters will never accept.

A look at the Premier League table lends some perspective. Six games in and they have an identical record to Arsenal. But the contrast between the teams was marked on Sunday. The youthful exuberance of the Gunners. The turgid efforts of Tottenham.

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Arsenal’s win over Spurs in the Premier League

The problem for Nuno is that he arrived as a man needing to address concerns. There were fears over his style of play – and remember that is part of his remit as stated by chairman Daniel Levy. Those fears are only going to increase given the nature of this defeat.

A reminder, if needed. “We are acutely aware of the need to select someone whose values reflect those of our great club,” read that summer statement, “and return to playing football with the style for which we are known – free-flowing, attacking and entertaining.”

Instead, there was this.

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“It is like they are running through treacle,” said Gary Neville.

Of course, attacking football, though quite literally in the job description, has never been the Nuno way. Twice finishing seventh with Wolves earned praise but it was achieved by surrendering possession and territory in favour of a counter-attacking game.

He is a different character to Jose Mourinho, far less likely to criticise his players in public, but there is also far less difference between their philosophies than their trophy cabinets.

Ultimately, this is a man who was allowed to leave Molineux, and a team with lower expectations than Tottenham, because even they wanted more of an ambitious approach.

There had been some signs of him adapting. Against Chelsea, for half an hour at least, the decision to press high surprised their opponents. Thomas Tuchel then tweaked his own formation, making the adjustments that took the game away from Spurs.

But this was a reversion to type. Dropping off. Letting Arsenal play. It never looked likely to work. Full of optimism, Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka were driving forwards. Full of regret, Harry Kane and Dele Alli were passengers. They were the future once.

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“The real problem is that they got to a Champions League final a few years ago playing really exciting football, really proactive, always on the front foot, with a group of players who looked like they were enjoying it,” said Neville, on co-commentary for Sky Sports.

“Some of those players are still there now but over the last couple of years they have become very basic to watch compared to that team of a few years ago.”

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Tottenham's lack of creativity under Nuno Espirito Santo is a concern

The fixtures could have been kinder but the stats do not make for good reading. Tottenham are averaging 9.3 shots per game so far this season, and creating 5.3 chances per game from open play. Both are the lowest of any team in the Premier League this season.

It all looks so sluggish and the distance covered statistics will be seen as damning. Tottenham are also running less than any other Premier League side so far this season.

“The distance covered will be a real worry,” added Neville.

“When you go from where they were under Mauricio Pochettino, which was one of the hardest-running teams to the worst. The enthusiasm, the appetite, the intensity.

“You can talk about a style change but Tottenham Hotspur cannot be a team that runs less than any other in the league.

“Not with the players they have got.”

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Nuno Espirito Santo says some Tottenham players didn’t implement the plan

And yet, for all the talk of Kane not wanting to be there and the body language of the players being all wrong, it is by design. Wolves ranked bottom for this metric in the 2019/20 season and were one off bottom last time around. This is the coach they appointed.

He could be seen puffing his cheeks and shaking his head in indignant anger throughout the game, but it will be the defensive breaches, the lack of organisation at the back, that will have concerned Nuno much more than the conservative approach.

Spurs have scored only two first-half goals, but Wolves ranked in the bottom five for first-half goals in each of his three seasons there. In a sense, it is a consequence of not being a pressing team. He waits for openings and those openings tend to come later.

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Did Tottenham not know this? With Paulo Fonseca claiming in a widely-publicised recent interview that his chances of the job disappeared because sporting director Fabio Paratici did not agree with his attacking philosophy, perhaps they did.

Despite the lip service paid to Tottenham’s traditions, maybe it was Nuno’s record of organising teams that swayed their thinking. But right now his Tottenham are not looking difficult to beat, only difficult to watch. August seems a long time ago now.

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