Samuel – Nobody is buying Nuno's strategy but what is Spurs' plan?

MARTIN SAMUEL: Nobody is buying Nuno’s strategy – least of all Harry Kane… but what is Tottenham’s plan if a new manager gets just 10 Premier League games to prove his worth?

  • Tottenham fans have been left fuming at Nuno Espirito Santo and Daniel Levy 
  • They suffered their fifth league defeat of the season against Manchester United
  • Harry Kane was booed after yet another dismissive performance on Saturday 
  • The north London club is considering the future of manager Espirito Santo  

They chanted angrily about Daniel Levy, about the increasingly isolated Nuno Espirito Santo — and then they turned their attention to Harry Kane.

There’s gratitude for you. The player who, more than any other, has made Tottenham relevant in the modern Premier League era; who gave the club pretensions that they could break away, as part of an entitled European elite; whose goals made Mauricio Pochettino one of the most sought-after coaches in Europe; who made Levy look a shrewd operator; and who helped build arguably the finest stadium in the country. That’s who the fans went for as Tottenham slumped to a humbling home defeat.

In the 75th minute, Edinson Cavani was hustled towards his own goal and gave the ball up to Kane, who was suddenly away. He hared down the right flank, a rare Tottenham counter-attack, before unleashing the lamest cross which was easily cut out by Scott McTominay, Manchester United’s best player who wasn’t Cristiano Ronaldo.

Nuno Espirito Santo’s time at Tottenham could soon come to an end after yet another defeat 

It is hard to imagine Kane has ever been booed by the regulars at either Spurs stadiums before, not even when he made it plain he would prefer to sign for Manchester City. Back then, they wanted him to stay and the club made him stay. Now all parties live with the consequence of that.

For while booing Kane is harsh, that does not mean his form isn’t a problem. It has come to sum up the malaise under Nuno, his forlorn figure encapsulating the distance between where the club are, and where they aspire to be.

There is a big difference between Spurs without Kane —because they have, in the past, found ways around that — and Spurs with Kane but playing badly. It is as if they are a man short, and the best man, too.

We now see how Kane, and his goals, disguised so many shortcomings such as the general mediocrity of the rest of the squad. Manchester United — failing, inconsistent, under-coached Manchester United — were a different class.

Harry Kane was booed by his own fans in the 3-0 defeat to Manchester United on Saturday

They defended better, their midfield was superb and in Ronaldo and Cavani they have found a perfect forward partnership, if we overlook the fact they will have a combined age of 72 by mid-February, so can hardly be expected to turn out in every game. They looked sprightlier than any Spurs player, mind, even the under-served Son Heung-min or fans favourite Lucas Moura.

It was Moura’s substitution for Steven Bergwijn after 54 minutes that provoked the angriest reaction. The booing was loud, followed by that old favourite: ‘You don’t know what you’re doing.’

Nobody is buying Nuno’s strategy — least of all Kane. In a flat team, he seeks involvement, comes deep, goes wide in search of the ball, and stops being the focal point Tottenham need.

They look for him in all the old familiar places but he isn’t there. And when he is, the service isn’t good enough. Tottenham are slow, Tottenham pass sideways.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was boosted by the return of Raphael Varane and went belt and braces with five at the back. That threw a blanket over Tottenham’s forwards and hard work in midfield did the rest. Tottenham’s team couldn’t cope with the attention of players that less than a week earlier had been decried as work-shy. They then added some slothful tropes of their own.

For United’s third goal, Ben Davies was slow to get up in a defensive line to play Marcus Rashford offside. His reaction was first to raise an arm to alert the linesman to an offside that wasn’t, then raise both in furious admonishment of the official once the ball was in the net. Memo: it is not the linesman’s job to protect lazy defenders by raising a flag to order. It’s your job to get level with your team-mates.

Nuno’s surprising decision to take off Lucas Moura led to the atmosphere turning toxic

‘If the fans chant sack the manager, they think about sacking the manager,’ David Pleat once said. ‘If they chant sack the board, they definitely sack the manager.’

So Spurs are, apparently, thinking about sacking Nuno. Even by the standards of the modern game it would be frighteningly premature. He was Premier League Manager of the Month as recently as September.

On Saturday night, his team were still only two points off the Champions League places. This was a poor display; but what is Tottenham’s strategy if a new manager gets 10 league games to prove his worth?

Back to Kane. The numbers tell a tale. He had one shot, late in the game, which struck Harry Maguire and had just four touches in United’s area.

For such a prolific scorer he has had a single shot, or none, in every league game he has played this season, bar the 2-1 win over Aston Villa on October 3.

After their loss on Saturday, Tottenham have now lost five games after just 10 league games 

Last season, his average of four shots per game was the Premier League’s highest. On Saturday night, there were 32 players ahead of him, almost enough for two at every club. The easy answer is disillusionment after the collapse of the City move, yet plainly Nuno’s gameplan does not suit him. 

Oliver Skipp and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg completed 103 passes of which 73 did not go forward. What use to a striker is that? Equally, Kane might be trying too hard to impress. 

If he feels he needs to win the fans over after the summer, he will go into games with more tension than before. What must playing at home have felt like to Kane in the past? How does it feel now? Booing him only perpetuates that vicious cycle.

Meanwhile, in the away end, delirium. Ole’s at the wheel again, just as he wasn’t the previous Sunday, but had been on the Wednesday before that, but wasn’t that Saturday at Leicester and, well you know the see-saw narrative by now.

It’s football’s equivalent of Newton’s third law of motion: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. So this was the opposite to the 5-0 defeat by Liverpool. Manchester United looked coherently prepared, had a plan that worked and players striving to deliver it.

They also have, in Ronaldo, one of the supreme match-winners of any age. He ended a four-game scoring drought in the Premier League with as good a volley as anyone will see this season, and his switch and pass for Cavani’s goal — United’s second — was sublime. The question is, can United stick with a system that benefits such a talismanic player, but finds no room for Rashford, Mason Greenwood or Jadon Sancho?

Cristiano Ronaldo ended his four-game goal drought in the Premier League against Tottenham

Ronaldo was supposed to help the development of those players, be the perfect foil for their skill and youthful exuberance. Instead the need to reshape United defensively to accommodate his immense talent, shuts them out of the team.

That is why any talk of a corner turned may again be premature. If we divide the team in a black and white fashion, into defence-minded players and attack-minded players, United played three attacking players at Spurs — Ronaldo, Cavani and Bruno Fernandes.

There were five defenders, a goalkeeper and two of three midfield players – Fred and McTominay, both excellent — are primarily there to guard. It worked. It might not work everywhere, but it was an answer to a specific moment in time, a moment of crisis for the club and Solskjaer found a solution, and deserves credit for that. Yet is it sustainable going forward?

Could United play this way against Atalanta on Tuesday? Can Solskjaer look at the young players that were supposed to be the future of the club and tell them 2021-22 won’t be their season after all? It was a great day for United in London, but also one that still leaves many questions unanswered. Much like Levy’s plan for Nuno, and Spurs. 




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