Sergio Reguilón remembers it with perfect clarity. “Like it was yesterday,” the Tottenham left-back says. And for overwhelmingly good reasons. It was August last year, he was at Sevilla and the match – the Europa League quarter-final against Wolves, then managed by Nuno Espírito Santo – would end in a last-gasp 1-0 victory. It was a staging post in Sevilla’s run to the trophy.
But what has also stayed with Reguilón is how they had to suffer; what it was like to face a Nuno team. “They were very strong defensively and it was so difficult because you haven’t got space to play,” he says. “When you have the ball, they are too compact, too aggressive. And with the ball, the transition … they are so dangerous on the counterattack.”
Reguilón was up against Matt Doherty that night, someone who is now a teammate. Both of them moved to Spurs that summer. “I’ve joked with him about the match,” Reguilón says. And, of course, he is now seeing Nuno-ball on a daily basis, trying to absorb its principles, after the manager’s appointment by the club at the end of June.
“The team are working to be compact, to defend well and, after that, transition as quickly as possible,” Reguilón says. “We are working but it’s not one day, one week, one month. We have to build something … something big.”
Reguilón is asked what Nuno wants from him and his first words are revealing. “He wants me to be a solid left-back … show my quality, run, cross, everything,” he says. Nuno’s buzz word is solid and he offered his definition of it before the season-opener against Manchester City.
“It’s knowing that in all the moments of the game we must give our answers in terms of tasks that enable us to be solid,” Nuno said. “That is organisation, clear tasks on our players. And after that, try to explore all the talent we have.”
Nuno’s message is being taken on board. “We are solid in the lines,” the midfielder Pierre-Emile Højbjerg said on Thursday after the 2-2 Europa Conference League draw at Rennes, when considering the team under Nuno. “We’re difficult to beat, difficult to play against and we want to keep doing that.”
The criticism Højbjerg had of Spurs against Rennes was they were on the back foot too much and “not close enough in our lines in terms of not keeping short distances to each other”. A consequence was they created little, which has been the main issue under Nuno, albeit based on a small sample size.
According to Opta, the team have averaged just 9.5 shots per game in the Premier League under him – their lowest average since the statistic began to be recorded in 2003-04. Meanwhile, only Watford (2.3) and Leicester (3.4) have a lower xG total than Spurs this season (3.7).
It has all been rather cagey, the 1-0 wins over City, Wolves and Watford being followed by last Saturday’s 3-0 blow-up at Crystal Palace, and it is unlikely to be any different when Chelsea visit on Sunday. Can Reguilón, whose instinct is to get forward, supply a few more crosses for Harry Kane? Next Sunday, it is the derby at Arsenal. “Maybe, yes,” Reguilón says. “We have to arrive more times in the box but it’s not easy or we’d see every team do the same. We are working for that.”
It is almost a year to the day since the left-back arrived via private jet from Spain to sign for £27.5m. Also on board was Gareth Bale, who rejoined on loan from Real Madrid, and Reguilón piggy-backed the excitement generated by the returning hero.
His debut came against Chelsea in the Carabao Cup when he endured a difficult first half, the low point coming when he was beaten in the buildup to the opening goal. “I remember I was with too much energy,” he says. But the 24-year-old turned it around, crossing for Érik Lamela to equalise before Spurs advanced on penalties and the victory ignited the club’s season. When they beat Arsenal in early December, they were top of the Premier League. Then, everything unravelled.
“Last year was difficult for me. It was my first in England and, because of Covid, I was alone here without my family. We started very good but, in the end, the team went down. The results were not good and the mentality was negative. It was painful because when we arrived to December, we wanted to finish in the Champions League.”
It is easy to warm to Reguilón’s fun-loving personality, which his Spurs teammates first saw when he stood on a chair and belted out his club initiation song. He remembers how he got involved with some of them in an indoor cricket game at the training ground last season – the clip of which went viral. “I’m sorry but I didn’t understand this sport,” he says. “I know baseball. That’s different. [He motions swinging the bat] Boom. This? Three sticks in the ground. What’s that? Now, after months, it makes sense, finally.”
There is also an amusing moment when it is put to him that his girlfriend, Marta Diaz, the social media influencer, has 2.8 million followers on Instagram compared with his 1.9 million. Is this a problem for him? “No, I’m happy for her,” he says before adding that, to paraphrase slightly, there are so many players who constantly take the mickey out of him for it. Oops.
More serious is how Chelsea have powered back to the top of the game this year while Spurs have been forced to recalibrate, placing an emphasis on values that do not always sell well. The weeks ahead could be attritional.