There are no shortcuts in football management. No Konami code to bash to get ahead of the competition. For a new manager, the process of developing an understanding of the players at their disposal and getting fans onside with their style of play takes time, even with the weekend-to-midweek programme at the top-level. The most restrictive factor being that patience is a scarce commodity.
There are, however, “accelerators”, if you can call them that. These are marquee fixtures where positive results early in your tenure grant you an invaluable combination of leeway and belief. This weekend, Nuno Espirito Santo has his second of three within his first six league matches as Tottenham Hotspur manager.
Number one was ticked off with relish: an opening day win over defending champions Manchester City, a 1-0 that spoke of structural coherence. The second, this Sunday against defending European Champions Chelsea, will gauge management of the squad he has at his disposal, particularly who he trusts in the expected absence of some first-team players. The north London derby a week later will be instructive of just how much he gets what it is to be Spurs manager.
Of course, all of that is slightly reductive, and perhaps more reflective on the fickleness of modern fandom and media rather than Nuno as a coach and Spurs as a broader Premier League entity. But this Sunday in particular, the task of besting a Thomas Tuchel outfit already setting a marker as one of the most well-rounded teams in Europe will tell us something worth knowing.
What that is , we won’t know before the 4:30pm kick-off at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. But we more or less know what to expect given what we’ve seen so far: a deep midfield three, two of those being Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Oliver Skipp. The football equivalent of a deadbolt and a door chain.
Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg celebrates scoring against Rennes
The merits of both doing as they have done this season are carried in the method of their opponents. Chelsea have many avenues of attack, but Zenit St Petersburg showed in midweek that cluttering the middle can cut off most of them. It was only when Chelsea went aerial to Romelu Lukaku that they found joy for their 1-0 win.
Of less certainty – and arguably greater importance – is who along with Harry Kane (and how) they plan on hurting their west London rivals. And whether they can control the match with how much (or little) they have of the ball after losing their grasp on proceedings last week when they were ransacked 3-0 by Crystal Palace. Even with the mitigation of Japhet Tanganga’s 58th minute red card, their capitulation to concede three in the final 17 minutes of play was troubling. Despite a full XI in the first half, they still played fewer passers than Palace, had just 41 percent possession and failed to register a single shot – blocked or otherwise.
Such passivity reeked of Nuno’s final campaign at Molineux after two seasons of seventh-place finishes, Wolverhampton Wanderers sleepwalked through 2020/21 to 13th, scoring just 36 goals. Along with the Raul Jimenez restricted to 10 appearances through injury, the Portuguese was clearly spent and managing by numbers. He went from a ambitious tactician to a hold-what-we-have worrier, which he decided was mid-table ambivalence. The change after four years made sense for both parties before either got too comfortable.
Nuno Espirito Santo was frustrated by more injuries in France (Jeremias Gonzalez/AP)
Spurs fans hoped Nuno left that tedium in the Midlands, especially after 17 months of Jose Mourinho. And no doubt some of the hardest to convince will focus on the zero goal difference after four games rather than the nine points, along with the style so far, and wonder if the conservatism is terminal. But they will also hope he has retained that sharp game-management he seemed to reserve for these high-profile fixtures.
His record against the top four – Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea – is skewed somewhat by the underwhelming final season at Wolves. Nevertheless, he went undefeated in 14 out of 27 matches in all competitions against these sides from the start of 2018/19, winning half of those. By contrast, Mourinho as Spurs boss lost nine out of 15 with a superior squad, winning just three.
Those ratios are far from scientific given the evolution of those four during Nuno’s first three years in the Premier League. But they are an established quartet who Spurs want to challenge. The names they want to be associated with, the bracket they want to break into beyond simply achieving Champions League status.
As does Nuno, of course. Those behind the scenes at Wolves spoke of his aim to become an elite manager, which is why he and the club – especially their associations around recruitment – were such a neat fit. And it is hardly ground-breaking to say the 47-year-old and Spurs chairman Daniel Levy are bound by a desire to be taken seriously on the pitch. The most prominent feature of this union is its symbiosis. In the modern game, that as close as you can get to true love.
There are three strands in all this: the manager Spurs need him to be, the manager fans want him to be and, most important of all, the manager Nuno actually is. Whether those three strands intertwine in the long-term remains to be seen.
On Sunday, however, they will align. In a world with few certainties, a notable performance against a Chelsea side tipped for the title will be a step towards higher status and acceptance. For man and club until, if ever, they become one of the same.
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