Soccer

Why Was Nuno Fired?

Nuno Espirito Santo lasted only 17 games as Tottenham Hotspur’s head coach (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

The firing of Nuno Espirito Santo as Tottenham Hotspur head coach is a cautionary tale to all struggling managers. Having largely succeeded with Wolverhampton Wanderers, Nuno was brought to North London to challenge for the top four. However, it was no secret that the Portuguese was well down the list of candidates to succeed Jose Mourniho. But after the first three games of the season, Spurs sat top of the league, with their rivals, Arsenal, at the bottom. So what went wrong?

Nuno Was Fired For Poor Style

The last two managers at Tottenham have played counter-attacking soccer. Jose Mourniho is a famous pessimist. He sets his team up to pounce on mistakes rather than to build through sustained possession. Results over flair, as The Special One would say. And Nuno Espirito Santo is cut from a similar cloth.

At Wolves, Nuno employed a back five with two holding midfielders – first and foremost, shoring up the defensive side of things. Then, with the likes of Adama Traore, he would spring a counter-attack, often finished off by the pre-skull fractured Raul Jimenez. It wasn’t always pretty, but it worked for Wolves and got them into Europe. 

At Spurs, Nuno came out the gates flying, taking nine points from his first three games, including wins over Manchester City and his former club, Wolves. In doing so, he played uncharacteristically front-footed soccer – lining up in a 4-3-3 for each game. But then he started to flounder. First a 3-0 hammering at Crystal Palace – in which Spurs played a 4-4-2 – and then a 3-0 loss to Chelsea – playing a 4-5-1. After a 3-1 battering at Arsenal, Spurs had fallen from top spot a month earlier, to one spot below their north london rivals in mid-table.

By this point, many could see the writing on the wall. Nuno was looking for his comfort blanket of defensive security, but he couldn’t find it. To some, the first three games represented a false dawn – each victory having only been 1-0 – and the more recent steady decline was inevitable. And as if performances weren’t uninspiring and stodgy enough, Nuno’s taciturn communication did him no favors either.

And Poor Communication

In the world of soccer, results are paramount. But when the rub of the green isn’t going your way, as a coach, you need to be able to navigate the vicissitudes of fan sentiment with clear and constructive communication. Mikel Arteta has demonstrated this skill, in stark contrast to his predecessor, Unai Emery.

While Nuno clearly has a more fluent grasp of the English language than Unai Emery, his preference for brevity prevented the Spurs fan base from connecting with his project. No manager enjoys the spotlight after a defeat, but viewers of Nuno’s post-game interviews could be forgiven for thinking he had genuine contempt for the reporters’ questions. His demeanor was calm, but his tone was often impatient.

Nuno will not be the last Premier League manager to lose his job this season. In addition to Spurs, Norwich and Aston Villa have already parted ways with their coaching staffs, and Manchester United’s Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is on thin ice. Whether the issues facing all of these clubs are solely down to the coaching staff – as opposed to the ownership and executive – is another topic altogether.   

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