White Heart Pain: Where To Now For Tottenham Hotspur?

This image is a derivative of Tottenham Hotspur Stadium South Stand by Bluejam (CC BY-SA 4.0)

It may be one of the most over-used cliches in sport but a month really is a long time in football and in Tottenham’s case- a month may as well have been an eternity ago.

From the brightest of starts to the lowest of lows, Spurs have gone from the toast of the Premier League to being, yet again, the brunt of the footballing world’s jokebook.

Sunday’s crushing 3-1 defeat to arch-rivals Arsenal in the North London Derby was the perfect summation of where they’re placed.

Spurs portray a far-cry from the side who beat the reigning champions on the opening day and went into the September international break undefeated and top of the pile with many beginning to question if it was only a false-dawn.

The fans are now starting to grow impatient and the support for manager Nuno Espirito Santo is waning as quickly as they’ve fell from their lofty early-season porch – now only having a 14.1% chance of making the top four according to Stats Insider modelling.

Everything about Spurs was completely off on the weekend. From personnel, to game-plan, to formation – it was as described post-game by Espirito Santo as being bluntly “not good”.

There was no bounce after successive 3-0 defeats and there was none of that North London Spirit to buoy his side against a Gunners outfit who are playing with swagger and confidence.

Spurs were the complete opposite. Unenthused, disorganised and were served up on a fresh platter to the hounds. It was quite simply 30-minute blitzkrieg of their entire midfield and defensive structure.

Espirito Santo needs to find answers, and fast, but the solutions to their issues may not be as complex as they may seem on face-value.

In fact, some of the solutions, at least in the interim are evident when the Spurs boss goes back and looks at the tape.

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So what’s wrong with Spurs?

If you search pragmatism in the footballing dictionary, Tottenham are the definition and the numbers don’t lie.

Spurs sit bottom for shots per game (9.3), bottom for key passes made (6.7 per game) and bottom for chance creation (four chances in six games).

This is the hallmark of Espirito Santo’s coaching ethos, clog things up in the middle, cover territory and play off the break.

However, for a team who look to enact this ethos, their team selection on the weekend contradicts this manta entirely backfiring spectacularly in the opening half against Arsenal.

The decision to play both Dele Alli and Tanguy Ndombele in an unfamiliar role as box-to-box midfielders alongside Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg was a recipe for disaster – leaving the latter completely exposed against Arsenal’s fleet-footed attack.

They thrived in the enormous gaps between the midfield and defence, feasting on Tottenham’s exposed back-line and putting the game to bed in the opening half-hour.

Most glaringly, this is also bi-product of a team who aren’t working hard enough in both attack and defence (99.9km covered per game, 20th in the league).

With the midfield out of whack, it created a ripple effect throughout the entire team as well from defence to attack as they struggled to not only keep the goals out but create at the other end.

Spurs’ team-selection was also the reflection of a team in the middle of an identity crisis. 

They have a coach who wants to keep it tight in midfield but he put a team out which don’t have the capacity to suit the requirements of a 4-3-3 – in particular in midfield where they were completely overran.

Is this a manager trying to find the best balance of attacking and defensive football to appease a board wanting to stray from pragmatism?

Is he just trying to get as many of his big profiles on the park to keep the peace in the dressing room? 

Perhaps.

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Keep it simple

In life, we tend to overthink things when really, it’s easier just to keep it simple and in football, it’s exactly the same.

For Spurs, it’s time enact this mantra and go back to basics – with the basics being best utilise what you have to get results on the board.

It’s as simple as playing a system which best utilises your squad and allows for them to flourish to the best of their best abilities. It just makes sense, right?

Espirito Santo saw that shifting formation at half-time worked because it actually suited the players he has at his disposal.

Spurs shifted to a 4-2-3-1 at half-time, compacting the midfield by bringing on Oliver Skipp to partner Hojbjerg in midfield while shifting Ndombele further forward to sit in behind Harry Kane.

Although Arsenal had slightly taken their foot off the gas, it was an improved showing from Spurs who put together their best patch of football since the international break.

The back four had extra protection with the arrival of Skipp to partner Hojbjerg which also allowed Spurs’ full-backs to get further forward – in particular Emerson Royal who was brought on at half-time as well.

In attack, Spurs looked more dangerous with the added service coming in the form of the full-backs, Ndombele and later Bryan Gil playing closer to goal.

As a result, Heung-Min Son scored Spurs’ first Premier League goal in almost a month and their xG rating was the best they’ve had since then as well registering a 0.76 in the second-half (0.25 in the first).

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Where to now?

Espirito Santo has been under pressure from the second he walked into Tottenham and it’s not all his fault.

He was never the fans first choice to replace Jose Mourinho and he doesn’t fit the mantra of “free-flowing, attacking and entertaining football” Daniel Levy promised to bring back to the club with whoever the new appointment would be.

Unfortunately for the Portuguese boss he is the complete opposite to this billing and finds himself in the unenviable position of not only winning over the fans but also giving a trigger-happy Levy reason to back him in for the long haul.

Does the arrival of Fabio Paratici keep him around for longer given he was the Director of Football’s personal choice as coach? Maybe, but it won’t keep the wolves at bay for much longer if the results don’t begin to turn around.

Each passing defeat raises the pressure on Espirito Santo and it can’t be understated how much of a last weekend’s defeat was to his coaching stocks. 

He needs to get wins on the board and quite simply, the only way out is backing in his ethos and getting back to basics which is utilising what he has at his disposal – which is a team that best suits a 4-2-3-1 setup.

It helps quell their defensive woes and gives them the best chance to hit sides on the counter with their blistering attack – even if it means kicking the hornets nest and making some big calls on the selection table.

He knows that last weekend he made plenty of mistakes with their set-up from the start and he admitted that but he also saw what they can do when they make the change.

Plan A didn’t work and now it’s time to try Plan B because there may not be a Plan C to fall back on.

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Nick D'Urbano

Nick D'Urbano is a freelance sports writer. Throughout Nick's career, he's worked for numerous multimedia companies in print, radio and TV. Currently, Nick covers the A-League, W-League, AFL and AFLW for News Corp Australia's Newswire along with co-hosting Twilight Football on FNR Football Nation Radio. Nick won the Antenna Award for the 2019 Youth Personality of the Year for his work on Channel 31's AFL talk show 'The Rushed Behind.

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