Spurs ease pressure on probationer Nuno in nick of time

Spurs have had a dismal few weeks since the last international break, but beating Villa has bought the manager some valuable breathing space.

When the full-time whistle blew at the end of the match between Spurs and Aston Villa, there were likely few more relieved people in the whole of London than Nuno Espirito Santo. It had been a torrid week for the new manager. The defeat at Arsenal the previous week had exposed the vulnerability at the heart of Santo’s management of the club and the fall-out had been savage, with few prepared to stand up to defend the new coach.

It has sometimes felt like his time in charge has been on fast-forward, which is somewhat ironic considering how long it had taken Spurs to appoint him in the first place. The honeymoon period lasted somewhere between two and three games; this match felt like a bomb that had been primed to go off in his face.

Never mind the fact that Villa had only beaten Spurs six times in the clubs’ 37 previous meetings over the last couple of decades. They were coming into this match off the back of a win at Old Trafford and with talk starting to grow that they could even challenge for a place in Europe next season.

Spurs, on the other hand, had conceded nine in their previous three Premier League matches, from which it was extremely difficult to take anything positive, and even a 5-1 win in the Europa Conference League against the Slovenian side NS Mura had been greeted by something of a shrug of the shoulders.

But against Villa, Spurs managed to prevail. The key player was again Son Heung Min, whose relentless energy and selflessness set up both goals, one for Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, the other given as an own goal against Villa’s Matt Targett, although it’s pretty certain that Lucas Moura would have converted had the ball not deflected off the defending player.

Son remains the player best capable of breathing life into Spurs, a player with the industry, inventiveness and turn of pace to be able to spin a match on its head. After the match, Aston Villa manager Dean Smith noted that he was, “the only difference between the two teams today”, and he had a point.

With an international break looming on the horizon, this win was imperative for Nuno Espirito Santo. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so the international break abhors a gap in speculation, and losing this match would only have further extended the gloom that has been growing since Spurs returned from the last international break to an absolute shellacking at the hands of Crystal Palace. It wasn’t just that Spurs had lost three successive Premier League matches; it was the supine nature of them, culminating in a North London Derby from which Santo could not take anything positive.

But Spurs are still in the Carabao Cup and have a winnable match in the next round, away to Burnley at the end of October, and while the Harry Kane hat-trick in 20 minutes which gave the NS Mura result a veneer of respectability might have felt a little extra, those goals put them top of their Europa Conference League group on goal difference ahead of a potentially tricky pair of games against Vitesse Arnhem.

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In the Premier League, they’re only two points adrift of Manchester City and Manchester United, and while few Spurs supporters believe this will still be the case come the end of the season, the Aston Villa win felt like a necessary corrective following a start to the season which has already veered all over the place.

It is also worth remembering that Santo was dropped into an unenviable situation at Spurs, where a conflation of factors – including but not limited to the Harry Kane transfer saga, morale within the club following Jose Mourinho’s spell as manager, and the amount of time it took to appoint Santo in the first place – had left the club’s previous achievements under Mauricio Pochettino already feeling like an increasingly distant memory.

But international breaks are just breaks. The Premier League will return and the heat inside the pressure cooker will start to increase again. Before the end of October, Spurs have to play their first match against Vitesse, their Carabao Cup clash against Burnley, and Premier League fixtures against Newcastle, West Ham and Manchester United.

The tests will keep coming after this break has flown by, and it’s perfectly possible that Spurs could be back where they were last week again by the end of the month. One result on the pitch in either direction doesn’t alter the argument that whatever issues Spurs do have are structural in origin, while the nature of those three defeats hasn’t been forgotten either.

It certainly feels as if Spurs really needed this win. For all the talk of the degradation of the first-team squad over the last few seasons because of the club’s failure to refresh in the transfer market, the truth is that Spurs retain the services of some extraordinarily talented players, including the captains of the South Korean, French and English national teams. It’s not spread as thickly as at some other clubs, but the talent is there, and there should be no shortage of leadership on the pitch.

But one swallow doesn’t make a summer, and Santo’s start to the season has to consistently improve on Spurs’ performances prior to the Aston Villa game if he is not to fall back to the level of September criticism. He has bought himself some precious time with this win but Nuno Espirito Santo remains on probation in the court of Spurs public opinion.

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