Quick Take: Tottenham’s tactical tweaks are a subtle genre switch

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Tottenham Hotspur are a team in transition. And with all the surrounding newness, it’s easy to expect (or, in some cases, hope for) complete novelty, an immediate replacement of old, bad habits and tendencies with new, good ones. Unfortunately, this forecast is more fanciful than fair. Squad rebuilds are a function of two factors working in dichotomy: time and money. The greater one becomes, the lesser the other can be. In this way, football clubs with immediate access to financial capital can regenerate a squad in short order. For everyone else, it takes time. But even as a slow reconstruction in progress, managers can face significant pressure in the form of tactics reimagined. Realistically, teaching and optimizing a new system of play takes additional time and risks subpar performance in the interim, while simple replication of previous methods will surely be seen as short-sighted redundancy. Into this predictable but unfortunate conundrum stepped Nuno Espirito Santo, a manager who recently traded Wolves’ black and yellow for Spurs’ white and blue. 

For context, a significant portion of Spurs supporters’ pre-appointment criticism of Nuno (brand recognition aside) was rooted in the tactical similarities he shared with his predecessor Jose Mourinho, namely, a defense-first, counter-attacking, pragmatic brand of football. As such, the call for change was a two-fold challenge directed at both the club and newly appointed managers’ prior approaches to the game. However, against reigning Premier League champions, Manchester City, and, most recently, Wolverhampton, Nuno has shown a commendable capacity to craft an old-new hybrid gameplan. Below, we take a quick look at what is old and what is new with Tottenham under Nuno.

New:

  1. Formation: Notably, Nuno has opted for a 4-3-3 (sometimes better visualized as a 4-3-2-1 depending on phase of play), a departure from both his preferred three-back systems at Wolves and the prior Spurs’ default, 4-2-3-1. A recurring point of preseason conjecture about a Tottenham team under Nuno, the side’s setup has been a positive takeaway from the first two matchdays, and an encouraging rework of last season’s foundational structure.  
  2. Defensive Approach: While largely similar in backline expectations, the biggest departure from 20-21 to 21-22 has been defensive responsibilities out wide. Under Jose’s 4-2-3-1, the left and right wingers were principally charged with tracking and engaging the opposition’s outside backs. Now, in Nuno’s 4-3-3/4-3-2-1, the responsibility is often shared if not deferred to the central midfielders, which, while requiring extra off-the-ball work during switches of play from those players, appears to have afforded an extra forward to break on the counter for Tottenham’s attack.  

Old: 

  1. Names and Faces: With few (albeit notable and influential) exceptions, many key players under Jose continue to play a substantial role under Nuno. While the side will surely see some late revisions through the transfer window and, admittedly, has several new faces who are yet to settle in, it’s been interesting to see this new dynamic within a relatively unchanged team. In the current cash-strapped market, a manager’s ability to work with the players available is truly priceless. 
  2. Attacking Approach: Despite the above-mentioned defensive alterations, Tottenham in attacking transition have thus far looked comparable to last year. Days of possession-based football are a bit bygone for Spurs, at least against opposition who excel at it. But, frankly, if recent performances and results are any determinant for the rest of the season, that may be for the best.

Tottenham fans hoping for change in orders of magnitude similar to an industrial band making hair metal music may be a tad disappointed to have settled on something like grunge. But Spurs under Nuno thus far has been a subtle genre switch deserving of recognition. 

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