Why am I writing about Nuno Espirito Santo and Tottenham? If I told you I knew, I’d be lying. But let me guarantee that what I’m about to tell you will be important in the 21/22 EPL season. For fans of Spurs, for fans with a keen eye for detail, and most importantly for FPL players.
Where better to start than with the man himself? Nuno during his time at Wolves built one of the Premier League’s most compact sides who were adept at playing however the game/game state dictated. They finished 7th twice in a row playing on the counter, as a staunch defensive unit or could take the initiative to the opponent and restrict their access to the ball depending on who the opponent was. They always looked like they were constantly on the verge of breaking into the acclaimed big six at some point both in terms of on-the-pitch performances and off the pitch backing that was until they started to see some of their better, more important, players leave without being adequately replaced and they ended up finishing in a still respectable, but rather disappointing 13th place.
Knowing how Wolves’ transfer policy shift in the final season of Nuno’s reign impacted the side then begs the question of why he decided to take on the Spurs’ job knowing that Daniel Levy, owing to the financial impact of the coronavirus epidemic, the construction of the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, and with a growing list of wantaway players is likely to go down the same route by selling these players without being able to replace them with players of similar or close caliber.
Three at the back
We may never know why he decided to take on the Tottenham job that was roundly rejected by managers as widespread as Italian champions to Brighton, but we know certainly that when he gets to Spurs, he will try to play with three central defenders and two wingbacks. As much as the current personnel allows him to of course.
With Wolves, Nuno played with a back three (or five depending on your persuasion) in 100 of his 114 Premier League games. The freedom and flexibility the starting formation gave Wolves was very key and he could look to do the same at Spurs. Except that Spurs last season looked like a team without center-backs and at points had to rely on relatively untested Joe Rodon and the young Japeth Tanganga as injuries ravaged through their backline.
Wolves’ back three was comprised of one (sometimes two) launcher(s), whose job it was to constantly try to find long passes into the higher areas of the pitch to relieve pressure and start attacking moves. That job usually fell to Conor Coady who led the Premier League in long passes completed in the 20/21 season and was only bettered by Virgil Van Dijk in the 19/20 season. He also had an astonishingly high 76% completion rate for passes over 30 yards.
To get Coady’s numbers, Nuno might have to bring the man himself to London in his carry on bag or coax Daniel Levy into signing him, but considering that human trafficking is still illegal and Spurs simply do not have the financial might currently, the facial hair aficionado from Portugal will have to look into his squad for players that can at least mimic Coady’s ability.
This is where Toby Alderweireld and Eric Dier come in. Alderweireld is no slouch when it comes to passing over distance, his 11.8 long passes completed per 90 minutes are slightly lower than Coady’s 12.8 and Dier’s 10.3 when compared. He may lack the accuracy that Coady gives with only 66.4% of his passes over 30 yards hitting the target, but he can produce similar volume assuming he keeps fit which is hardly ever a given with him.
Nuno’s Wolves’ back three also comprised of one active defender and one passive defender. In other words, one defender who defended by actively going to seek the ball, and another defended by waiting for the ball to come to him before making a defensive action.
Among Wolves’ most frequent defenders, Wily Boly stood out as the player who chased down and engaged forwards to recover the ball the most. His 1.96 tackles per game were the most among center backs for Wolves in the 20/21 season. He also faced the most attempted dribbles among Wolves’ center-backs and was generally the more proactive defender. For this job at Spurs, Nuno has someone who is arguably better at proactive defending than Boly. Davinson Sanchez who was ostracised from the team would be most suited to defending by aggression. He went into more tackles per 90 minutes in the Premier League (2.42) than any Spurs defender and is also used to defending aggressively. The main worry for Nuno would be having to deal with a defender who in his aggression can sometimes be careless as no Spurs’ center-back committed more fouls than Sanchez.
Wolves’ other defender Roman Saiss, was the passive one who closed spaces and pressured without engaging in too many tackles, rather winning the ball back through interceptions and ending attacking sequences with blocks. Alderweireld and Sanchez also do this well for Spurs, but so do Eric Dier and Joe Rodon. Both Dier and Rodon made more blocks than Saiss, but Rodon averaged more interceptions and general blocks than Dier while Dier blocked more shots and recovered more loose balls than Rodon. They will likely end up vying for a place as Spurs’ last center-back under Nuno.
Wingbacks winging it
Free at last, free at last, Matt Doherty is free at last. Or at least that’s what’s being bandied around. Under Nuno at Wolves, Doherty was a force and could look to replicate that form again as he reunites with his former manager. While at Spurs, Doherty was a more passive defender than at Wolves and he wasn’t very good at it. Whenever he eventually came face to face with an opposing forward, he got dribbled past 67.6% of the time compared to only 48% in his final season at Wolves. While this disparity was bad, it wasn’t the most critical down tooling that Doherty experienced.
While at Wolves, Doherty’s biggest asset was his contribution to the attack and his two-goal contributions during the 20/21 season look paltry in comparison to his seven from the 19/20 season or the nine from the season before that. This can be explained by the fact that with Wolves, he was an underlapping wingback, taking advantage of Adama Traore’s runs on the outside to make runs unmarked into the penalty area. This meant that he was closer to the goal where he could do real damage averaging 3.02 touches in the opponents’ box compared to just 1.59 during the 20/21 season with Tottenham. At Spurs, he was allowed to get forward but was expected to contribute from outside the penalty area which explains his higher number of crosses (0.51) and passes (1.01) into the penalty area while at Spurs than at Wolves (0.29) and (0.57). Under Nuno, it is expected that he could go back to his old ways and that could see an upturn in fortune for the wing-back.
Other fullbacks and wingbacks are also in for a treat. Aurier and Reguillon enjoy getting forward and while they may not be expected to give the same output as Doherty, they will certainly contribute more meaningfully in attack.
Solid in the middle, trouble for Ndombele
In the middle, Wolves relied on two midfielders so similar that they could be mistaken for twins. Not only do Joao Moutinho and Ruben Neves look alike physically but their games have some aspects that are similar as well. The pair worked in synergy to make Wolves’ midfield difficult to beat and difficult to outplay.
Wolves ranked 5th, 4th, and 4th for passes over 30 yards in the EPL in the three seasons that they were managed by Nuno. A lot of that was down to the launching centre-back earlier mentioned and also Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho who thrived with 12.7 and 9.68 long per 90 minutes in their three seasons together in the EPL.
Ndombele is in a different mold and is not a fan of the long passes or switches. He completed 3.49 long passes per 90 minutes played on average in the 20/21 season and he prefers to carry the ball and dribble to progress the play. He completes 3.02 dribbles/90 which is monstrous compared to Moutinho (0.36) and Neves (0.40). If Nuno decides to risk playing Ndombele, it might be in a more advanced position than CM. As an AM, Ndombele will be less likely to put the team in trouble if he gets dispossessed as he often did in the 20/21 season with Tottenham where he was dispossessed 1.89 times per 90 minutes. A far cry from Moutinho and Neves who were more assured in possession and were only dispossessed 0.66 and 0.56 times per game. The only problem with this is that Giovanni Lo Celso, when fit, is a better alternative than Ndombele. While Ndombele is very good at penetrating the penalty area, Lo Celso is at least of equal quality and also less likely to be caught in possession. He is also more likely to try and help regain possession which is something that Nuno would value.
Kane or No Kane
If Harry Kane decides to stay, then Nuno would be inheriting the best center forward in the English Premier League. Nobody scored more than Harry Kane’s 23 in the EPL in 20/21 and he also helped his teammates with 14 assists. The real question is if Kane can be convinced to stay with Spurs with Manchester City and their big bag of money prowling around London for a new striker.
Nuno has already expressed his belief that the player will stay in London saying “Look, Harry is our player, period. No need to talk about anything else”.
If Harry Kane does leave, then it would be wise for Spurs to invest as much of the Kane loot as needed on Raul Jimenez.
The Mexican forward, a trusted stalwart of Nuno has shown that even though he may not be considered on the same level as Kane, he can be a more than decent replacement. His 20/21 season was truncated by a nasty head injury but in the 19/20 season, he performed to a stellar level all things considered.
He ended the campaign with 17 goals from 38 games played in the league and while he managed only 6 assists, he created 13 big chances for his teammates. One less than Kane did in the 20/21 season (14). Unfortunately, he did not have Son Heung Min on the business end of his creativity. He accumulated an xG of 14.7 throughout the campaign and bettered his xG by +2.3, the difference in goal and xG was only 0.2 short of Kane’s 20/21 season tally of +2.5.
Jimenez is also no stranger to dropping a bit deeper to help out the team to create chances as he averaged 21.9 touches in the midfield third of the pitch compared to Harry Kane’s 21.5 and also had the agility to get into the box for more touches in the box (5.47) than Kane had (4.85).
It would be very difficult to replace Kane, but there’s little doubt in this writer’s mind that if the captain of the first English team to reach a major final in 55 years does leave, Spurs should look to Raul Jimenez to replace him.
Son Heung Min is also, with all due respect, an upgrade to Diogo Jota’s performances with Wolves and will be deployed in the same way Jota was. Either as a winger or as a second forward much like Son was used for the first half of last season which was his most successful spell during the season.
A winger who dribbles and crosses
Under Nuno, Adama Traore came to the fore as one of his most trusted soldiers. He was an almost ever-present in the team whose dribbling and crossing were the trademarks of his performances. He completed 5.44 dribbles per 90 minutes in 20/21 and managed the second most crosses (4.05) and second-most crosses into the penalty area (0.54) for Wolves. He was only second because he played only 19 games at right-wing/midfield and played 11 games as a center forward. In the previous season where he played 32 games as a right-winger, he made the most crosses (5.12) and crosses into the penalty area (1.11) in the team.
Spurs do not have a player currently who fits into that profile as Erik Lamela tends to play more centrally, Lucas Moura dribbles but does not cross and Steven Bergwijin rarely attempts to beat players. It’s, therefore, no surprise that they have been linked to Sevilla’s Bryan Gil who was on loan with Eibar in the 20/21 season. The Spanish winger was not as frequent a dribbler as Adama, completing 2.85 dribbles per 90 minutes and dribbling past 3.08 players per 90 compared to Adama’s 5.88 players, but he outdid every Spurs winger in both metrics and his dribbles led to 0.55 shooting opportunities which were more than Lamela (0.13), Moura (0.6), and Bergwijn (0). He also crossed on more occasions from open play (4.35) and had more crosses reach the penalty area (0.51) than Moura (0.7 and 0.19), Lamela (1.13 and 0), and Bergwijn (0.9 and 0).
- Nuno’s decision to sign for Spurs was a very weird one.
- Expect Nuno to play with three at the back. Most likely Alderweireld, Davinson Sanchez, and Eric Dier/Rodon. Spurs should consider signing Conor Coady.
- Expect an upturn in fortunes for Matt Doherty.
- Tanguy Ndombele is likely to struggle for a place in the team.
- If Kane goes, Spurs will be in jeopardy unless they sign Raul Jimenez.
- Bryan Gil is a priority signing for Spurs.