clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How Tottenham will play through the flanks under Nuno Espirito Santo

Tottenham Hotspur Pre-Season Training Session Photo by Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images

“Nuno’s Spurs” still has a very weird ring to it, but as preseason training starts, it’s worth looking into how Nuno will set up Tottenham Hotspur.

Based on his time at Wolves, Nuno will bring an out and out 3 at the back system (with three centerbacks) and a press of medium-high intensity, but the biggest change will be a reliance on wing-play and wingbacks both offensively and defensively. Wingbacks are typically one of, if not the, most important positions in a three at the back system. One of the biggest moves of the summer, Achraf Hakimi to PSG, was completed with this understanding.

Nuno’s system is no exception. The majority of his Wolves’ team attacking motion came down the flanks.

Compared to Tottenham’s attacking patterns last season, there are some clear difference.

Most teams tend to attack through the flanks as typically the central area is the most well guarded part of the pitch (if opposition players have a compact defense.) The difference in percentages might seem small, but no team that finished above Nuno’s Wolves attacked less through the center or more through the right channel.

This is further backed up by individual player stats. Nelson Semedo, the right wingback (RWB) brought in to replace Matt Doherty, finished the season with the 4th most passes in the team.

With Nuno’s style highlighting wing play, here’s three things Tottenham fans can expect from the team this season.

More Attacking Impetus from the Wingbacks

Wolves ran into a lot of challenges last season, not least of which was Jimenez’ horrible injury against Arsenal that saw him sidelined for the majority of the season. There were silver linings for Wolves, however. Both Nelson Semedo and Rayan Aït-Nouri have proven to be good acquisitions, the latter coming in on loan from Angers. Both are heavily involved on build up in their respective flanks, and the relationship that Semedo has developed with Adama Traore catches the eye the most.

One of Semedo’s main goals as he carries the ball forward is to look for opportunities to set up Traore on a 1v1. The Spaniard is in the 99th percentile for dribbles completed, 5.26 / 90, and has the highest crosses / 90 rate in the Wolves team at 4.98.

Semedo receives the ball high up the pitch - Everton has numerical superiority but Wolves have the initiative. As Semedo receives the pass Traore makes a run into the channel to create potential 1v1 situation and stretch the defense.

Semedo’s heatmap last season is a great example of how high Nuno expects his wingbacks to play.

Semedo does not just stick to the sideline - he tends to roam inside as well, giving him and his RW partner a dynamism that can throw off the opposition.

Unlike more traditional full/wingbacks, Semedo has full license to roam inside. As I discussed in last year’s analysis of Matt Doherty, Nuno likes his wingbacks to be creative not just with their passing but their movement as well. At times, they can make themselves a threat on goal by cutting inside.

Semedo makes an underlapping run as Fabio Silva carries the ball outside. He cuts it back to the center and Semedo is able to score.

This sort of dynamism - wingbacks not just driving towards the byline and getting a cross in, but also exhibiting control in tight spaces, progressive carries, and 1v1 takeons - will surely be demanded from the likes of Reguilon, Doherty, Sessegnon, and Aurier should he choose to stay.

Individual Quality from Wingbacks On the Ball

Indeed, both Nouri and Semedo have been nothing short of great on the ball in progressing play.

When it comes to dribbling, Nouri is in the 98th percentile when compared with other fullbacks - completing 2.55 / 90. Semedo, on the other hand, completes 1.8 dribbles / 90, putting him in the 93rd percentile.

Unsurprisingly, Reguilon is the Tottenham fullback that comes closest to those numbers. Apart from him and potentially Sessegnon (I plan to do a piece on him shortly), it’s difficult to understand which if any Spurs right sided fullback can replicate similar numbers. It’s completely possible that Doherty will re-discover his form under his old boss, but if Aurier departs it’s likely that another RB/RWB is brought in as Tanganga would be a better fit for the RCB role within Nuno’s system.

If you’ll indulge me in digressing - Traore has the most 1v1 dribbles attempted / 90 in the league, right around 12. Pedro Neto, Traore’s left sided counterpart, average 8.49 dribbles / 90. Apart from Gareth Bale, who seems like he’s already on his way back to Madrid, Spurs don’t have a winger that can replicate those numbers. Lucas is closest with 5.98, Son completes around 2.87. Of course, the latter brings lethal finishing to the fore, but it will be interesting to see how Nuno puts the puzzle pieces together up front with his outside/inside forwards.

Interplay with Midfielders in Half Spaces

Nuno’s focus on the flanks has ripple effects throughout the entire pitch. Almost without exception, Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho made up the double pivot in the center of the pitch for Wolves. One of Dendoncker, Vitinha, or Gibbs-White typically take the third spot in the midfield, depending on the opposition.

With ball progression filtering through the flanks, attacking options like Vitinha or Gibbs-White are naturally attracted towards the channels for combination play with the winger or wingback. If there’s numerical parity or superiority, Wolves look to move the ball as quickly as possible to maintain the initiative.

Gibbs-White carries the ball forward, inviting pressure from Dier, creating a 2v2. As Dier steps up, Gibbs-White plays a on-two pass with Traore, who sends it into the space that Dier has vacated so Gibbs-White can run onto it.

What’s most interesting, however, is how Neves and Moutinho (sometimes the third midfielder) position themselves in the half spaces to attack the opposition goal. Although they are both very involved in getting the ball to the final third (both made more passes into the final third than Ndombele and Lo Celso) they are just as involved further up the pitch as well. Neves averages 2.1 shots per game - the most out of the entire Wolves team - and Moutinho averages 3.24 shot creating actions.

Neves drifts into the half space, and has enough time to loft the ball into the penalty area where his teammate is running into.

Neither dribble into the space as much as Spurs midfielders (close to .6 per game) but Ndombele and Lo Celso seem to fit the profile of what Nuno typically expects from his midfielders when in possession (perhaps even Hobjerg, considering his performance in the Euros.)


With Nuno coming in as the first team manager, all eyes will be on Tottenham’s wingbacks. There are different parts of the system that need to come together to make it work, as seen with wingers and midfielders above, but it wouldn’t be a huge stretch to say that if wingbacks consistently struggle to perform, the system will not work.

We should be seeing more take-ons and attacking initiative from the flanks with midfielders supporting through the half spaces. Next week I’ll take a look at the Tottenham squad to identify who might excel in Nuno’s system, and who might struggle.