Nuno Espirito Santo has made the best start of any Tottenham coach since Arthur Rowe, who was the first manager to win the league with Spurs.
He has opened with three straight wins, just as Bill Nicholson’s Tottenham did when they became champions in 1960-61.
All of which is auspicious, though none of it proves Nuno will join a select band. Few think he will. Yet Tottenham’s 100 percent start does raise the question if it is an anomaly or a sign of things to come.
That their three opponents to date – champions Manchester City, Nuno’s old employers at Wolves and promoted Watford – could seem to come from three different spheres of the table could suggest it might offer an accurate marker.
That Harry Kane has only played 108 of the 270 minutes suggests a side who have scored a mere three goals will have more firepower from now on.
But so far, Newcastle have outscored Spurs. In open play, Tottenham have a solitary goal, the winner against City, a quarter of the number Newcastle have and fewer than 14 other teams. Spurs’ expected goals for (xGF) of 4.06 puts them 11th, just below Burnley and, indeed, some way behind Wolves, who are yet to find the net.
Their tally of 36 shots puts them equal 10th, but only four teams – Liverpool, City, Everton and West Ham – have topped their total of 15 on target. No one else can rival their return of 41.7 percent of shots being on target.
That gives an obvious scope for improvement in the number of goals: Spurs have had 21 shots from inside the box and scored once, with a penalty, inside it. Last season, Heung-min Son and Kane got 33 penalty-area goals between them so a small sample size could be deceptive.
They must hope so in that respect; defensively, where they have been immaculate, they would rather this is the shape of things to come.
Tottenham are the only team not to concede, but only Arsenal and Burnley have faced more shots. In part, that is because many are from outside the box.
Nevertheless, Spurs’ expected goals against (xGA) is 4.9, only the 14th best. Three teams who have each conceded five goals – Crystal Palace, Watford and West Ham – have a better xGA, but Hugo Lloris has the joint most saves in the division, with 11. No goalkeeper has made a greater statistical difference to his team so far.
To put it another way, Tottenham have a negative expected goal difference (-0.84 xGD). They have ‘lost’ two of their three games, to City and Wolves, on xG. City have three fewer points, but an xGD of +7.59.
The statistics can be explained to some extent by the fact that Spurs have been ahead for 173 minutes: for almost two-thirds of the time so far, they have not needed to score and had been able to concentrate on defending.
The numbers indicate that they have done it well and relentlessly. As a team, Tottenham have made more blocks than anyone else. They are fourth for interceptions. Among individuals, Dele Alli ranks second and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg third for blocks, Sergio Reguilon second for interceptions, Davinson Sanchez third for blocked shots.
One of the reasons they have been required so often is that Spurs have had so little possession: just 46.1 percent, only the 14th most.
While Leicester’s 2016 champions were the great exceptions, the majority of teams who challenge have the majority of the ball: last season’s top four all figured in the top five for possession, just as they did in 2019-20, while in 2018-19, the same quartet were found in both top fours.
Indeed, so far Tottenham have had less of the ball than last season (51.3 percent), even if their pass completion rate has risen, from 81.8 percent to 84.0.
Arguably, though, they have not done much with it: only four teams have fewer than their 53 shot-creating actions. No Tottenham player ranks in the top 28 for shot-creating actions or the top 36 for key passes or 34 for completed passes into the penalty area, though each ought to change when Kane plays more minutes.
Fine finishing could compensate for a relative lack of creativity but if the statistics show a well-drilled, diligent defensive team, they also suggest their record of clean sheets is flattering.
They have benefited, in particular, because three golden chances have been missed: by Riyad Mahrez (with an xG of 0.55), Ferran Torres (0.62) and Adama Traore (0.67). With better finishing against them on those three occasions, Spurs would have four points now.
It is altogether nearer their expected points (3.7) than their actual haul (9). They are top of the table that matters, but in mid-table for other measures.