Title-chaser, challenger, relegation scrapper – adaptability is key to Nuno’s success at Spurs

The tents are coming down, the animals put back in their cages, awaiting to be driven off into the sunset, the Tottenham Hotspur managerial circus has finally come to an end. What a show we had!

The final act, however, has been a little underwhelming. After two and a half months and countless names in the mix, Spurs chairman Daniel Levy and his newly appointed Managing Director of Football Fabio Paratici have decided to hang their hat on ex-Wolves coach Nuno Espirito Santo.

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The Portuguese coach has been ready and available for over a month, making the whole process look more chaotic than it might have been if they had went for him in the first place. The timing also points to a desperate attempt to hire a man who was not on the cards before the Spurs hierarchy ran out of options.

Levy was bullish in his statements last month of bringing in a coach who plays attacking, free-flowing football that is in line with Tottenham’s “DNA”. Spurs fans and anyone who had watched Nuno’s Wolves team last season will no doubt be dubious that the new man can meet Levy’s demands. At times, they were a turgid, slow, and predictable team, a shadow of themselves seasons before. The football was counter-attacking-focused and defensive. That’s not comforting to hear when you’ve just gone through anti-football hell with José Mourinho at the helm.

However, Nuno, despite being a pragmatic Portuguese coach, is no Mourinho. For three seasons out of four at Wolves, his team was exhilarating. It’s unfair to judge the man on last season alone. They were a team ravaged by injuries, including star-striker Raul Jimenez fracturing his skull and the transfer of their greatest talent, Diogo Jota, to Liverpool. Playing in front of an empty Molineux was also a massive obstacle for a club that depends so much on the momentum of fans.

To find any solace in the appointment of Nuno we must look past his last year at Wolves. There’s a brighter picture there, one of adaptability. Nuno, despite always stating he sticks by his fundamental principles of football, is a chameleon when it comes to new jobs.

Starting his coaching career at Rio Ave in the Portuguese first division, he took them from 14th to 6th in his first season. In his second he managed to get the club to cup finals in both the Taça de Portugal and Taça da Liga. The club lost to giants Benfica in both finals but by reaching that stage, Rio Ave qualified for the Europa League for the first time in their history.

Unfortunately for Rio Ave, Nuno was poached by Spanish giants Valencia before they could go on their European tour. He arrived at the start of the 14/15 season and managed to finish fourth on his first time of asking. At the Mestalla, Nuno predominantly used a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation. The football was attacking and fast-paced. He showed off his pragmatic flexibility especially well when facing Real Madrid in a historic 2-1 home win, ending Los Blancos’ 22 game winning streak. Nuno played a 3-5-2 formation, neutralising the attacking threats of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale with three centre backs going man-to-man.

Despite a promising first season, cracks started to show in his second. The Valencian fans are said to be some of the most demanding in Spain and with new club president Peter Lim’s tenure under scrutiny with the promise of big signings and cash injections, there was extra pressure on the team to perform. Nuno became a scapegoat of sorts and despite the results being OK, winning five, drawing five and losing four, he didn’t have much time to turn it around.

After a loss to Sevilla at the end of November, Nuno left the club. Captain Dani Parejo talked about the team’s style of play at the time, “We’re playing better than our opponents: we have more of the ball, we’re putting in more crosses, we’re getting into the area more, we’re just struggling to finish off the moves.” Nuno may have left because of league position but the football being played was creating chances, a lot of chances.

This bodes well for Tottenham, where, if they can keep hold of Harry Kane or alternatively invest well in a new striker from his sale, Nuno will be able to create a footballing environment in which chances will be made in heaps. Players like Dele, Giovani Lo Celso and Tanguy Ndombele will be vital to this idea and could all benefit from the Portuguese coach’s appointment.

From Spain, Nuno then made the short trip home to Porto, a club close to his heart where he played as backup goalkeeper under Mourinho. It was a massive challenge and a club where he had to change everything about his managing style. Porto were consistently vying to win the league and, week in, week out, they would be playing teams set up to defend against their superiority.

Nuno to be pragmatic once more, consistently playing against a low block where it was difficult to break down teams. He decided to go more direct and would regularly play a 4-4-2. It worked to an extent but proved a massive challenge and learning curve for him as a coach. “[We were] always fighting and playing for winning, a draw is not something that is considered good. That makes you really grow.”

Despite finishing second in his first season, Not winning any silverware that year proved not good enough for a demanding club. Nuno was on the move again, this time to England where he took the helm at Wolves in the Championship.

Upon Nuno’s arrival, Wolves went through a massive change. Consistently a team that performed well in the Championship and sometimes enjoying a stint in the Premier League, Nuno’s challenge was to get them to the first tier and keep them there. And he did. He accomplished this goal through changing his style once again and adapting to his surroundings.

Nuno took various parts of his old styles and used them when needed at Wolves. His high fullbacks from his time at Porto and Valencia were a staple of his time at Molineux. He experimented between midfielders playing higher and lower up the pitch and playing two or three defenders at the back. Multiple formations were used each season in the Premier league such a 3-5-2 (18/19), 3-4-3 (19/20) and 4-2-3-1 (20/21).

This shows an evolution as the years went by. Each season provided new challenges and tougher tests for the club. For the most part, Nuno succeeded. However last season he failed, despite mitigating circumstances.

Ultimately, despite last season’s woes, Nuno has proven he can change his ways while sticking to his core principles. The coach is always reflective and philosophical in his interviews. He talks about competing, winning mentalities, and challenging his players to be better. No doubt his aura will brings players and fans together as one but only if the football improves on the pitch.

It took 72 days for Tottenham to finally find their new ringleader, and now everything depends on how he sets up his team. They face a massive first test at home to Manchester City at the start of the new season and pressure starts from the first whistle.

Fans will want results obviously, but whether he gets a roar of approval from the crowd or fed to the lions will all come down to if he can adapt his managerial style and play “attacking, free-flowing” football. It’s the DNA of the club, after all. Right, Mr Levy?

The Author

Simon Kelly

Having witnessed my first live match at the Nou Camp, seeing Ronaldinho play in the flesh was the beginning of my love affair with football. I cover Premier League, La Liga and Irish football with a focus on the human element of the game.

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