Tottenham Hotspur parted company with Nuno Espirito Santo after just 10 Premier League matches, with the Portuguese having never been a smart choice, hired only after Daniel Levy’s botched attempts to land other targets
“You don’t know what you’re doing” chanted Tottenham Hotspur supporters at Nuno Espirito Santo and, in the end, that was the conclusion reached by the Spurs hierarchy too.
After only 10 Premier League matches – five won, five lost – the Portuguese head coach has been dismissed, the 3-0 home thumping by an in-crisis Manchester United the final stand exactly four months after his hiring.
Chairman Daniel Levy and managing director Fabio Paratici spent Sunday in talks over the future of their head coach, deciding whether to retain the 47-year-old or usher him through the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium exit door.
They could have kept him on and offered him a chance to try to get things right. They’ve progressed steadily in the Carabao Cup to the final eight and remain among the favourites of the Europa Conference League, despite inconsistent team selections and results.
But that would have merely just prolonged the inevitable.
Nuno had been sixth or seventh choice last summer; he knew it, his players knew it and the fans’ knew it. Ultimately, he had no authority and as performances worsened and whispers about players being unhappy with the training methods of ‘Mourinho without the medals’ grew, it was always a matter of time before his exit papers were signed.
A third 3-0 Premier League defeat of the season, without managing a shot on target – having failed to manage a single shot after the 43rd minute in the previous week’s loss to West Ham – ensured this was the bitter end.
“I know how much Nuno and his coaching staff wanted to succeed and I regret that we have had to take this decision,” declared Paratici.
“Nuno is a true gentleman and will always be welcome here. We should like to thank him and his coaching staff and wish them well for the future.”
Certainly, Nuno will be able to point to mitigating factors, not least last season’s Golden Boot winner and Premier League assist king, Harry Kane – 23 goals, 14 assists in 35 games – losing his mojo following his failed bid for a summer exit to Manchester City, behind his demise.
But just two months after opening his reign as August’s Manager of the Month – following three 1-0 wins to start the campaign – his exit wasn’t a shock. And the stats were damning.
Spurs ranked 18th in the Premier League for goals scored and 19th in terms of shots and chance creation. Their defence was 16th in terms of goals conceded and only 14th in terms of xG against per game.
For a manager whose entire tactical outlook has been increasingly predicated on caution, organisation and praying on opposition mistakes, those defensive deficiencies were never going to be good enough at a side who harbour Champions League ambitions.
When Levy spoke on May 19 of needing a head coach “whose values reflect those of our great Club and return to playing football with the style for which we are known – free-flowing, attacking and entertaining”, he wasn’t describing the man who would ultimately walk through the door seven weeks later.
He was always an ill-fit, a tatty wooly jumper plucked from a wardrobe when a three-piece suit was being sought. His final season at Wolves proved as much.
After three seasons of consistent achievement, from promotion to back-to-back seventh place finishes and a run to the Europa League quarter-finals built on solidity, control and counter-attacking, he was tasked with adopting a more attacking, possession-based style at Molineux. He himself knew it was required, the last eight defeat to Sevilla proving a chastening experience such was the runaround he witnessed his side receive as their marathon 383-day 2019-20 campaign ended in Duisburg.
But when a mentally and physically drained Wolves side – with a squad not sufficiently strengthened in the transfer window despite the club record signings of Fabio Silva and Nelson Semedo – began the new season, it quickly became apparent that a more adventurous, energetic style would have to wait. It was decided that quickly incorporating new ideas amid a jam-packed schedule would only take the team backwards.
He still attempted to change the formation from a back five to a four-man defence, but when Raul Jimenez was lost to injury last November, he soon reverted to type, particularly when results took a turn for the worse and a lack of goals became an issue.
There were worries Wolves could be sucked into a relegation scrap – particularly after the 3-2 defeat to West Brom which prompted questions about Nuno’s future – and they were labelled the Premier League’s most boring side to watch by a plethora of pundits.
But, in fairness, the slow style was down to necessity as much as design, such were the physical issues a number of players were playing through and the worry that games – even against struggling sides – would get away from them if they became more open affairs.
Wolves promptly dug out 11 points from a possible 15 in February to keep them well clear of the drop zone, however, after four years, there was an admission on all sides that things had run their course.
While it was amicable, Wolves briefed privately shortly after that a new direction, had been needed and that they believed Nuno wasn’t the man to improve on figures which had seen them end the season 13th in the table, 16th in terms of goals scored and 16th for xG.
That he was then selected by Levy to turn Spurs around baffled many, among Wolves supporters and members of the club’s top brass, as well as pundits and those around the game.
At their best, his Wolves side were outstanding underdogs, more than ready to bloody the noses of the Premier League elite. But they were never a team who dominated opponents, nor were they ever “free-flowing”.
Thus, in the Premier League’s most outstanding stadium, he never looked equipped to give Tottenham what they either needed after Mourinho, nor what they wanted.
As such, Spurs are currently mired in mediocrity and unfortunately, and Levy must take the blame for his appointment, the chairman hiring him despite every morsel of evidence highlighting that it was never the right option to take.
His failure to land other targets and then settle on a somewhat lighter version of Mourinho shouldn’t be forgotten. Levy has grandiose visions for his club, and while Nuno takes the fall he should never have been put in that position – which admittedly he couldn’t say no to – in the first place.
However, the old saying goes that it’s better to be lucky than good.
The historical evidence of Levy’s Spurs tenure tells us his success rate with hiring managers is middling at best.
But if Nuno’s incongruous spell now sees Spurs hire an elite, A-grade manager like Antonio Conte, five months after failing to land him first time round, then it may just have been worth the pain of Levy’s latest failing.
However, don’t bet on this act of incompetency being swiftly forgotten by those who chanted “We want Levy out” on Saturday either.
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