Nuno Espirito Santo finds himself in distinguished company. Only Jurgen Klopp, Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had registered three Premier League wins against Pep Guardiola before his debut victory with Tottenham. Only his immediate predecessor, Mourinho, had triumphed against the Catalan with two clubs.
Nuno’s feat felt all the greater given the backdrop. Guardiola’s description of Spurs as “the Harry Kane team” is increasingly infamous. In the absence of Kane, “the Son Heung-min side” seemed an alternative tag. Lacking a specialist striker, Nuno pressed Son into service as one. “Sonny is a killer,” he reflected afterwards.
A killer offered a glimpse of life after Kane, should he go, and especially if a striking target, such as Inter Milan’s Lautaro Martinez, proves elusive in a frantic end to the transfer window. Kane and Son proved a record-breaking double act last season but some of the South Korean’s previous scoring spurts, in January and February of both 2019 and 2020, occurred when the Englishman was absent. Until they combined for 14 goals last season, there was a theory that Son was better as a striker. It could be put to the test again.
If Son’s career-best season last year – of 17 goals and 10 assists – underlined his stature and Spurs’ underachievement in coming seventh, Kane’s tallies of 23 and 14 showed what a huge hole he could leave.
Nuno offered the first evidence of his blueprint to fill the void against Manchester City. Steven Bergwijn and Lucas Moura proved eager and effective counter-attackers, operating either side of Son. It was similar to a Mourinho gameplan: both wingers were favourites of Spurs’ first Portuguese manager, partly due to their devotion to their defensive duties. A meeting with City, where Tottenham only had 41 per cent of possession, called for such qualities but it was partly a physical effort based on tactical discipline. Bergwijn completed 12 passes and no crosses, though Moura offered more incision in the final third.
And different games will call for other attributes. In Mourinhoifying Bergwijn, Spurs’ former manager stripped the Dutchman of some of his threat. He did not score in his first 33 club games last season. Moura has more scoring pedigree but a return of three goals in 30 league matches last season was meagre for a man with a Champions League semi-final hat-trick to his name. If Son’s burden is not to be too heavy, Spurs will need more goals from the flanks especially as Gareth Bale, last season’s third most prolific marksman, is gone.
The other in Sunday’s side with more potential for potency was in midfield. Mourinho’s treatment of Dele Alli proved utterly pointless, neither resulting in a big-money move or a return to form. A difference between Portuguese managers was apparent on the opening weekend: last season, Mourinho hauled Alli off at half time against Everton and did not grant him another Premier League start until March.
On Sunday, Nuno praised Alli for his excellence in a deeper midfield role; again, it required a willingness to sacrifice himself for the side and, like Mourinho, Nuno values positional sense. Yet other matches may offer an opportunity to unleash a player who scored 18 league goals in 2016/17. “He is a runner,” Nuno said. “He has this ability to go from box to box and we as a team should take advantage of it.” Arguably his Wolves side lacked a comparable figure. They were reliant on Raul Jimenez and Diogo Jota for goals, a striker and winger who were their Kane and Son. And when Jimenez’s fractured skull cost them the services of their version of Kane, Wolves floundered. Nuno may hope the similarities with his past end there.