Nuno Espirito Santo has barely set foot through the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium doors but already has some major jobs on his hands in north London.
The ex-Wolves boss takes over a team without a permanent head coach for approaching two and a half months since Jose Mourinho was sacked on April 19.
In that time, more questions than answers have reared their head, far apart from the overdue appointment of a new head coach. And, with only 45 days to go until their Premier League season gets under way against champions Manchester City, Nuno has plenty in his in-tray over the next seven weeks.
1. Keep Harry Kane, and keep him happy
In some ways the hardest job of the lot, keeping Harry Kane at Tottenham Hotspur will be top of Nuno’s priority list. Kane contributed to 37 of Spurs’ 68 goals last season, scoring 23 and making another 14.
Before the 2020/21 campaign was even over, Kane had told the club he finally wanted to move on this summer. And in an interview with Gary Neville in May, he said his future would be “down to him” while emphasising his desire to play Champions League football.
His value to the club, before you begin to look at his numbers from last season, is indescribable. Could Tottenham even hope to replace arguably the best number nine in the world when they cannot supply Champions League football? It would be a task of mammoth proportions.
It may not be something Nuno has to consider – as last month chairman Daniel Levy’s bullish insinuation about protecting Tottenham’s interests suggested Kane may have no say in the matter.
“There is a market out there. What we want and what other clubs want is not always possible to achieve. We will do whatever is right for the club.”
Nuno will have help on his side in the form of new director of football Fabio Paratici, who was appointed last month, as the pair look to convince their star striker to stay at the club – and the even trickier job of keeping him happy if they do deny him a move.
Kane has never downed tools amid various previous rumours about his future, but with the number of hints dropped and reports about his desire to leave, this is new territory Nuno has to tread.
2. Bring back some defensive solidity
It was only four years ago that Tottenham had the tightest defence in the Premier League, shipping 26 goals over the course of the 2016/17 when finishing runners-up to Chelsea.
Time moves fast – Spurs finished almost double that tally, 45 goals, in 2020/21, only eight fewer than relegated Fulham. They have never found an adequate replacement for the sturdy partnership of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. Davinson Sanchez is still yet to fully convince. Eric Dier had a tough season, to put it mildly.
Are there the personnel at the club able to recreate that stoic backline a few years on? Joe Rodon and Japhet Tanganga will feel they have a part to play.
Tanganga, now 22, has had a difficult time of it with injuries in his short career to date, but has looked promising in spells, while Rodon, who impressed with Wales in the European Championships, is unlucky with just how little game time he has seen.
Defensive re-enforcements will be near the top of Nuno and Paratici’s recruitment desires, not least now that Danny Rose has left the club, but having missed out on Ruben Dias to Manchester City last summer, there is a severe lack of top-classed established defenders at the club bar Alderweireld, and even he will be 33 before next season is out.
“When you’ve got a manager like Jose Mourinho, one of the best at organising, of getting the best out of the players, when that fails, you see what a big job Tottenham is,” former England boss Sam Allardyce told Sky Sports News.
“That’ll be another situation on who do they recruit, and where do they get new players. If they are going to get better, Nuno’s not going to be able to do it on his own with that squad. He’s going to need to develop that squad and build it.”
3. Developing a system and style
Nuno set about cultivating his back three at Wolves the moment he stepped through the door at Molineux. It wasn’t a style he had often favoured in previous roles at Porto and Valencia, but he stuck with it for the majority of his Black Country spell.
Things will be a lot tougher this time around. At least some of the players you’d imagine will make up his first XI – Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Harry Kane, Hugo Lloris – are away at Euro 2020 and will need additional recovery time when they return. That’s the spine of a team absent from his early sessions.
A longer-term concern comes with Nuno’s perceived defensive style, which would not match up with the “free-flowing, attacking and entertaining” football promised by Levy in an open letter to fans back in May.
In terms of ‘passes per defensive action’, a measure of how much a team lets its opposition hold onto the ball before looking to win it back, his Wolves side ranked fifth-lowest in the Premier League last season, and on average their attacks began further back than every other team except Newcastle’s.
Wolves had never been an expansive watch but their style became more defensive following the loss of regular top scorer Raul Jimenez early in the season. He can argue also that despite their attachment to Jorge Mendes and the strengths of their squad in the Championship, he established Wolves in the Premier League and secured back-to-back top-half finishes in his first two seasons, something which owed a lot more to substance than style. En route to Championship promotion, too, they netted 82 goals over the course of the season, at a rate of almost 1.8 per game.
“There is a belief within the club that Nuno Espirito Santo’s sides can play attacking football,” said Sky Sports News’ Paul Gilmour. “You talk to people who followed his time at Wolves and they’ll use the word ‘pragmatic’, which is different from boring, a dull side of play, but there have been nights – beating Arsenal 3-1, thrashing Espanyol 4-0, there have been times where they could adapt and go in for the kill.”
As mentioned, Nuno has also not been wedded to the 3-5-2, 3-4-3 systems he pioneered at Molineux, but whatever the shape, Tottenham fans will expect to see a lot more than the goal tallies of around 45-per-season which he averaged at Wolves. At the moment, he has plenty of firepower at his disposal – but Kane’s future will play a huge part in his attacking hopes.
4. Clearing the decks, bringing in new blood
Tottenham had 25 senior professionals in their squad last season, something interim head coach Ryan Mason clearly noticed and mentioned to the media, and it is something Nuno will need to contend with, especially if he is to have money to invest in his own players.
Serge Aurier, Moussa Sissoko, Ben Davies, Erik Lamela and Lucas Moura have been spoken about as possible outgoings, and the club’s five senior central midfielders certainly looks a somewhat bloated position.
Making the most of those players financially may be the difference between Nuno getting the signings he wants and missing out this summer, with Spurs already playing catch-up after leaving it until the last day in June to appoint their new boss.
Gilmour said: “The summer at Tottenham will be defined by whether Levy agrees to grant Kane’s wish of moving to another Premier League club.
“Player sales, with Kane being the most valuable asset of them all, will help shape any approach to a rebuild at a club that has been badly impacted by the lack of matchday revenue.
“Levy will also be desperate to find solutions to the toxic mood among supporters after the handling of the European Super League entry. We are told the club has been sounding out potential replacements for Kane.
“This could be the perfect opportunity to reset and target any imbalance in the current squad.”
5. Win over the fans
This one is pretty simple, and comes down to one thing – results. Even a more ‘pragmatic’ brand of football will be given its dues if Nuno holds aloft a trophy by the end of the season, or manages to lead Tottenham back to the Champions League.
It’ll be the item which will take the longest to check off, too. But having missed out on Antonio Conte, Mauricio Pochettino, Erik ten Hag, Julen Lopetegui and Brendan Rodgers, the mood needs a lot of lifting around the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium that Nuno, for all his achievements at Wolves, is the best man for the job.
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