Mission impossible? How Nuno’s Spurs tenure fell apart in four months
The end was very quick but it had been coming for a long time, maybe even since the day Nuno Espírito Santo was appointed as Tottenham manager. It was clear to everyone that he was fifth-choice at best, hired after attempts to lure Antonio Conte, Mauricio Pochettino, Paulo Fonseca and Gennaro Gattuso failed.
“It’s an enormous pleasure and honour to be here,” Nuno said on 30 June, when his appointment was announced, adding: “There’s joy and I’m happy and looking forward to starting work.” But in the next four months there was very little joy or happiness. After a promising start – albeit through some fairly lacklustre football – with three wins in three league games, it imploded faster than anyone could have predicted.
In the day-to-day business Nuno never won over the players. There were no personal clashes as such. It was more that his way of dealing with things did not work with this group; his character did not fit. He never got into the heart of this squad. It is possible that Spurs’ botched attempts at hiring so many other managers before Nuno played into this. The fact that he was given a two-year contract was also a sign that Tottenham did not quite believe in him – so why should the players?
Nuno was acutely aware of this and it did not take long before things came to a head. The end of the transfer window was a huge let-down for the former Wolves manager, who had wanted a midfielder and a back-up forward to support Harry Kane. The fact that neither arrived proved to Nuno what he knew deep down: that he was a stopgap.
At the same time the club grew more and more frustrated with his tactics and some of his selections. The game against Arsenal towards the end of September was a disaster, Spurs looking rudderless as they fell to a 3-1 defeat. Nuno was endearingly honest afterwards. “The performance was not good,” he said. “The gameplan was not good. I take responsibility because the decisions were not right.”
One such defeat was bad enough but when a second arrived against Manchester United on Saturday – a team that had just lost heavily to Liverpool and were low on confidence – it was too much for the chairman, Daniel Levy, and managing director of football, Fabio Paratici.
They already knew in their hearts that Nuno was not the long-term solution but had planned to give him more time to turn things round. They knew that he had not inherited an easy situation with Kane wanting to leave and below par at the end of the previous season. But the nature of the performance against United prompted them to meet on the Sunday to discuss the situation. There was anger over the display and the attitude of some players but also over some of Nuno’s tactical decisions, such as replacing Lucas Moura with Steven Bergwijn in the 54th minute.
The meeting lasted more than five hours and it was decided that Nuno and his coaching team had to go. One reason was that Paratici, soon after the game, had made contact with Antonio Conte, the man they wanted to replace Nuno.
It had been felt that convincing Conte to take the Spurs job would be akin to mission impossible, especially as he had turned them down in the summer. But Paratici had one main advantage – he had worked with Conte before.
They were at Juventus from 2011 to 2014 with excellent results, winning the league every season and having a shared approach to football and recruitment. Conte had previously been considering only the Manchester United job in the event that Ole Gunnar Solskjær was sacked but phone calls to Conte and his advisers on Saturday night changed that.
The talks continued throughout Sunday, Paratici trying to convince the former Chelsea manager that the Spurs project was worth buying into: the same project he had turned down in June.
This time they offered him more decision-making power when it comes to signings in January and next summer and, most importantly, that this Tottenham will be made by Antonio Conte – and no one else.