Nuno’s defensive tactics bring unbeaten Tottenham start to abrupt end in Crystal Palace defeat

·4-min read
Table-toppers Tottenham had their unbeaten start to the season ended in abrupt fashion  (Getty Images)
Table-toppers Tottenham had their unbeaten start to the season ended in abrupt fashion (Getty Images)

Tottenham’s perfect start under Nuno Espirito Santo came to an abrupt end at Selhurst Park, as the head coach’s conservative tactics contributed to a crushing defeat.

Spurs were missing five players from the international break and lost both starting centre-backs Eric Dier to injury and Japhet Tanganga to a red card before the hour.

Nonetheless, their performance was a first and damning black mark on Nuno’s record and will have done little to reassure the sceptics who believe his style is too reactionary and negative for a club of Spurs’ stature and ambitions.

The display and particularly the way they came crashing down to earth after an encouraging mini-spell in August was reminiscent of last season under Jose Mourinho, when Spurs often appeared to coast through matches on autopilot, without a clear plan, cohesion or spirit.

They were missing the injured Heung-min Son and Steven Bergwijn, and South American trio Cristian Romero, Giovani Lo Celso and Davinson Sanchez, but Nuno’s decisions were still odd in the circumstances.

Substitute Odsonne Edouard fired Crystal Palace to victory on debut (Action Images via Reuters)
Substitute Odsonne Edouard fired Crystal Palace to victory on debut (Action Images via Reuters)

Spurs started with three holding midfielders in Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Oliver Skipp and Harry Winks, while Dele Alli and Lucas Moura supported Harry Kane.

The visitors failed to muster a shot in a pedestrian first half, as Palace grew in confidence after Dier hobbled off on 12 minutes following a nasty clash with Jordan Ayew.

Nuno, though, opted for continuity in the second half, ignoring Spain winger Bryan Gil and club-record signing Tanguy Ndombele, who were on the bench until it was too late.

Gil was about to come on when Tanganga received his marching orders for two bookable offences and the Spaniard was told to sit down, with Ben Davies replacing Winks instead.

Even after Wilfried Zaha scored from the spot following Davies’ handball, Nuno continued to resist introducing a creative player and ten-man Spurs crumbled, as substitute Odsone Edouard scored twice.

It was certainly not the “free flowing, attacking football” which Spurs chairman Daniel Levy had promised from Mourinho’s successor. Harry Kane did not have a touch in the Palace box, let alone a shot.

Nuno could point to many caveats, including a miserable international break and bad luck on the day, and Spurs may return to being solid when he has a full squad to choose from.

But whatever the circumstances, this squad should be taking the game to Crystal Palace, so their display raised early questions about the manager’s approach.

One question is whether Nuno can learn from this chastening afternoon.

Spurs facing centre-back crisis

Eric Dier was forced off injured in the first half (REUTERS)
Eric Dier was forced off injured in the first half (REUTERS)

Spurs lost both their starting centre-backs at Selhurst Park, leaving Nuno facing a defensive crisis for next weekend’s visit of rivals Chelsea.

Romero and Sanchez are not due back in the country until the day before Chelsea’s visit, making them serious doubts, while Tanganga will be suspended after his reckless sending off.

Judging by the way Dier was helped down the touchline at Palace, he faces a battle to fit.

So what are Nuno’s options? Risk one of Romero or Sanchez, or play Joe Rodon and Ben Davies.

The Wales pair finished the match unconvincingly at Selhurst Park and Davies was particularly poor, albeit away from his favoured position.

With Romelu Lukaku leading the line for Chelsea, it is a worrying situation for Spurs.

Royal’s difficult debut

In the end it was a nightmare debut for right-back Emerson Royal, who faced a baptism of fire against Palace talisman Wilfried Zaha.

The winger escaped down the left too easily for Palace’s second goal while Royal was also caught on his heels for Edouard’s second, as the substitute made a yard of space and fired past Hugo Lloris.

That said, there were obviously mitigating circumstances for the Brazilian, who has barely had time to learn his new teammates’ names but played alongside four different centre-backs in south London.

And there was enough in his display in the first hour to suggest he could be well-suited to the rough and tumble of the Premier League.

He actually kept Zaha quiet in the opening 30 minutes, quickly snapping into tackles, and was responsible for one of Spurs’ best attacks in the first half when he won a corner (it really was that bad).

In terms of qualities, he has a good leap and looks reasonably quick, although he badly faded after a bright start and clearly the defensive side of his game needs work.

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