|It was hardly the biggest surprise that Spurs ditched Nuno Espirito Santo after four months and 17 games following Saturday’s home defeat by Manchester United, with the ex-Wolves manager leaving with as much fuss as when he was appointed.
Never that high up the list of prospective candidates, NES had a lot to do to win over the players and fans, but the first three 1-0 wins of the season, including an opening day victory over City, looked a promising, if unexciting start. The shadow of Harry Kane’s failed escape plan hung over the side and his return has hardly blown that away, with the sceptre of the Halloween eve shocker against United bringing dissent from those who once backed him to the hilt.
In the space of about a year and a month, we had gone from beating United 6-1 at Old Trafford (albeit with ten men of much of the game) to being humiliated 0-3 at home by the same club, without so much as a shot troubling David de Gea in the United goal. Now, that’s not all Nuno’s fault, but since his first appearance in the Spurs tracksuit on the touchline, he has stood impassively as the results have unravelled around him.
We know that Mourinho likes to make it all about him, but at least it appeared that there was some instruction coming from the dug-out. His communication appears to have touched some of the players, who sent sympathetic messages after his sacking, whereas the rumours of the lack of connection behind the scenes have left Nuno on his way with few players wishing him well. Media duties appeared to be nothing more than a chore to get over with as soon as possible and the programme notes from NES amounted to nothing more than a paragraph or two of contrite words about how important the fans are and how the team must do better. You don’t expect too much in terms of tactical insight, but his lack of communication skills (or to convey any energy or enthusiasm) did not engender any warmth from the fans. His substitution of Lucas Moura – one of the players who always gives 100% – against United therefore went down like a lead balloon with a large section of the support.
His claim that he would excite the fans fell flat, with a massive negative goal difference and less goals scored than most clubs outside the bottom two. It was the lack of any style of play that perhaps contributed to his “rabbit in the headlights” stance on the touchline. There appeared to be no plan to follow when we had the ball contrary to his comments after the Arsenal defeat, when he put it on the players, but it looked as though players didn’t know whether they should push up, hold their position or drop back when in possession or out of it. Our pressing game, which Wolves had employed well, hadn’t been seen too often since the months after the Champions League final defeat … and there lies the problem.
Reaching the Madrid final was a great achievement, but one that came far too soon for the club. You can say that if it is there you have to take it and Spurs did, but we may have been better suited playing against a non-English side, but as it was 60 seconds in and the game was over. Liverpool shut up shop and the disappointment of the players was understandable after the incredible journey to get there, but we weren’t ready. Not only were we not ready for a final like that, but we weren’t ready for the massive come-down afterwards and Pochettino wasn’t either. There was little change to the squad in the summer that followed and it was the opportunity to cash in on the high profile reaching the final had given Spurs.
Since then, Spurs have tumbled from one managerial disaster to another and Daniel Levy has to bear some of the blame for that, although when you listen to people at the club, they consistently say that he is trying to do what is best for the club. Appointing Mourinho, who was the best available option at the time, looked a sensible move on paper, although there was always the possibility that it would blow up in our faces. And it did ! Would it have been better to leave him in charge for the League Cup Final last season ? We’ll never know.
Having worked their way through the long list of European managers who were available and some who weren’t as well as British bosses who wouldn’t leave their clubs, perhaps it might have been better to appoint some safe hands for a season until we could have got a target we wanted in the summer of 2022. No, I don’t mean Tim Sherwood, but would it have been more fun if Klinsmann had come for a season with someone alongside him to do the defensive stuff ? Appointing NES to a position at a club higher than he had been used to in this country when his time at Wolves ended with a lack of great disappointment from the Molineux fans. Appreciative for what he had done, but his star was on the fall.
So, one managerial door closes and another opens (or should that be revolves ?) and what should we expect ?
Antonio Conte has a record of coming into under-performing clubs and turning them around. The Italian went into his former club Juventus and won their first Scudetto for 11 years. He took Italy to the quarter finals of Euro 2016 when they had been in the doldrums and only lost to Germany on penalties. Chelsea had flirted with relegation in 2016 before he won the Premier League in his first season and the FA Cup in the next. Leaving with a pocketful of cash after Abramovich tired of him, Conte moved to Internazionale, finishing second to Juventus and reaching the Europa League final in his first season before topping Serie A after nine Juve titles in succession.
So, will he have such success at Spurs ? While he is re-united with Director of Football Fabio Paratici, who he worked so successfully with at Juventus, the project is very different to the other big clubs he has been at. Not known for blooding younger players, which had been a priority under Mourinho and NES, we may see a raft of experienced players that Conte knows well being drafted in, but that may depend on the transfer funds available. His coaching style will be new to a lot of the players at the club, who have been used to being cajoled into the coach’s way of thinking, while Conte doesn’t appear to suffer fools gladly, so if you do not toe the line, then you won’t be playing. His emphasis on working hard and commitment will see the team quickly rise from the bottom of the league for ground covered and the press will re-appear at a place higher up the pitch than of late.
Employing a 3-5-2 formation that can change to a 5-3-2, Conte’s belief in utilising his wing-backs to stretch the opposition’s midfield is flexible enough to become a more conventional 4-4-2 if required. It is rumoured that he wanted to buy a few of the Spurs players when he was at Internazionale, so the basis of the side might be there and will have to be, at least until January. There will be a need to rapidly sort out what happens at the top of the team, with Kane either physically and mentally out of sorts or still bearing the hump of not getting his way in the summer. It is not only struggling teams that Conte has revived, with many players’ careers being improved by working with the Italian. Romelu Lukaku has paid tribute to Conte for his work with him at Inter.
It has been said that if you work hard you play, if you don’t then you don’t. It may be the rocket up the backside that some of the players need, as they have been sleepwalking into this situation under the last two coaches and while there have been some bright spots, the general trend had been downhill. Some rigour and structure, which appears to have been missing since Poch left and a fitness regime to improve their stamina might give the squad a shake. Whenever a new coach comes in, players will be fearful for their place at the club and this should make them realise that they have to work for it. Having someone come in who has won so much as a player and coach should inspire them to listen and take on board what he says, as he will try to instil a winning mentality into them which has been missing. His previous comments when at Chelsea about not winning things not mattering at Tottenham should be pinned up to give the players any inspiration they need to prove to the new coach that there is no grounds to believe this is the case, but he is a manager who likes winners.
Conte may have to turn some of them into winners, as so few have won anything. But they have come close and need to turn that feeling into one of lifting the trophies, bringing more once the first is achieved. It is not something that is likely to happen in the remainder of this season, unless we get a favourable run in the cups, but Levy will be hoping that the new man can turn things around in the league to gain a top four finish, but that will not be easy. .
His histrionics on the touchline are well-known and he will bawl out instructions to players to make sure they know exactly what they should be doing and where. Looking like a little Willie Carson, his runs along the touchline will feature often and it will be in stark contrast to NES’s statuesque presence in front of the bench. Annoying when he was in the opponents’ dug-out, it is not all for show, but a demonstration of his passion and determination to make things work. You get the feeling that he is a coach who not only wants to do well for the club, but invests himself in the “project” and wants to add to his CV by doing well. That could work in our favour as long as the players buy into his ideas … but if not some other players might be brought in to do just that.
The one thing that is sure is that it will all end in tears, but if there is some progress and a little bit of silverware along the way, maybe something good can come out of this almighty mess.
So long Nuno and thanks for all the …. I’m not sure what, but with the Spurs Twitter account wishing Antonio Bienviendo and not bongiorno, it is a welcome that hopefully will not be as clumsy as his time in the hot seat.
Marco van Hip