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Ahead of the season’s start, most pundits had predicted Spurs to battle for Europa League places but after the opening three weekends, have Tottenham and Nuno been underestimated, or is it a false dawn, similar to that of the 2020/21 season under the tutelage of José Mourinho with Spurs top of the table in November?
The general consensus are the beginning of the season was that the top four was settled with the two Manchester clubs, Chelsea and Liverpool deemed too strong for the rest of the competition. Now though, Tottenham are clear of all four sides heading into the first international break.
Tottenham have started the season with three clean sheets including one against the free scoring, reigning champions and favourites for the title Manchester City in the opening game of the season. Nuno played with a five man defence at Wolves, although fleeted with four at the back in his last season in charge. At the newly developed Tottenham Hotspur stadium, he has opted for a four man defence anchored by Davinson Sanchez and Eric Dier in the middle, two centre backs who had difficult seasons last year under Mourinho. Under Nuno however, the pair have proved impenetrable, despite both had a mistake each against Nuno’s former side at the Molineux, the West Midlands team couldn’t pounce on these errors.
Japhet Tanganga has proved to be a more than adequate right back. The academy graduate was initially linked with loan moves away from North London however, it’s understood that his man of the match display on the opening day changed the Tottenham hierarchy’s’ minds about letting him leave on loan. The defence has so far not included new signing Christian Romero who has been unable to force his way into the starting 11 in the Premier League although he has been carrying a knee injury. The Serie A defender of the year will certainly improve the Spurs defence but it is a question of the Argentine getting fully fit.
Joe Rodon is also still sidelined for the moment with an injury. The Welshman was arguably Tottenham’s best performing defender last season with many fans feeling that he was mistreated by not getting more starts for the club. It is understood that another central defender arriving before the end of the window is not totally out of the question and the club is also still looking for another right back despite Tanganga’s terrific form.
In front of the defence, Nuno has deployed two more defensive minded midfielders in Oliver Skipp and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg with a revitalised Dele Alli as the third central midfielder. Skipp, another academy graduate, played a crucial role in Norwich’s midfield in the 2020-21 season as they won the Championship. Skipp made 45 appearances for the Norfolk side and provided excellent protection in front of the defence and also proved to be a super option on the ball. Nuno has used Skipp as the deepest of the three in the number six role and he has been flanked by Højbjerg and Dele.
Højbjerg is being used in a slightly more advanced role than last season where he was the deepest midfielder who rarely ventured forward. However, in the European Championships over the summer, for Denmark, Højbjerg was used in this same role where he showcased his playmaking talents having 22 shot creating actions and three assists. The two more defensive midfielders provide better cover for the defence and also allow for the more attacking Dele to have less defensive responsibility and greater attacking freedom, a role which he has thrived in so far. This isn’t to say that Dele hasn’t been contributing in defence however, as he has averaged 4.67 tackles and interceptions per 90.
Dele was branded “lazy” by Mourinho but under Nuno, no other Spurs players covered more distance than the 25-year-old. Dele spent the summer working on his fitness at the NAS Sports complex in Dubai with former Tottenham and current Southampton player Kyle Walker-Peters. It looks like this training has paid off based on his stats and he is proving to be an invaluable asset at both ends of the pitch. His manager Nuno describes him as “a runner” and has used Dele’s talents to its full ability so far. Dele’s hunger has also been brought into question previously by pundits such as Roy Keane but this is not a criticism that can be levelled at Dele this season. Against Wolves and Watford, Dele has been throwing himself in front of shots in his own box putting himself in harm’s way for the good of the team.
Up top, Tottenham fans will be buoyed by Harry Kane’s announcement that he is staying at the club this summer. The striker announced on social media that he would be staying at the club after being courted by Manchester City for the majority of the summer. Fan opinion may be split on whether to fully accept him back as one of their own, however, having one of the best strikers in the world at the club and in the starting 11, as he was against Watford and Paços de Ferreira, can only be a good thing. There may be doubts about whether Kane is fully committed to the Tottenham, but it is known that Harry Kane has Alan Shearer’s Premier League goals record on his radar and a season taking it easy simply is not viable in he has any serious ambitions of breaking the all-time record of 260 goals.
Spurs also have the electric Son Heung-Min, fresh off of signing a new deal at the club over the summer. The South Korean has started the season well with two goals in the first three games. Steven Bergwijn has also looked confident since his return and Lucas Moura looks his usual energetic self with his slaloming dribbles through the middle of the pitch, not too dissimilar to those of Adama Traoré. There is also the unknown of new signing Bryan Gil who has looked excellent in his Europa Conference League appearances as well as his cameos at the Olympics for Spain.
Caution should however be exercised as despite the three wins, they have all been one nil results. Tottenham do seem to be lacking a real creative playmaker who can create chances for the rest of the side. There is a feeling that Christian Eriksen has never been replaced despite the signings of Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso.
Ndombele wanted to leave Tottenham this summer but he did not get his move. He had not been involved in Tottenham’s opening games because of this and it remains to be seen whether he is now reintegrated into the squad. Lo Celso is fit, but he has not been able to force his way into the starting 11 as of yet. Himself and Christian Romero has also decided to go away on international duty with Argentina despite the club’s preference that they did not as they will have to quarantine upon return and will miss crucial matches.
Stats wise, Tottenham have been underperforming in attack. Their expected goals are 3.7 according to FBref.com but they have only scored three times. However, Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min are two of the most clinical forwards in the league and both outscore their own personal expected goals stats each season. At the other end of the pitch, Spurs’ expected goals allowed is 3.9. Insinuating that Spurs have been lucky to have not conceded a single goal in the league yet. However, like up front, Hugo Lloris is one of the top goalkeepers in the league and last season, Lloris outperformed his post-shot expected goals allowed by five goals and despite only playing three games this season, is outperforming it by 1.4 goals.
Nuno Espirito Santo and Tottenham have started off the season extraordinarily and have defied all expectations from the opening three games. Nuno’s ability to galvanise his players and the fans is one of his most admirable attributes and one which will serve him well in North London. Tottenham’s stay at the top of the league is a pleasant surprise, but also one that will be short lived. Their lack of a real creative player, underperformance in front of goal and overperformance in defence are not characteristics you would associate with a title-challenging side.
However, Spurs do seem to be better than pundits had given them credit for before the season started. A push for top four is definitely not out of the question but realistic aspirations for Nuno this season likely are still to finish fifth and best of the rest with possibly silverware in the cup competitions.