Nuno Espirito Santo was not Tottenham Hotspur’s first choice as manager when the vacancy became available. Nor was he their second or their third. The fans know that, the players know that, and perhaps more importantly, he knows that. He got the job because the club desperately needed a new coach in place before the season began, and there was almost nobody else available. It always looked likely to be a short-term marriage that would end in tears, but it might reach that point even sooner than anybody imagined.
Spurs managed to win their first three games of the season 1-0, which was encouraging, but the narrow wins appear to have done little more than paper over the cracks. It might even be more accurate to describe those cracks as gaping voids. Since then they’ve taken a 3-0 battering away at Crystal Palace, scraped an uninspiring draw away at Rennes in the lightly-regarded Europa Conference League, been caned 3-0 at home by Chelsea and then, most unforgivably of all, looked meek and impotent in a 3-1 loss away at Arsenal. After just six games of the Premier League season, some fans already want him fired. Notoriously trigger-happy Spurs chairman Daniel Levy apparently isn’t considering that option yet, but you have to wonder how much longer things will stay that way if results don’t improve.
Neither Spurs nor Santo should have ended up in this situation. When Jose Mourinho – the appointment of whom was also a mistake – was fired toward the end of last season, the club had months to scour a long list of candidates and find the perfect man. The man they wanted most of all was former Chelsea boss Antonio Conte, but he decided the club wasn’t ambitious enough for his liking after opening talks. At one stage last summer, the right man appeared to be former Roma coach Paulo Fonseca. It was even reported that Fonseca had been offered and accepted the job, only for the rug to be pulled out from underneath him at the last second because Levy had heard Gennaro Gattuso was both available and interested. Unfortunately for Levy and Gattuso, some unpleasant comments that Gattuso had made years ago came to light, and fans rejected the idea loudly and instantly. With Gattuso off the table, Fonseca pushed away, and the new season mere weeks away, Spurs went for Santo because he was there, and he had Premier League experience.
With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps Levy and his advisors should have looked at that Premier League experience a little more closely. Santo did well with Wolves when he guided the club into the Premier League and stabilised them there, but performances dropped away badly during his final season and the club finished in the lower mid-table. He wasn’t sacked from Wolves, but nor was there any attempt to keep him when it was suggested that he might depart at the end of the campaign. Wolves clearly thought that Santo had taken the club as far as he could and was now in danger of taking them backwards. The press had speculated that he might end up getting the Crystal Palace job, which had been vacated by the retirement of Roy Hodgson. Nobody seriously expected him to end up at a club of Tottenham’s magnitude. Quite a lot of people still can’t believe he’s there.
Santo shouldn’t be blamed for accepting the job. It was – and still is – a chance to manage a side that reached the final of the UEFA Champions League only a few short years ago and until two years ago was thought of as a genuine title contender. He’d have known there was a rebuilding task ahead of him, but he must have felt like a man deciding whether or not to bet big at an online slots game. He’d have known that his chances of winning the jackpot were slim, but the jackpot was still there to be won regardless. That’s what draws so many players to play online slots. Very few of them go into it with an expectation of landing the jackpot, but if you don’t play slots at all, you win nothing. He got a job opportunity that he could never have expected and decided to chance his hand at it. Sometimes you lose the bet. So long as you manage to walk away with your dignity intact, it’s not the worst thing that will ever happen to you.
The spectre that looms over Santo’s tenure as manager of Tottenham Hotspur is Harry Kane. It’s the worst kept secret in the world that he wanted to leave Spurs and join Manchester City during the summer. Levy dug his heels in and refused to sell the striker even after receiving a bid of £100m. He’s thought to have wanted £150m. Even with all of their riches, City baulked at paying that for a 28-year-old with a questionable injury record. Kane wants to win trophies before his career is over, and that looks less likely to happen at Spurs with every passing week. If they miss out on qualification for the Champions League again this season – which looks inevitable – he’ll try to leave again next summer. That will be another year down on his contract, and Levy will have to ask himself whether there’s any financial benefit in keeping hold of a striker who’s not going to sign a new one, is almost thirty years old, and doesn’t want to be there.
Getting another man in now might improve Spurs’ fortunes, but there isn’t an obvious candidate anywhere. Spurs made their bed when they appointed Santo in a panic, and now they’re going to have to lay in it. This season looks like it’s going to be difficult. They’re in a European competition that nobody really wants to play in, their dreams of Premier League championship glory must feel like a lifetime ago, and even the prospect of a cup win looks like too much to hope for. This is a club in a downward spiral. It’s going to take the greatest “against the odds” comeback in living memory for the Portuguese coach to turn things around and snatch victory from where he is now.