After months of searching for the perfect manager, Daniel Levy and Tottenham Hotspur ultimately settled for former Wolves boss Nuno Espirito Santo – who left his post at the end of the 2020-21 season. The Portuguese’s departure from Wolves was a slight surprise, having led them to the Premier League to begin with, followed by two back to back 7th place finishes in 2018-19 and 2019-20. But Levy snatched up the opportunity to take on another Portuguese manager, and he will be hoping Nuno fares better than his predecessor – Jose Mourinho. Here we analyze Nuno’s potential tactics at Tottenham, and the chances of the manager and club working harmoniously together as one.
SYSTEM OF PLAY: 3-4-3
Nuno Espirito Santo utilized back-three formations throughout his time at Wolves, particularly the 3-4-3 and 3-5-2. His principles of play were based around patient possession out from the back, quick attacking transitions, dribbling power, and a certain physicality in both attack and defense. The midfield pivot and triad were always integral to instilling that physical mindset, and none of Santo’s midfielders at Wolves were ever particularly attack-minded. In Pierre Emile-Hojbjerg and Tanguy Ndombele, Nuno has inherited two midfielders clearly above the pay-grade of Ruben Neves, Joao Moutinho and Leander Dendoncker. He should be able to use this to his advantage in continuing to instill a defensive, hard-tackling mindset in midfield, without mitigating the team’s potential to attack and break at speed.Embed from Getty Images
Hojbjerg in particular will likely be set for another season as one of Spurs’ most important players, as he anchors the midfield regardless of formation. The great Dane attempted more pressures than any other player in the league last season, and performed to remarkable effect for Denmark in a 3-4-3 at this summer’s Euros. Harry Kane could also start as a lone striker with Heung-Min Son on the left, or the two could play alongside each other in a front two. Either way, Son’s ability on the break will likely be lethal under Nuno as it was under Mourinho, with the two managers having several striking similarities that we’ll discuss throughout this article.Embed from Getty Images
Sergio Reguilon and Serge Aurier would be natural fits at wing-back, and it would also allow them less defending to do – a positive for Aurier in particular. The managerial move will also see a reunion between Nuno and Matt Doherty, who secured his transfer to Tottenham off the back of two standout seasons for Wolves in the top flight. But of course, Tottenham will still need reinforcements at the back. Toby Alderweireld’s played in a back-three for Belgium and has the same long-passing range of a Conor Coady, while Eric Dier could hypothetically be a decent fit as the sweeper in the team. But none of Tottenham’s current defenders really strike fear into their opposition, nor do they really standout as Premier League winning players. It would be the perfect time for Levy to invest in someone like Lewis Dunk as we suggested last year, due to the defender’s ability to play out from the back in both safe and adventurous ways. Upgrading on Davinson Sanchez is at the very least a necessity, especially if Tottenham are to play with a back-three. Later in this article, we will discuss why the 3-4-3 is likely going to be the best approach for Spurs next season.
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One of the most essential principles of play for Wolves under Nuno was their emphasis on quick attacking transitions. Theirs was based on the raw running and dribbling power of Adama Traore and the excellent link up play of target man Raul Jimenez, but Spurs have different types of players. When everything was going well for Mourinho’s Tottenham, they were one of the deadliest counter attacking sides in the world. So Nuno is not to worry.
Heung Min-Son’s pace on the break is enough in and of itself to strike fear into the opposition, while Harry Kane’s vision and range on the ball is underratedly one of the best in the division. Tottenham will likely continue a more defensive minded approach under Nuno, and then look to hit their opposition on the break in very similar ways to Mourinho’s team. This might not be what the fans want, but it will almost certainly be the best way to get the most out of their attack, even if they were to adopt more of a press and possess mentality. Tottenham simply have too many players, too many warriors and battlers brought into the team in the past few seasons, for them not to play in this style. Take Matt Doherty for example, who became one of the best right-wing-backs in the division under Nuno’s influence at Wolves. Doherty’s chance creation down the right was one of his greatest strengths, but it’s easy to forget that the vast majority of his goal contributions came on the break, rather than from long spells of the possession. Giovani Lo Celso is another player who is excellent in these moments, due to his supreme ability to glide up the field at pace, with or without the ball at his feet. And don’t forget about Ndombele, who completely found his feet in a counter attacking Jose Mourinho team last year with his ability in tight spaces. Again, it might not be what Spurs fans want. But that’s the price of bringing in someone like Nuno, rather than someone more press and possess oriented like Julian Nagelsmann or Erik Ten Hag.
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Another one of the clearest principles of play from Nuno’s time in charge of Wolves was an incessant intensity in all areas of the game. Even with a teeny-tiny squad, Wolves still achieved some of the highest fitness levels of any team in the league over a three season period. Wing-backs were known to gallop up and down the pitch at will, while the midfielders all played with a sense of box-to-box mobility, covering for each other in different moments.Embed from Getty Images
Simply being a good player won’t cut it at Tottenham under Nuno, and the same players who failed to establish themselves under Mourinho could be set to struggle again. The ones who work the hardest and offer the most advantages wrapped up into one (e.g. a Hojbjerg type of player) will likely be Nuno’s favourites. Luckily, this is the mentality that Spurs players had ingrained in them under Mourinho. Even the players currently linked with Spurs like Danny Ings and Joao Palhinha will have to fall into this intense mentality, and Spurs fans shouldn’t expect to see another Gareth Bale galactico come through the door instead. However, the signing of someone like Ings could be a signal of intent that Nuno intends on ramping up Tottenham’s press, rather than operating in the same sort of mid-block that both he and Mourinho previously used.
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Throughout the Harry Kane saga, we have been adamant that the Spurs captain will not be allowed to leave White Hart Lane. We still believe that to be the case as the fee associated with the injury-prone striker is simply too high. This is good news for Tottenham, as Kane led the league in not only goals, but assists as well last season. So the question now becomes about how best to utilize Kane within a Nuno Espirito Santo system. Signing Danny Ings would be a signal that Spurs are either looking for back-up for Kane, that Nuno is interested in potentially playing a front two, or that Levy is just going rogue. But we believe Nuno will utilize his favoured 3-4-3 formation (especially if he plays in a back-three), for a few different reasons.
The Portuguese manager always favoured the right side at Wolves, primarily due to three players who all operated on the right – Adama Traore, Ruben Neves and Matt Doherty (followed by Nelson Semedo in 2020-21). But Spurs are quite different. Reguilon is the best fullback of the bunch, Hojbjerg is one of the best midfielders in the league, and Son is one of the best players in the league. All three operate on the left. When you add Harry Kane’s inclinations to drift toward the left into that mix, it would be a shock to the system if Nuno were to continue his right-sidedness in attack.
Now this is not a problem by any means, and something that should be a seamless process. But it then means that a 3-4-3 would be a better fit for the team than a 3-5-2, potentially even a 4-2-3-1. Son can drift into central channels as Reguilon overlaps down the left, while Harry Kane can roam as he pleases toward the left in the build up and in counter attacking phases. Adding an attacking midfielder like Dele Alli to that process could over-complicate things, as he competes for the same spaces Kane wants to operate in, and the width down the right is then covered by only Doherty/Aurier, instead of two players. Essentially, the biggest issue with a 3-5-2 would be that the burden of right-sided attacks or switches of play would need to fall almost exclusively to their wing-back, and leave Tottenham exposed on counter attacks down that right side. A 3-4-3 would achieve better balance given what’s already at their disposal, and allow Nuno to integrate Doherty into the mix in more positive ways. A 4-2-3-1 could offer similar advantages and allow a Dele Alli like figure back into the team, but the question marks over Tottenham’s shaky defense will likely be more cruelly exposed. Doherty, Aurier and even Reguilon for that matter will all function better as wing-backs with fewer defensive responsibilities. Alderweireld, Dier and Sanchez will also benefit from having that extra player alongside them at the back, as none of them convinced anywhere near regularly enough last season. With the squad they have right now, Harry Kane will continue to be essential regardless of the system. But a 3-4-3 should be the way to get the best out of him and the vast majority of players around him next season.
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Nuno Espirito Santo’s first few months in charge of Tottenham should prove to be one of tactical innovation and experimentation. His new team will likely emphasize a slightly more reserved, defensive approach, focusing on quick transitions and the use of their stronger left side in attack. Unfortunately for Spurs fans and Daniel Levy himself, Nuno has some glaring similarities to Mourinho in tactical mindset and approach. This should at the very least help to emphasize a defensive approach, which is still what we believe Spurs need to focus the greatest amount of their attention on as they continue to build back towards what they achieved in 2018 – reaching the Champions League final.
So there it is! What Nuno Espirito Santo will bring to Tottenham Hotspur – a Tactical Analysis. Be sure to check out more from our Tactics section and more on Tottenham. Also be sure to follow on social media @mastermindsite and consider becoming a subscriber if you enjoy our content! And of course, if you disagree with any of our takes, join the discussion below or on social media! Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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