Nuno Espirito Santo needs more than 60 training sessions to prove he is a fit for Tottenham Hotspur

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Nuno Espirito Santo has had fewer than 10 training sessions in which he has had a full complement of first team players - Getty Images
Nuno Espirito Santo has had fewer than 10 training sessions in which he has had a full complement of first team players - Getty Images

The Valencia team of Nuno Espirito Santo that secured fourth place on the last day of the 2014-2015 La Liga season was a very different beast to the side that he would later create at Wolverhampton Wanderers, a 4-3-3 system built to press high and attack aggressively as per the wishes of the Spanish club’s owners at the time.

That season Nuno took Valencia into the Champions League playing a style that came with its own challenges. They lost at home to Barcelona in the 90th minute to one of only nine league goals that Sergio Busquets has scored in 14 seasons at the club. They took four points off Real Madrid, and also Atletico Madrid, both Champions League finalists the previous season. It was still far from perfect and they had to come from behind to beat Almeria on the last day of the season to claim fourth.

At the start of the season, Nuno had been told to deliver Champions League qualification and attacking football and did so by the skin of his teeth. It was a tumultuous time. He resigned the following November to be succeeded by Gary Neville. There was to be no repeat of the Champions League qualification season.

When Nuno arrived at the Championship in the summer of 2017, he inherited a Wolves team that had finished 15th the season before, and his brief from the Chinese ownership was a different challenge. They wanted promotion followed by Premier League stability so the value of players in which they had made a considerable investment could grow, enabling them to become an effective trading club. The style of football was less of a concern and so Nuno adapted accordingly.

It was in the Championship that his Wolves back three – often a back five - developed as a way of accommodating the depth of quality the squad had in defence at the time. The system worked and so they stayed with it, through two seventh place finishes in the Premier League and a Europa League quarter-final.

Nuno will take charge of his first North London derby as Tottenham Hotspur manager on Sunday - Reuters
Nuno will take charge of his first North London derby as Tottenham Hotspur manager on Sunday - Reuters

Fast forward to what one might call the “To Dare Is To Do” years and Nuno approaches his first North London derby as Tottenham Hotspur manager on Sunday accompanied by a degree of scepticism. Is this the man to deliver on chairman Daniel Levy’s famous summer reset of “free-flowing, attacking and entertaining” football? Demolished in the second half by Chelsea last week, perhaps of more concern was the 3-0 defeat away to Crystal Palace the previous weekend.

It is a fair question when perceptions of him in English football are naturally shaped by the kind of side that Wolves were at their most successful – often happier without the ball, and principally a counterattacking force. He was a late choice this summer, with all Levy’s other options exhausted. It would also be right to say that Nuno is not a manager who spends much time worrying about the way he is perceived. His post-match demeanour often suggests a man who would rather submit his answers via email.

What is not in doubt about this contemplative, reserved former goalkeeper, brought up on the Atlantic archipelago of Sao Tome, is that he works to the plan given to him. One does not survive in the game for long without knowing that it would be foolish to try to recreate Wolves’ approach at Spurs.

Since he took over on July 1, Nuno has had around 60 training sessions; of those, some of his squad have been able to participate in less than 15. There have been fewer than 10 in which he has had a full complement of first team players. There is no doubt of the club’s objectives. Levy could not have been clearer. The problem thus far has been the manager’s opportunity to get anywhere close to developing that style.

Against Manchester City, in that unexpected first win of the season, it would have taken a brave newly-arrived manager to take on Pep Guardiola’s side at their own game. Tournament injuries, extended holiday quarantines and other factors had robbed the team of many of its key players in preparation. Nuno kept it basic and three conservative league wins followed. The international break, with the chaos in South America and the subsequent Croatia quarantine for Cristian Romero, Giovani Lo Celso and Davinson Sanchez made things difficult.

Against Palace, red flags over certain players’ capacity to take the intensity of the game meant that in midfield, in particular, options were limited. Of those left out only Bryan Gil had the requisite level of fitness, but his introduction to English football will have to be staggered to allow a talented player to adjust. In the end, the more conservative midfield of Oliver Skipp, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Harry Winks naturally left Nuno open to criticism. Against Chelsea, a riskier formation was piloted and that is likely to be a closer approximation of the direction Spurs are headed in.

Spurs have been affected to the greatest degree in attacking positions. Harry Kane’s situation, with fitness and his future at the club, is no secret. Lucas Moura trained for the first time on Friday. Heung-min Son’s game-time has had to be managed. Steven Bergwijn will be out for some time. It has not been a situation conducive to all the daring and the doing to which the club is publicly committed.

In the meantime there is no respite, and the Arsenal game sees two managers under pressure to demonstrate that it is the other who has the bigger problems. Mikel Arteta is trying to turn around years of decline. As for Nuno he has a different issue: a group of players that came very close to a defining trophy over the last five years only to fall painfully short. Changing that course will take some time, and who knows where it takes Spurs. Whatever the criticism, their manager will not be recreating Wolves or even Valencia at a club that – if nothing else – has a clear sense of what it would like to be.

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