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For four years, Tottenham Hotspur have been getting worse and, although nine points after four Premier League games is healthy enough, the numbers behind Nuno Espirito Santo’s start as head coach do not point to any quick fix.
Tottenham entertain Chelsea on Sunday just one point behind their London rivals and yet the gap between the two clubs, at least on the pitch, appears to be getting much wider.
There were mitigating circumstances for the first defeat of the season to Crystal Palace – Tottenham were missing players, lost Eric Dier to injury and had Japhet Tanganga sent-off. But three successive victories had also papered over cracks.
Given Nuno’s arrival in the summer was accompanied by chairman Daniel Levy acknowledging the need to “revert back to our core DNA of playing attacking, entertaining football”, Spurs might have hoped for a little more excitement since the organisation and pragmatism that achieved an excellent opening-day win over champions Manchester City.
Levy beamed his approval from the stands after watching Nuno’s team secure their third straight single-goal victory over Watford before the international break. But, as very much a numbers man, he will know better than most that there remains plenty of room for improvement.
Tottenham’s goal return of three for the season so far puts them 15th in the Premier League and only one of those was from open play. Their expected goals return of just 3.7 puts Nuno’s men two places worse off in 17th and only four teams have managed fewer shots than their 38 so far.
Harry Kane, for the first time as a Premier League player, did not touch the ball in the opposition penalty area at all against Palace and the fact the England captain started the Europa Conference League draw with Rennes suggested he is still finding his fitness.
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One area where there seemed to have been early progress under Nuno was at the back as Tottenham did not concede a goal in their first three games, with Dier and Davinson Sánchez impressing in the centre of defence.
Sánchez was missing against Palace after deciding to play for Colombia and being forced into isolation, while Dier suffered an injury, but the statistics suggest the three goals Spurs conceded at Selhurst Park had been coming.
While their total of only three goals conceded is the eighth best in the league so far, Tottenham’s expected goals against figure is much higher at 7.3 and places them in 14th position. And only four teams have faced more than the 70 shots Nuno’s team have allowed their opponents to take.
Spurs conceded twice against Rennes on Thursday night and, even though they scored two goals of their own, the performance was less than enthralling.
These, of course, remain early days for Nuno, who is still experimenting with his squad and has been hit by injuries and absences. But, in the bigger picture, there is an inescapable reality that Tottenham are in danger of getting left behind and the momentum is very much with their rivals.
It was in 2017 that Spurs achieved their best-ever Premier League finish by taking second place behind Antonio Conte’s Chelsea and the following season Tottenham finished two places above their London rivals in third spot. But that is where any perceived shift in power ended.
Since taking the runners-up spot, Tottenham have finished third, fourth, sixth and seventh with their points total also decreasing year-on-year until last season, when they finished three points better off, albeit a place further back, than in the previous campaign.
The “painful” rebuild former head coach Mauricio Pochettino warned of over two years ago has proved to be just that and Spurs have not managed to even tread water since reaching the Champions League final at the end of that same season.
Tottenham’s Champions League final appearance proved to be the end of a cycle. Along with Pochettino, six members of the team that started in Madrid have now left the club, together with eight players on the substitutes’ bench.
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Conversely, Chelsea’s European success felt very much the start of something under a head coach that had only been at the club for five months and with a team that contained two academy graduates and five players in their first season at the club, although one was veteran defender Thiago Silva.
The fact Spurs signed three players without any real Premier League experience or any experience of winning trophies in the summer after their Champions League final appearance was in sharp contrast to Chelsea’s approach to this summer’s transfer window.
Head coach Thomas Tuchel wanted tried and tested to add to his squad and the club responded with the £97.5 million signing of striker Romelu Lukaku, a Serie A winner with Inter Milan last season, and the loan signing of Saúl Ñíguez, a La Liga champion with Atlético Madrid.
Tuchel, of course, arrived at Chelsea last January just 24 hours after the club had sacked Frank Lampard. A Champions League finalist from the previous season and a twice Ligue 1 title winner with Paris St-Germain, the German was hired with the clear directive to win.
Nuno, on the other hand, was not even on Tottenham’s original list of candidates to succeed Mourinho and the club looked closely, even making verbal offers to Conte and Paulo Fonseca, at four or five other managers before changing direction.
By the time Nuno was appointed, it had been more than two months since Mourinho’s dismissal and it remains unclear what exactly will be considered a success at the end of his first season in charge.
While Mourinho was appointed in a bid to end Tottenham’s trophy drought and turn a dressing-room full of nearly men into winners, Nuno was simply tasked with the brief to “build something special.”
Whether that means winning the Europa Conference League or finishing sixth and at least changing Tottenham’s direction of travel over recent years remains to be seen. But something genuinely special seems a long way off for Spurs.