Heading into the 2021-22 Premier League season, we were somewhat pessimistic about Nuno‘s chances to lead Tottenham to better times. But the Portuguese manager got off to a flying start on Sunday, beating the Champions in a surprising 1-0 victory. The match should now give Tottenham fans plenty of hope for the new season, especially given Nuno’s intriguing tactical tweaks that benefited Spurs’ ability to win the match. Here is our analysis.
Nuno Espirito Santo lined up in a 4-3-3 formation, matching Manchester City’s over-arching 4-3-3 shape. In attack, it could become a sort of 3-4-2-1 with Oliver Skipp dropping in between the centre-backs or Japhet Tanganga staying and Sergio Regulion venturing forward on the other side. Dele Alli and Pierre Emile Hojbjerg played important roles to this structure, and uniquely filled in areas of the pitch you wouldn’t have seen as much of under Mourinho and Mason last season.
With Manchester City playing very much to the strengths of Jack Grealish and Raheem Sterling on the left side, Tottenham’s approach therefore became very right-sided, including the positioning of their striker – Heung-Min Son, who often drifted wide in attacking transitions.
Manchester City’s defensive line also played more like a 2-3, as the fullbacks played more in line with Fernandinho. This vacated space in the wide areas for Tottenham to exploit, and played an important role in the scoring of Son’s goal.
alli & hojberg’s unique rolesEmbed from Getty Images
On paper, many would have expected Tottenham to line up in a 4-2-3-1, with Dele Alli as an advanced number ten. Instead, they played with two attacking midfielders in Moura and Bergwijn, who could shuffle inside or out wide at varying moments. Since Moura and Bergwijn had the task of tracking Man City’s inverted fullbacks, they were often positioned in central areas during Tottenham’s attacking transitions, and Son had the freedom to roam out wide or stay central himself based on the movement of those around him. With Manchester City’s left-sided approach, Pierre Emile Hojbjerg also spent much of his time in a wider role than you’d normally associate with the Dane, as he helped track the movement of players like Grealish and Sterling. This was Nuno’s first master-stroke.
Essentially, he put Hojbjerg in the exact space where Manchester City wanted to create and start their attacks. Jack Grealish and Raheem Sterling as two of the more exciting City players were completely stunted by Tanganga, Hojbjerg and Sanchez all shifting right to compact themselves and not let City advance toward their goal. This was incredibly effective, and Hojbjerg was in many ways a driving force behind this defensive solidity.Embed from Getty Images
On the other side, you had Dele Alli, who would never have appeared as a true central midfielder under Pochettino or Mourinho. Dele normally looks for space in behind his striker – Harry Kane, who likes to drop deep and occupy the space you’d expected from Dele himself. This on the other hand was a completely different role, that allowed the mobility and underrated engine of the midfielder to take centre stage. Dele buzzed around the field brilliantly, and performed his defensive tasks well to track players like Ferran Torres or Joao Cancelo dropping into his territory.
Oliver Skipp at the base of this was another great decision, as he shuttled well and handled the Torres-Gundogan rotations, without needing to throw himself into tackles due to the types of teammates around him. This could be an interesting midfield three for Tottenham to use going forward, and will allow Pierre Emile Hojbjerg to showcase more of his attacking quality. While Hojbjerg is an exceptional pressor of the ball and magnificent in shuffling with the play and defending central areas, he’s also great going forward due to his excellent range and vision. Even in this match, the Dane created 2 chances and had many good moments carrying the ball forward at speed. His role also allowed Lucas Moura’s intelligence off the ball to come into effect, and the Brazilian had a fine afternoon exploiting space vacated by Benjamin Mendy. Hopefully Hojbjerg’s knock at the end of the game is nothing, as he played every single minute for Spurs last season.
room for tactical flexibilityEmbed from Getty Images
At Wolverhampton Wanderers, Nuno created a very rigid, structured system that didn’t incorporate much positional rotation or variation. But this 4-3-3 system, with these players in place, could theoretically allow for some cool tactical fluctuations if Nuno wants to be more expansive. Japhet Tanganga could become a third centre-back as Tottenham exploits space down the left with Sergio Reguilon, or Tanganga himself could be more adventurous in that sort of 3-4-2-1 shape, with Oliver Skipp dropping into the back-line instead. We saw glimpses of these variations on Sunday, but nothing too out of the ordinary. That’s usually a wise decision when playing the tactically flexible Manchester City, who can always find different ways to hurt you beyond expectations.
If Alli remains part of a midfield three rather than someone like Lo Celso or Ndombele (although they could also perform this function), the shape could also shift into a midfield two with Alli advanced in different moments. The front-three also has room for variation, regardless of the striker being Son or Kane. Kane obviously allows for greater rotation due to his movement in deep, but Son will drift wide in different moments to allow space for Moura, Bergwijn or even Dele Alli to move into centrally. A final note is that we should probably expect Matt Doherty to play a more important role this season than last time out, given his history with Nuno, and he could be a great wing-back option if the Portuguese manager changes shape. So the tactical flexibility is definitely there if Nuno wants to take advantage of it. It’s just a question of how rigid and structured he might want to be, versus playing the more exciting attacking football that Spurs fans undoubtedly want to see.
So there it is! A quick tactical analysis of Nuno’s first match at Spurs in the Premier League. Be sure to check out more of our tactical analyses and follow on social media @mastermindsite to never miss an update! Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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