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By Edwin Yeo
In times like this, it’s really hard to look at the positives for a Tottenham Hotspur fan.
Bad enough that Spurs were schooled by Chelsea last week. At least we can go away from that saying that Chelsea were the much better team and we gave them a good go for at least 45 minutes.
But this was Arsenal. Not only are the Gunners the most hated team for Spurs fans, they lost to Brentford and were swept aside by Manchester City as easily as a NASA mathematician doing primary school maths.
There was no better time for Spurs, who showed glimpses of quality against Chelsea and Spurs, to stamp their mark this season. This was the match that would determine whether the last two seasons were a blip. This was the match that would show the effect Nuno Espirito Santo has had on the team.
Well, it was, but not in the way we had hoped for.
You see, barely a month ago, Spurs made Premier League history by being top of the table when Arsenal were bottom. It has since taken only three matches for the bottom team to overtake the top team – that too is also history, though not one we would remember fondly.
Nuno seemed to recognise that it was his mistakes that caused this embarrassment, which is also not a bad thing, but the key is whether he will learn from it.
But, what did we learn exactly?
1) Never accept a manager of the month award
Call it superstition, and science certainly doesn’t back this up. But sometimes, when superstition is so widespread, you can’t help but drink the Kool Aid, because no one really looks at data which shows that world class managers such as Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola were still able to sweep all opponents aside even after having won the award.
But not Nuno. Nuno won it before at Wolves in October last year, after winning three out of four games and conceding just once, he then went on to win just once out of the next five games. Coincidence? Perhaps, but history has somewhat repeated itself. Five games since winning the award, Spurs have won just one – on penalty kicks – scored 5 and conceded 13, as opposed to the first five games, where he scored six and conceded just one goal.
Of course, given the way Spurs are playing, we probably don’t have to worry about this again for the rest of the season.
2) Dele Alli is back to being his brother
It’s bizarre how a player so talented can see his levels fall faster than an enrichment centre’s reputation post-clown mishap, but there we have it. Dele is no longer the Dele of old. He’s lost that instinct to pull a rabbit out of a hat, much like he did in his first two seasons. What used to be a fox arriving late in the box is now a box trapping a fox.
So much so that Nuno tried to turn him into a hard tackling defensive midfielder. 10 games into the season, I think it’s safe to say that it has not really worked. Today, no one will really sing “We got Alli” with much passion, and we’re more likely to once again be asking the question if he’s really Dele’s brother.
What is clear, despite Tanguy Ndombele’s huge inconsistency over 90 minutes, is that Dele has not done enough to start ahead of that frustrating genius in the middle of the park. Alli needs work on the training ground to take him back to the days where he was more David Copperfield than the stage hand who works hard, but no one knows his name.
Against Arsenal, even though every Spurs player played badly, Alli stood out as being the poorest, consistently rotating between being invisible and giving the ball away cheaply. It was a relief to see him replaced by Oliver Skipp at half time, and though Skipp is not really the player you want to send on at three goals down, it’s no coincidence that Spurs played a little better after that.
3) Play on form, not reputation
Is it a coincidence that Spurs’ terrible run came after Harry Kane decided to stay and forego his big money move to Manchester City? Apart from him scoring two goals against a team no one outside of Portugal has heard of in his first match back, Kane has played like a man with weights tied to his ankles.
I mean, sure, he’s Harry Kane, and it’d take a manager with balls the size of the planet Jupiter to drop him, but let’s be frank, he’s justifying why Guardiola refused to cough up £150m for him with every passing match. Sure, he stretched Aaron Ramsdale with a powerful shot in the second half, but he also missed a sitter that he would have put away with his eyes closed and all limbs tied behind his back one season ago.
Based on his form, you wouldn’t place him ahead of Son Heung-Min, and it’s probably not much of a coincidence that Spurs' table topping run came with Son leading the line instead of Kane.
Of course, you could also argue that if the Jose Mourinho era did anything, it was to showcase that Kane’s best position is that of a deep lying forward, and freeing Son to be on the receiving end of his passes. For some reason, Nuno decided to put him back up top, and with his lack of off-the-ball mobility, and the lack of creative passers in the Spurs team to find him in a dangerous position, Kane’s effectiveness up top is equivalent to that of a squid, and I don’t mean that number 1 show on Netflix worldwide.
But Kane isn’t even the real problem. It’s in defence that really makes one wonder what Nuno is seeing in Eric Dier and Davinson Sanchez that convinced him to start the dreadful duo ahead of Cristian Romero and Joe Rodon. Our two Rs may not have prevented the Arsenal onslaught, but surely, they would been able to get a lot closer to the opposition attackers than both Sanchez and Dier were able to.
Arsenal’s first two goals, when you watch closely, were both a result of Sanchez and Dier not knowing where the attacking players were when the cross came in. And this isn’t even the first time this has happened. With all due respect to the duo, they aren’t the defensive partnership a team with top four aspirations can rely on.
Romero and Rodon may not be either, but when they have played, they have looked more aggressive, and the sad truth is, the longer the two are not allowed to play competitive matches together, the less likely they will form a defensive partnership to match what Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen had in their heydays.
Dier and Sanchez may, on paper, be the more experienced duo, but on form, they have shown very little to suggest that they can keep out Rodon and Romero.
Again, this is not saying that we would have won all those matches, but at least the fans know we have our best players on the pitch and don’t scratch their heads raw as to wondering who Alli, Dier, Sanchez and Kane have been sleeping with to keep getting into the first team week in week out.
Caveat, I probably wouldn’t drop Kane too, but that’s because my balls are the size of kyoto grapes.
4) If you can’t win the second ball, you can’t win matches
Inside two minutes, you already knew that Arsenal were going to win. Three times Spurs players tried to dribble past their markers, three times they were met with crunching tackles. Which is fine, even though I could probably make a case also about how Spurs players need to learn to pass the ball quicker.
But that aside, it wasn’t just the tackles, but also how Arsenal players anticipated Spurs players losing the ball and were right on hand to pick up the loose ball. On top of that, every clearance the Spurs defenders made invariably found an Arsenal shirt. The Gunners reacted faster and won most of the 50-50s.
It is very simple – if you don’t win the personal battles, you’re going to lose the game. Spurs are at their best when they tackle like a rugby player on steroids, as they did against Man City and for 45 minutes against Chelsea, and maybe 20 minutes against the Wolves reserves in the Carabao Cup.
In all other matches, they were as soft as a kitten’s bottom, and had the look of a bullied child on their faces.
And bullied they were, even when they won (Wolves and Watford).
Mourinho was right about their mentality – they need to be tougher. Well, Mourinho used much stronger language, but there are children reading this article (we think).
5) Nuno, just perhaps, isn’t that good
It’s clear that Spurs got beaten by Chelsea tactically – Thomas Tuchel made a brilliant switch in formation that changed the game. Mikel Arteta also recognised the soft midfield and got Martin Odegaard to keep finding the space that Pierre Emile Hojbjerg kept conceding.
And perhaps we should have realised this when right after the high of beating the champions, Spurs lost meekly to a team, once again, NO ONE OUTSIDE OF PORTUGAL HAD HEARD OF.
Sure, you could argue that the team was effectively Spurs’ reserves and academy kids. But it was still a team that boasted the Serie A Defender of the Year, the new Lionel Messi, a wonderkid who once tore up the Championship with Fulham, and established internationals such as Giovani Lo Celso, Ben Davies and Harry Winks.
That’s hardly a team you expect to register zero shots on target against an average side in an average league.
Sure, it’s early days, but after 10 games, four wins, four losses and two draws, a total of 11 goals scored against 14 conceded, you can reasonably draw the conclusion that Nuno is no world class manager.
Mauricio Pochettino’s first 10 games, with a considerably poorer Spurs team than today, won five, drew three, and lost twice, scoring 16 and conceding nine. Mourinho’s first 10? Won six, drew once and lost three, scoring 23 and conceding 17.
Beyond Spurs, Thomas Tuchel’s first 10 games at Chelsea were seven wins and three draws. Jurgen Klopp’s first 10 Liverpool games? Six wins, three draws and a solitary defeat.
Yes, let’s give him time, but let’s also be under no illusion that he’s going to be a Klopp, Tuchel or even Pochettino.
All in, this has been as enjoyable to write as a root canal, and if there’s one thing I do hope for, is that Nuno has learned his lesson and there are better reports ahead.
This article, "The 5 lessons that Nuno Espirito Santo should learn from Spurs' defeat to Arsenal", originally appeared on Football Siao – Singapore’s craziest EPL website.