It had taken Tottenham more than 70 days to appoint a new manager but a candidate who emerged from far down the shortlist made a flying start. He was manager of the month for August. September brought a North London derby. It went terribly and he was sacked on the first day of November.
For Nuno Espirito Santo read Ange Postecoglou?
Obviously not; the similarities are superficial and, unlike in 2021, there are plenty of reasons to believe a haphazard process has produced the right man.
But the fixture list does feel familiar: for the third year in a row, Tottenham visit their neighbours at this kind of stage. It was their seventh league game last season and Antonio Conte’s previously unbeaten side lost 3-1. It was their sixth in 2021 and, after three straight wins earned Nuno the August prize, another 3-1 reverse was a third successive defeat.
Nuno’s felt the more damning defeat, partly because Spurs were 3-0 down after 34 minutes and partly because his midfield was a mess. And yet it proved the less damaging setback; if it helped foster the impression the Portuguese was miscast as a Tottenham manager, his departure facilitated a surge to fourth place, at Arsenal’s expense.
Two years on, Arsenal are a barometer of Postecoglou’s progress, the rivals who look role models. They have effected their own transformation from unhappy, underachieving club to a united camp and an increasingly successful team. In 2021/22, Arsenal were not in Europe. Now, in a week when the Gunners have ended their six-year exile from the Champions League, Tottenham have had more time to prepare: for the first time since 2009/10, their schedule has not included continental competition.
If the second half of last season, the unravelling of Conte’s reign and the interim spells under Cristian Stellini and Ryan Mason prompted the question of how bad they were; now the phrasing is more welcome: how good are Tottenham? The second best side in the country, a team likely to earn a top-four finish or one who may slip from their current lofty position?
A seven-day spell containing meetings with Arsenal and Liverpool could bring a more definitive answer. Thus far, they have been sufficiently impressive to take 13 points from five games. The fixture list has looked favourable, however, and even the Australian’s flagship win, 2-0 against Manchester United, may have an asterisk applied because of the problems at Old Trafford.
But that is scarcely his fault. Where he can be judged, he has passed tests: late goals and impactful substitutions are often signs a coach is exerting an influence and Spurs have had both, particularly last week against Sheffield United.
Postecoglou’s sympathetic man-management of Richarlison – perhaps it is unfair to a couple of his recent predecessors to suggest they would have been less supportive of the Brazilian – has added to the positive impression, as does introducing a style of play that feels in keeping with Tottenham’s past.
Jose Mourinho, Nuno and Conte could be called the three pragmatists, but there was little pragmatic about some of their defeats. The Italian and the Portuguese, in particular, played too passive a brand of football. Postecoglou has been bolder and, a couple of weeks ago, James Maddison reflected that he is the kind of footballer Tottenham have not had since Christian Eriksen, which highlighted a lack of flair in their recent past.
It added to the huge burden Harry Kane shouldered, too, and Postecoglou has navigated the England captain’s departure with the minimum of fuss. They were never going to acquire a player of his calibre as a direct replacement but, shorn of their 280-goal record scorer, they have struck at least twice in each of their five league games.
Kane’s reliability may have made him a crutch but, as the years went on, it scarcely guaranteed Tottenham glory. This game is a case in point. Kane has scored more goals in the North London derby than anyone else, with 14, but he only tasted victory at the Emirates Stadium once, and then as a substitute in the Carabao Cup.
Another talismanic figure for Tottenham, Hugo Lloris, was culpable for goals in both derbies last season. Meanwhile, Postecoglou has sidelined one pillar of the side, in Eric Dier, and redeployed another, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, as a substitute.
It may prove that only Cristian Romero and Heung-Min Son start for Spurs at the Emirates both last season and this. There was a case for a break with the past and, perhaps, it is again shown by Arsenal, though Mikel Arteta’s fallouts with Mesut Ozil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were more explosive than Postecoglou’s decision to move on without Dier.
Thus far, he has made change look easy. In the rejuvenated Yves Bissouma, the precocious Destiny Udogie and the influential Maddison, he is shaping a new side with a different ethos.
But Spurs could nevertheless be forgiven for travelling the four miles to Arsenal with some trepidation. The Gunners have exposed delusions before, made fine starts to seasons look false dawns. Now Tottenham have more grounds for optimism but, as previous managers can testify, things can go wrong on their shortest trip of the campaign.