By Seb Stafford-Bloor, The Athletic
Pre-season should be miserable at Tottenham. It should be barbaric and old-fashioned and nasty, and it needs to sear the fat from this team’s flabby soul.
Because these players need it. Last season showed them at a physical deficit. It also exposed how far they’ve descended from the honest and hard-working virtues that once allowed the club to punch above its weight.
But what even is it to be a Tottenham player currently? Nobody really has an answer and the many contradictions of this shambolic summer have done little to cure a growing existential crisis. So, yes, these players need to run and run, but they also need their identity redrawn and that’s a different challenge entirely.
Is Nuno Espirito Santo the coach to cure these psychoses? Nobody really knows. He’s only been given a two-year contract, so that includes Spurs themselves. Nuno has plenty of virtues. He’s an excellent coach and, valid as concerns over the style of his football may be, he’s shown the capacity to adapt to different circumstances and improve players well beyond their assumed potential. In this article by The Athletic’s Wolves reporter Tim Spiers, his man-management is also praised and he’s described as a coach who carefully treads the line between engendering respect and fear.
That’s good but there’s no getting away from the perception that he’s only now at Spurs because Daniel Levy and Fabio Paratici couldn’t sell their project to their initial candidates or changed their minds on some of their initial targets. That’s not an insurmountable problem, but it weakens his position with a group of players who spent last season divided by agendas. Some wanted to be there, some didn’t. Some believed in the coaching, some didn’t. That showed in a very fragile self-belief in 2020-21, during which residual fear and self-loathing were among Tottenham’s defaults.Nuno is a good coach but the squad needs some changes (Photo: Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)
Those poisons have to be purged. That requires captivating management and charisma. It needs someone capable of selling a vision for the future. If the Portuguese is to be that figure, then his first impression will have to be very strong — to convince the players, but also the supporters, to buy in.
Nuno is not who most Tottenham fans wanted. As soon as the possibility of Mauricio Pochettino returning was teased, and followed by the possibility of Antonio Conte arriving, almost anybody else was going to be underwhelming. The flip-flop over Paulo Fonseca hasn’t helped either, nor did the nonsense with Gennaro Gattuso, and the atmosphere into which Nuno arrives is full of suspicion, negativity and all sorts of other unhelpful energies.
It’s not fair, because he deserves to be judged on the generally excellent work he did at Wolves, but Tottenham are at war with a public who have suffered too many embarrassments over the past two years and, above all else, he needs to start fast. Goals, points, wins; change the conversation.
The Harry Kane-shaped clouds on the horizon will make that difficult, though.
There are few reasons why Kane should stay, but many as to why Tottenham need him to. His goals, assists and effect on the pitch, of course, but also because there’s just no way of spinning his sale as a positive. Not even by reinvesting the vast fee.
Such transfers always bring assumptions about liquidity and result in a tax on whichever players are then pursued. The consequences for Spurs would be protracted negotiations and overspends, probably in combination with one another, leading to a worst-case scenario in which a gang of replacements arrive shortly before the end of the window, none of them enjoy a full pre-season and the team then spends the first six months of the year paralysed by its lack of chemistry.
For a new head coach needing a strong start, that would be as unhelpful a move as it would be possible to make. Tottenham are insistent they won’t sell and you hope that remains the case.
Certain assumptions can be made about Nuno’s likely system and his preferred way of playing — he likes a back three and wing-backs will be very important — but it’s easier to consider what Tottenham need from the perspective of their thematic weaknesses. They need to get better in certain areas, yes, but they also need to improve in broader areas of the game.
The first obstacle is realism: how much money is there? Having been starved of matchday income for such a long time, it’s likely to be a sell-first summer.
Juan Foyth has already gone, sold to Villarreal for £15 million. Serge Aurier, Erik Lamela and Harry Winks have also all expressed an interest in playing their football elsewhere and at least two of them seem likely to depart. The club might also consider this the right moment to move Moussa Sissoko and Lucas Moura, with both headed towards the end of their usefulness.
Cases could be made to keep all five, but then this is a reality of the current situation. The club’s trajectory needs adjusting and that will force difficult decisions. Davinson Sanchez probably belongs on this list too. He was a good player and he might be again, but any revival seems unlikely to happen in north London or in a league within which too many forwards already have his number.
And Toby Alderweireld. He’s reportedly keen to leave and, as a high-earner whose prime is now a memory, that would seem to make sense. Alderweireld remains a good player, one who would be useful to keep, but mismanagement has forced these difficult choices and ultimately the club don’t need an ageing player who isn’t properly invested in their future.
There’s better news in the form of returning loanees: Oliver Skipp and Ryan Sessegnon are back at a time when expectations are low and the pressure will be off any young players.
Both are capable of making a contribution, but also of providing respite. Kane first won hearts and minds during one of these slumps in morale and while Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb never went as far, both helped to cleanse the mood in much the same way. Given the opportunity, Skipp and Sessegnon could be that kind of tonic, and if there is a positive to being in the Europa Conference League this season then it’s the number of extra starts it will likely provide.
A vague positive, then. There’s less good news about the defence, which is an obvious problem, but also the area ahead of it, which is full of issues too.Sessegnon should have a chance to play (Photo: Roland Krivec/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)
Chief among those is an inability to control the game through possession or generate any sort of passing rhythm. Spurs haven’t had any strategic distribution in the middle of the pitch since Christian Eriksen was sold and the failure to replace him has been quietly devastating. Tottenham’s midfield can go forwards and it can fall backwards, but only in a reactive, basketball-like way. It doesn’t build, it doesn’t consolidate or calmly construct moves, and it possesses none of the authority it once did.
There was an interesting piece of commentary from Gary Neville before the end of last season, in which he referred to the side as “basic”. He was likely discussing its overall set-up and its post-Mourinho state, but he could also have been describing its move-construction and the absence of any real strategy from midfield. From that perspective, Spurs are quite basic. They’re much more checkers than chess, two-dimensional rather than three.
A progressive passer would help that; a mid-point between Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg’s pragmatism and the expression of Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso. That player needs to be comfortable receiving the ball in deep areas, but also adept at moving it up the field and altering the point of attack. They need someone who sees the pitch better, like Mousa Dembele used to do.
Wolfsburg’s Maximilian Arnold does that; he’s a strong personality and a superb passer. With five years left to run on his contract and with the guarantee of Champions League football next year, he’s probably unattainable though.
Marcelo Brozovic isn’t; his future at Inter Milan has become tenuous. Brozovic has that metronomic quality to his distribution. He’s not dissimilar to a young Michael Carrick in the way he pushed passes across the pitch and hisses them between the gaps. He can also play in a midfield three, alongside and in support of more offensive players, and that might be a way of replicating the Moutinho/Dendoncker-Neves unit that Nuno made work at Molineux.
His work with attacking midfielders has actually been excellent. Diogo Jota became a very fine player under him and, prior to injury, Pedro Neto was following the same path. Daniel Podence has also had his moments at Wolves and, together, these little evolutions bode well for Lo Celso and Ndombele, even if Nuno’s arrival is only likely to benefit one or the other.
Behind them, though, the quality of possession does need improving. If budget is a problem, Villarreal veteran Dani Parejo remains one of the best passers in Spain and Atalanta’s Remo Freuler is a very classy player who also has just a year left on his contract. It’s a fixable problem that must not be left unaddressed — nor should the drive towards organic chance creation end there. Developing a healthier possessional rhythm is a good start, but there’s also the need for a player who really knows how to use the ball in attacking areas — who releases his passes at the right time and with the right weight, and who can provide a semi-regular source of goals.Daichi Kamada would be an interesting signing (Photo: Matthias Hangst/Bongarts/Getty Images)
Eintracht Frankfurt’s Daichi Kamada should be available. Kamada is a joy to watch. He’s one of those players who manages to be technically impressive without ever really being flamboyant. In fact, that might be why he remains a niche player outside Germany and his native Japan, despite his consistently healthy production in the Bundesliga.
He carries the ball sweetly, with lots of neat little touches and changes of direction, and he exploits passing angles in the attacking third in a way that’s clever and unusual. He also takes up dangerous positions and, as you’d expect from someone who has played for Adi Hutter, is aggressive without the ball and would help restore the high press which has all but vanished from Spurs’ game. If Nuno’s plan is to create anything vaguely similar to his Wolves attack, then Kamada would make a fine third man in the Jota/Podence mould — someone who can create, but who can also profit from the damage done by others.
That would be an excellent move but not the priority; the defence needs investment and it needs it now.
Takehiro Tomiyasu appears close to joining and that’s a start. Somewhere between a centre-half and a right-back, Tomiyasu has that blend of size and mobility that suits playing on the outside of a back three. But the club will have to go further if that area is to have the rebrand it so obviously needs; one player is not going to do it.
Wolfsburg’s Maxence Lacroix is a stylish and thrilling prospect. He’s a fabulous talent who has adapted extremely well to the Bundesliga since arriving from Sochaux and while his growing reputation would command a mighty fee, Lacroix would likely be unattainable for Spurs in a year’s time. Not that they would have anything like a free run at him now, and so that probably leaves Joachim Andersen as a more realistic target. He’s a more developed player, albeit not as luxurious, and while Fulham’s issues last season drew attention towards his abilities without the ball, his passing performance was also relatively healthy.
He’s young, modern and responsible on the ball, and could function in either a back four or in Nuno’s preferred back-three. Andersen is most competent in the traditional defensive disciplines though. He heads, he tackles, he kicks people if he needs to. That resilience is very appealing, particularly to a team with such a soft centre and which, if Alderweireld does leave, is about to become even more flimsy.
But the problems are out wide, too, and the right-back area has been a weakness for some time.
Aurier seems determined to leave and, for the second summer in a row, the club aren’t of mind to discourage him. Matt Doherty has a prior relationship with Nuno and he seems like an obvious beneficiary of his arrival, but his self-belief might just be beyond repair. So, with Japhet Tanganga also better suited to life as a centre-half, investment is of the highest importance.
Stefan Lainer would change the dynamic. He scored a very fine goal against North Macedonia in the European Championship, but that wasn’t really reflective of what he is; he’s actually towards the conservative end of the right-back spectrum. Lainer is a smooth, technical player but he can also defend to a high standard and would have no problem operating as a wing-back.
Tariq Lamptey certainly wouldn’t. He’s obviously a very different player to Lainer and far less experienced, but Nuno’s prior work with wing-backs makes the prospect of that union thrilling. Lamptey is a terrific ball-carrier, probably more so than people realise, and his array of attacking abilities would give Tottenham an aggressive gear-change that they haven’t had now for a long time.
That might be too much work for a single summer. With a newly-appointed head coach, a new technical direction and a march of new players, these next few months promise to be highly disorientating. But this is no longer a situation that needs tweaks and adjustments and, given also how financially aggressive their rivals are likely to be over the coming transfer windows, Tottenham need to commit to a new direction quickly. The bigger that stride is, the better the outcome is likely to be.