If Mauricio Pochettino’s sacking was somewhat unprecedented, José Mourinho’s arrival was even more unexpected. Daniel Levy – visibly besotted by the Portuguese – had reportedly tried to land Mourinho on numerous occasions in the past, but it’s testament to Pochettino’s work that the Tottenham chairman was finally able to lure his man to North London. At their pomp under Pochettino, Spurs were easy on the eye and capable of overcoming most challenges, with the Argentine establishing a never-before-seen connection between fans, club and players alike at Tottenham during the Premier League era. So how would that marry up with the pragmatism of José Mourinho and the derision that often clouds his previous successes?
It’s a Results Business
Mourinho’s signing may be a by-product of Pochettino’s success, but the Champions League Final defeat was just the latest in a long string of ‘nearly’ moments for Tottenham. Mourinho’s CV brought the one entity most often associated with Spurs for all the wrong reasons – trophies. If Mourinho’s sole objective at Tottenham is to win trophies then his performance can only be gauged on results, which for the most part have been impressive. Only Liverpool (82) and Manchester City (68) have taken more points than Tottenham (62) since Mourinho took over, whilst Pochettino (1.89) and former prodigy André-Villas Boas (1.83) are the only Spurs managers to navigate 25+ Premier League games and average more points per game than Mourinho (1.82).
By comparison, Pochettino won just 51 points from his final 34 games, with a run to the Champions League final – that mostly descended from chaos – masking just how insipid Spurs had become under the Argentine since early 2019. Based on the table since his arrival alone, Mourinho has at least restored Tottenham to where they were when the Poch train started to derail – third-best behind Liverpool and Manchester City.
In his first game in charge one year ago, Mourinho addressed a significant concern of Pochettino’s final months, with victory over West Ham ending a winless run of 12 on the road for Spurs in the league (D3, L9). Tottenham’s last away win had come in January 2019, a time when Spurs were within touching distance of the top two. Prior to that, Tottenham had won 11 of their first 13 away games in 2018/19, a run much more synonymous with how they have fared under Mourinho in 2020/21. Spurs have already matched last season’s total of away victories, by winning each of their opening four away matches in a league season for just the fourth time in their history (1949/50 in 2nd tier, 1960/61 and 2017/18). A far cry from where Tottenham were when José took over.
Although results have largely improved, it isn’t immediately obvious as to whether there’s been an upturn in performances since Mourinho first took the job, with results often belying those performances. The underlying numbers support that notion, with the ruthless streak Tottenham have discovered often seeing them through games, as evident in the current run of league wins against Burnley, Brighton and West Brom. Accordingly, Tottenham’s shot conversion (15.3%) ranks the highest of any team since Mourinho’s arrival, whilst teams convert at a lower rate (8.8%) against Spurs than they do against any other top-flight opponent during that time.
By looking at the expected goals per shot (0.091) of those that Tottenham have faced in order to deduce how many should have been conceded (9.1%), it indicates that Spurs don’t afford opponents a surplus of gilt-edged chances either.
Some would call that archetypal of Mourinho, others would refer to it as riding their luck. The defensive positives often come at the expense of the attack and striking a balance between the two remains a pertinent issue for the Spurs manager to confront. A real worry is that only West Ham, Burnley and Newcastle average fewer touches in the opposition box per game than Tottenham of ever-present teams since Mourinho was hired.
Kane, Son and the Spurs Attack
Nevertheless, Mourinho has discovered a means of making Tottenham a force outside the box, especially in periods of transition when they’re not controlling the play. Tim Sherwood once described Harry Kane as neither a #9 nor a #10, but a #9.5 and Mourinho has successfully adopted a method to that madness by deploying Kane in that hybrid role.
Subsequently, Kane has seen just 11.9% of his touches in his first year under Mourinho come inside the opposition penalty area, a slight decrease from his final year under Pochettino (15.6%). The important consequence of this new role is that it has enriched Kane’s attacking output rather than hampering it, with Kane now shooting nearly five times per game (4.8) in the league this season, a number he only previously touched during his best goalscoring campaign of 2017/18 (5.0). Coupled with Kane now creating chances at nearly double the rate (2.3 per game) of any previous season, the Spurs talisman is currently directly involved in more than seven shots per game on average for the first time in his career (4.8 shots + 2.3 chances created).
Kane’s role under Mourinho should not be seen as a reinvention, but rather an enhancement considering his increased creative output has not affected his goals tally; with seven goals and eight assists, Kane is the first player to be directly involved in 15 goals in their first eight matches of a Premier League campaign. Kane has been particularly excellent on the half-turn when looking to release Son Heung-Min and as such has already laid on seven assists for the South Korean. With Son returning the favour twice for Kane, the nine goals they’ve combined for already sits just four behind the all-time Premier League record in a season, set by Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton in Blackburn’s historic 1994/95 campaign (13).
If Mourinho is to create history of his own, then that will unequivocally depend on the synergy between Kane and Son. The Portuguese’s successful teams have typically relied on the premise of attacking players acting on instinct and demonstrating their own initiative, providing everything behind remains secure – something which Kane and Son excel at such is their telepathy together. Having combined for 29 league goals overall, Kane and Son will surely set their sights on the Premier League record held by Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard (36), the staple partnership of Mourinho’s early dominance in English football. And even their best season of eight combinations together in 2005/06 couldn’t touch the nine between Kane and Son already this campaign.
The Spurs duo have been so effective for the Portuguese that during his time managing in Europe’s top five leagues, Mourinho has only relied on Cristiano Ronaldo more than he has on Kane and Son in terms of goals and assists per league game.
Kane and Son have taken to the field 194 times together, with both players scoring and/or assisting in 50 of those. To further illustrate their increased importance to Mourinho, they’ve both directly contributed to a goal in the same game in 43% of their appearances together under Mourinho (12/28), compared to just 23% for Pochettino (38/166).
Son’s emergence as Kane’s partner in crime comes despite Christian Eriksen (19) and Dele Alli (16) both assisting Kane on more occasions than the Korean (15) in the Premier League, though Kane has only assisted Eriksen and Dele twice apiece, compared to his 14 for Son. The significance is that Son and Kane have remained at the peak of their powers together, whereas Eriksen and Alli’s form depreciated at a parallel to Tottenham’s stagnation under Pochettino. At a time when Spurs miss the creative spark an Eriksen type brings to the table, Mourinho’s attack built on impulsive ingenuity is a welcome solution.
Dele remains a puzzle having played just 21 minutes in the league since being hooked at half-time on the opening day, even though his mini-revival of four goals and three assists in five games in all competitions was an early success story of Mourinho’s reign. Alli’s greatest moments have often been bred out of instinct, so he should in theory slot seamlessly into this Tottenham attack. If his exclusion simply proves to be just another vintage example of José Mourinho tough love then – if successful – Dele should find himself in the right environment to recapture the form that saw him score 37 goals and provide 26 assists in his first three Premier League campaigns.
Add to that a seemingly resurgent Gareth Bale – whose winner against Brighton took him one away from a century of goals and assists for Spurs (56 goals, 43 assists) – and this Spurs attack has the potential to find another gear yet.
Striking a Balance
Irrespective of the positives in attack, Mourinho still strives to eliminate the apparently engrained soft underbelly in the Spurs DNA, all too evident in the capitulation against West Ham last month. Spurs had carved out chances – and a 3-0 lead – at will in the opening exchanges of that encounter, but Mourinho’s thinking has been noticeably affected by the manner in which they relinquished the points. Since that, he’s guided Tottenham to three consecutive, uninspiring victories, the latest of which saw Tottenham attempt one or fewer first-half shots in a league match for the third time under the Portuguese. That only happened four times in Pochettino’s 202 top-flight matches.
Whilst results are what matters, the performances were all too reminiscent of last season with Tottenham’s attack blunted by extra defensive emphasis. Keeping the brakes on also capped Son and Kane, with Son’s header against Burnley the only goal the duo combined for during that three-game stretch. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was also just the second of their 29 goal combinations together not to come from open play.
It’s unfair to judge Mourinho based on last season before he’d assembled his own squad, with Lucas Moura the closest existing thing to embodying a typical Mourinho player. A man Mourinho once tried to take to Madrid, fittingly the Brazilian has played at least eight more games than any Spurs player under Mourinho, missing just two of Mourinho’s 50 in charge. With José finally able to make his stamp on Spurs this summer, Moura isn’t the only one of the Portuguese’s most trusted players from the squad he inherited to have seen their minutes reduced as a consequence of Tottenham’s summer spending.
The Next Great Dane
Pierre-Emile Højbjerg is the most crucial of those recruits as a player who perfectly encapsulates Mourinho’s mentality. The Dane has restored the midfield resilience and stability Spurs have missed since Mousa Dembélé’s departure, already playing the most minutes (1,052) of any Spurs player this season. In 2019/20, Højbjerg recovered possession on more occasions (325) than any other outfielder in the Premier League, but his ability to retain possession in a Spurs shirt has been most encouraging, with Højbjerg recording the most successful passes (585) in the top-flight in 2020/21.
Primarily sitting at the base of the Spurs midfield, Højbjerg has acted as a metronome and enabled Spurs’ more creative players to thrive, whilst also exerting some of his own influence towards the Spurs attack. Focusing on build-up attacks, which are open-play sequences containing 10+ passes and either ending with a shot or comprising at least one touch in the box, Højbjerg has been involved in more build-up attacks ending in a shot (30) than any other Premier League player in 2020/21. Seven of those have resulted in goals, also a high.
Højbjerg’s involvement isn’t merely coming at the origins of those attacks either but in advanced areas too; Jack Grealish is the only player to create more secondary chances – that is the pass before the pass that creates a goalscoring chance.
A survivor of the Mourinho tough-love regime, Tanguy Ndombélé is one of those benefitting from Højbjerg’s presence. The Frenchman has already played nearly 100 more minutes for Mourinho this season than he did for the Portuguese in 2019/20 and as a player who moves the ball quickly, Ndombélé has become a crucial component of Mourinho’s side. Such is his growing influence, it’s no coincidence that Tottenham lost all control against West Ham when Ndombélé was substituted at 3-0, with Declan Rice and Tomáš Souček suddenly progressing to more advanced areas, released from the threat of the press-resistant Frenchman.
Fitness has prevented Mourinho from deploying Giovani Lo Celso with Ndombélé thus far, with Højbjerg’s signing essential to freeing the two biggest incomings of the Pochettino era in Mourinho’s setup. Mourinho must uncover a middle ground between being exciting in attack and secure at the back and that pairing in front of Højbjerg could be integral to both elements interrelating. Moussa Sissoko proves robust in bigger matches where more running is required, but Lo Celso’s introduction alongside Ndombélé should bridge that gap between winning ugly and dominating weaker teams. Tottenham ought to be controlling those types of games rather than scraping through, with their average possession under Mourinho (51%) in the Premier League considerably lower than under his predecessor (59%).
Speaking of balance, Mourinho’s first season at Spurs also saw him employ lopsided full-backs, with Serge Aurier regularly taking up an advanced position and Ben Davies tucking in to form a back three. The tactic reaped some rewards but became predictable and easy to repel. Sergio Reguilón has provided a breath of fresh air in restoring balance to the flanks, with the Spaniard assisting three times in his eight appearances so far, the same number Davies has in his last 79 Spurs matches. Tottenham now have the squad to cope and the right ingredients to fight on all fronts, but balance remains the secret ingredient to Mourinho establishing success.
Running The Gauntlet
It’s poignant that Mourinho’s one-year anniversary comes in the fixture where he picked up his first scalp in charge of Tottenham back in February, at a time when Spurs were desperate for a hero in Harry Kane’s absence. Steven Bergwijn stepped up that day as a Mourinho masterclass guided Spurs to a 2-0 victory over Man City, but the Dutchman can’t even make the matchday squad of late such is the added strength in depth at Spurs. If it doesn’t lead to division, competition for places in Mourinho’s squad is healthy for Spurs to reclaim their Champions League place, but in a Premier League season as unpredictable as 2020/21, why not aspire for more?
Opening-day defeat to Everton aside, a string of impressive performances were followed by the type of results that will elicit good-teams-win-ugly clichés, but we will learn more about Mourinho’s Tottenham during this run of seven games, where they’ll face six of last season’s top eight. If they run the gauntlet and emerge unscathed, then we’ll know how serious this Spurs team are.
Tottenham currently find themselves back in a place they know all too well, sat behind Leicester inside the top two of the Premier League table. The pair are now the 16th different combination to spend more than 100 days together inside the top two of the Premier League and just the fifth of those 16 to feature a team outside of the current Big Six. Moreover, Leicester and Spurs is the only combination of those five not to include Manchester United. There’s something typically Tottenham about that, especially given Spurs haven’t actually ended a single one of those shared days with Leicester on top of the pile themselves.
That alone is a hurdle Tottenham must overcome if they’re to aim for more than just a top-four finish. If anyone can get them over that hurdle it’s José Mourinho, though Spurs fans may need to accept that the most fascinating part of winning ugly will often be the Portuguese’s Instagram account.
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