Back Three, Front Two, Jorge Mendes Clients — What Spurs Fans Should Expect of Nuno Espirito Santo

Nuno Espirito Santo wasn’t Tottenham Hotspur’s first choice. He wasn’t their second or even third choice, but the Portuguese coach was the one ultimately hired to wipe away the regrettable remnants of Jose Mourinho’s short-lived, but chaotic, time in charge and point the North London club in the right direction again. 

He might not be the marquee appointment Daniel Levy wanted to make, with Antonio Conte and Mauricio Pochettino both sounded out about the job, but Nuno is a manager with a good Premier League pedigree having established Wolves as a force in the top flight. What he faces now, however, will be his biggest managerial task to date.

At Wolves, Nuno’s teams weren’t always the most entertaining to watch. They were, however, well drilled and extremely effective at what they did. Some Spurs fans have concerns their club has ended up with just another Mourinho-lite, and there is some basis to these worries, but there are a number of different sides to Nuno.

Tactically, it seems likely that the former goalkeeper will forge his Tottenham team in a 3-5-2 shape. This might not be possible from the very start due to gaps in the squad, but this is the formation that worked well so well for Nuno at Wolves. He knows the strengths of the system and will almost certainly attempt to carry this over.

It’s little wonder Spurs are targeting the signing of at least one new central defender this summer. At present, they simply don’t have the squad depth to play with three at the back as Nuno will most likely desire particularly after the departure of Toby Alderweireld. Joe Rodon and Davinson Sanchez have potential, but have yet to realise that.

Cristian Romero, who signed from Atalanta on Friday, is a transformative signing. The 23-year-old is widely seen as one of the top defenders in Serie A right now and was a key member of the Argentina team that won the Copa America this summer. Romero gives Nuno a strong defensive bedrock. 

A back three isn’t just designed to give Nuno’s teams a sound defensive structure. It’s only important to the way they construct attacking moves from the back. At Wolves, Conor Coady was the one charged with bringing the ball forward, averaging 50.2 passes per Premier League appearance. Romero, who averaged 42.2. passes per game in the Serie A last season, could perform this role for Tottenham.

Most notably, Romero’s average of 2.3 accurate long passes per game hints that he would also be able to play the diagonal balls into wide attackers that made something of a trademark for Coady under Nuno. This was key to the way Wolves sprung out on the attack and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Spurs start moves in the same way.

Wings backs were another key feature of Nuno’s Wolves side. In this sense, Spurs are rather well-equipped, particularly because Matt Doherty has previous experience of working under the Portuguese coach. On the other side, Sergio Reguilon might further develop with the security of more defensive cover behind him.

However, the primary point and purpose of the 3-5-2 shape is to provide security in the centre of the pitch. This is where Nuno’s teams are typically strongest and this is where much of his focus will fall at Tottenham Hotspur, where the Portuguese coach will have a lot of talent to work with in this area of his squad.

Indeed, Pierre-Emile Hjobjerg, Tanguy Ndombele, Giovani Lo Celso, Dele Alli, Eric Dier and Harry Winks all give Nuno different options in central midfield. In transition, all three members of Nuno’s central trio at Wolves were expected to make movements forward, but rarely at the same time. There was always that cover in behind to prevent opposition counter attacks.

This approach means Nuno’s teams will always need individual equality to make things happen in the final third, which is why the likes of Diogo Jota and Adama Traore (who averaged 41 dribbles per game last season compared to just 2.2 from Spurs’ most prolific dribbler, Ndombele) were so effective for Wolves. At Tottenham, players will need to feel emboldened to perform the take-ons.

Out of possession, Wolves were a low-block team and Spurs fans should prepare to see their team play in the same way when off the ball. At times, this can give the impression of passiveness, but Nuno’s approach is about covering and protecting space as much as it is about getting on the ball. Nonetheless, this may frustrate some fans still damaged from watching ‘Mourinho-ball’ for two seasons.

Up front, Harry Kane, if he’s still at the club by the time the transfer window closes, will be partnered by another forward, which will in turn give the England captain more freedom to drop deep into midfield. While some coaches and pundits have implored Kane not to do this, to stay forward, Nuno will surely like the idea of the striker providing even more security in the centre.

“We want to make our fans proud, to make them enjoy our teams and love our players. I think they will enjoy it,” Nuno insisted at his unveiling as Tottenham Hotspur manager last month. “This is what I’m telling the players – ‘let’s enjoy ourselves’. Our football must be the reflection in the mirror of what we are doing and what we want to do. And I’m totally positive that the fans are going to love it.”

Nuno might not be the sort of manager Spurs fans had hoped for, there may be concerns over his favoured style of play and close links to super-agent Jorge Mendes who could feasibly flood North London with his clients now that he has a man on the inside, but the Portuguese coach could still move the club forward. Regardless of whether or not he is a Mourinho-lite, Nuno could make amends for the mistakes of his predecessor.

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