Go back 11 days and Tottenham were still top of the table. Now they are found in the bottom three of another chart. Only Brentford and Leicester have taken fewer shots in the Premier League and they at least have more goals to show for their efforts. Only Wolves, Arsenal and Norwich have hit the back of the net less often, but they have at least had more attempts. No one has fewer goals in open play than Spurs’ lone one.
Perhaps it is unfair to invoke Jimmy Greaves, their greatest ever goalscorer, now but Tottenham’s motto – “to dare is to do” – has rarely felt less appropriate. Their team contains Harry Kane, who may yet overhaul Greaves’ total of 266 goals, yet Tottenham’s attack has been largely blunt this campaign. Take away Son Heung-min’s fine counter-attacking winner against Manchester City and they have only found the net with a Dele Alli penalty and a free kick by the South Korean, courtesy of a goalkeeping error.
Nuno Espirito Santo tends to talk about “solutions”. Problems have been more apparent of late. That Kane, the reigning Golden Boot winner, is trailing a host of Chelsea defenders in this year’s contest, looks an indictment. He can be a slow starter to seasons but looked off the pace in Sunday’s defeat to Thomas Tuchel’s team.
The supposed coup of keeping Kane, the prize possession Daniel Levy fought so hard for, was predicated on the notion that he would carry on scoring at (almost) Greaves-esque rates. The fact that Kane got 23 goals last season and Spurs still finished seventh indicated the need for improvement elsewhere. Instead, so far, Spurs have had regression in attack.
There are mitigating factors; perhaps Nuno has been luckless. Kane’s summer saga delayed the start to his season. He and Son have only begun two games together. Lucas Moura and Steven Bergwijn, who were so impressive against City, were both injured by the time Chelsea arrived. The recent recruit Bryan Gil, who was at the Olympics, was another who was scarcely ready for the beginning of the campaign. He cannot be judged on 30 minutes of league action.
Factor in some quarantine in Croatia for Giovani Lo Celso and Tanguy Ndombele’s summer desire to leave and Nuno has only had one of his attack-minded players – Alli – fully fit and focused for all five games. But the way he seems to be reinventing a once potent threat as a workhorse feels revealing. The opening win against City was in part a product of running, both defensively and on the counter-attack, but there has been little creativity.
Tottenham v Chelsea player ratings
Nuno has veered between extremes, going from fielding three defensively-minded midfielders in the dreadful display at Crystal Palace, in Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Oliver Skipp and Harry Winks, to putting the Dane alongside Alli, Ndombele and Lo Celso against Chelsea. It was just the third league game Spurs’ seemingly incompatible enigmas, who all want to operate in similar positions, have begun together in three seasons. So passive at Palace, Spurs started higher up the pitch and with more urgency. Yet it scarcely brought chances.
And that, in turn, raises questions about Nuno. His Wolves team were relatively low-scoring, notable for slow starts and goalless first halves. They lacked attacking midfielders in the mould of Alli, Lo Celso and Ndombele. Nuno was a devotee of a back three at Molineux. He had tried to show a flexibility by switching to 4-3-3 with Spurs.
Yet thus far it has been so narrow that Tottenham have been stifled in a straitjacket. Goals have been rarities and neither a club with a tradition of entertainment or a manager with a reputation as a footballing dullard should settle for that.