Is Mourinho the right man for Spurs?
By David Hawkins
In 1997, Sir Bobby Robson took his Barcelona side to San Memes, the home of Athletic De Bilbao. His side featured many big names at the time and some recognisable faces from today: Ronaldo, Luis Figo, Laurent Blanc, Pep Guardiola, Luis Enrique. But this game is significant for another reason. Bilbao boss Luis Fernandez was caught up in several heated confrontations with Bobby Robson’s young, and at the time rather unknown, protégé. Fernandez allegedly accused Robson’s assistant of influencing officials and visited the Barcelona bench to tell him sit down, after all, who was he to challenge a man who’d one PSG their first major European honour a season prior. This man was in fact a 33-year-old Jose Mourinho, beginning his path to becoming one of the greatest managers of all time. The arrogance he displayed in this match as a young coach is something he has never lost, being someone who never backs down to authority, wearing his heart on his sleeve and always believing he is right. Take his time with Louis Van Gaal at Barcelona, for example. Following Robson’s departure after just one year, Mourinho stayed on at Barcelona. What Van Gaal found in one of his new assistants was someone that constantly would challenge what he was saying, showing how little respect he had for authority and how much he believed in himself.
Other than his success, the one thing that has defined Mourinho’s career is his ability to create controversy and cause anger among fan bases seemingly wherever he goes. This is certainly the case in his current job as manager of Tottenham Hotspur who have experienced a rather up and down season with some fans staunchly against Mourinho and calling for his sacking. Is the special one the right man to restore the winning feeling at White Hart Lane and is the criticism he receives warranted?
A painful rebuild
The 2018/2019 season was a peculiar season for spurs fans. The first half of the season saw decent league form, leaving them sat third in the table on 48 points, six behind leaders Liverpool. The Champions league group stage Spurs struggled in, losing twice, and drawing once in their opening three games. A miracle was needed, and a miracle is exactly what they got – scoring in the 80th minute or more in each of their last three group games securing 2 wins and a dramatic draw at the Nou Camp, sending them through to the knockout stage. After January, it became the only thing Spurs fans had to be happy about. Their league form fell of a cliff winning just five times from the start of February to the end of the season (and these wins came against Newcastle, Leicester, Crystal Palace, Huddersfield and Brighton) and they were knocked out in the FA cup fourth round to Crystal Palace. It was clear there were issues within the squad and if it wasn’t for the heroic run to the champions league final Pochettino could’ve conceivably received a much earlier sacking. Pochettino had, in fact, pointed these issues out shortly before the famous second leg against Ajax, saying “Now its about creating another chapter and to have a clear idea about how we are going to build that new project. We need to rebuild. It’s going to be painful.”
The exciting Spurs team of 16/17 was beginning to fall apart and desperately needed work. Kyle Walker left the following summer, being replaced by a combination of Kieran Trippier (already at Spurs) and Serge Aurier. It was always going to be difficult to replace one of the best right backs in the league at the time, but neither Aurier or Trippier proved to be an adequate replacement for Walker with both struggling with consistency issues going forward and mistakes in the defensive third. Neither could be relied upon. Danny Rose began to struggle with injuries in that season and never seemed to fully recover, Victor Wanyama also had a bad reoccurring knee problem the season following. Couple these injury issues with the declining physical state of the brilliant Moussa Dembele and Spurs effectively needed 4 players to replace some of their key men.
Looking at the squad from the 2018/2019 season it is evident that these issues had not been addressed, in fact, Spurs didn’t sign a single player that season. Dembele left for China in January of 2019 and now Spurs had additional issues to address. It was widely reported that Christian Eriksen also wanted to leave for a new challenge and Tottenham were set to also lose Jan Vertonghen on a free. This would leave Spurs with just 3 (4 if you include Dier) centre backs and missing a player in Eriksen who had been intrinsic to Spurs’ style since Pochettino arrived, amassing 41 assists and 44 goals in this time.
Following Pochettino’s call for a rebuild, Daniel Levy did make some signings before the start of the 19/20 season. Tanguy N’dombele was signed from Lyon for a record 55 million, the long-awaited Moussa Dembele replacement, and Giovani Lo Celso was signed on loan from Real Betis with an option to buy for 27 million (which Spurs activated in January 2020), the Eriksen replacement. Spurs also signed Ryan Sessegnon from Fulham, who despite playing further forward for the Cottagers, was seen as the long-term replacement for Danny Rose. Whilst Spurs fans were happy with the acquisitions that summer, some problems still existed – the lack of depth at centre half, in attack, and now at right back as Kieran Trippier had been sold without a replacement coming in.
Mourinho inherited a squad that need a lot of work to it across the board. In January 2020, the club signed Steven Bergwijn adding much needed depth to the Spurs attack. The transfers Spurs made in the following summer would make it easy to believe that Spurs had a good window on paper. Pierre Emile Højbjerg, Matt Doherty, Sergio Reguilon, Carlos Vinicius, Joe Hart, Gareth Bale and Joe Rodon all joined the club in what was a bumper window. Two of these signings, however, have only passively addressed the problems they were brought in to solve. Matt Doherty had a decent season for Wolves before joining Spurs, with 4 goals and 3 assists primarily playing as a wing back. Even so, he is 29 and with Serge Aurier still in the shop window the problem that arose in the summer of 2017 is still there almost 4 years later. And whilst Joe Rodon looks as if he could be a good premier league player in the future, his signing doesn’t do much to address the defensive issues that have been present since Pochettino’s final season.
Whilst some of the long-term issues have been addressed within the squad, big question marks still remain at centre half, right back and depth in midfield (with the only senior back up options being Moussa Sissoko and Harry Winks). All of these areas have caused Spurs and Mourinho massive issues this season, with two of the centre halves in Eric Dier and Davinson Sanchez repeatedly making fundamental errors.
A Mourinho Problem?
It is easy to blame the players for making mistakes, after all they are the ones out there on the pitch. Indeed, following the recent defeat to West Ham, Mourinho hinted as much saying the club has “problems that I cannot resolve by myself as a coach”. But isn’t that exactly what he’s been brought in to do, that is, solve Spurs’ defensive woes through his coaching methods?
A fundamental part of Mourinho’s entire managerial career has been his ability to organise teams in a way which minimises the number of goals conceded. His title winning Chelsea side of 04/05 conceded just 15 goals in 38 matches, a record which stands to this day. Interestingly, Mourinho’s men sit joint fourth in the league for goals conceded, which, on face value, looks solid. They have, however, dropped 10 points from winning positions this season all coming in draws with Newcastle, West Ham, Crystal Palace, Wolves and Fulham – teams you would expect Tottenham to beat comfortably. This, coupled with several defeats in which high quality scoring chances were few and far between, suggests a systematic issue. The Palace, Wolves and Fulham games were of particular frustration to Spurs fans as, after scoring the opening goal the team reverted to playing rather passively, inviting pressure. Not only does this make Tottenham games tedious to watch at best, it also puts an enormous amount of pressure on an already vulnerable defence.
Almost 40% of the goals Spurs have conceded this season have come from crosses into the box, be that set pieces or from open play, and this is not including the penalty conceded directly from a free kick against Newcastle, and the Manuel Lanzini wonder goal conceded against West Ham which came directly from a failure to clear the ball from a set piece. The ten goals Spurs have conceded from crosses are strikingly similar in the mistakes made, weather its Lloris failing to claim the ball, or just a general lack of awareness and communication between the defenders. The fact the number of goals conceded from set pieces is so high further reinforces the idea that Spurs have deep systematic issues.Continual mistakes by the same players in, Dier, Sanchez, Lloris, Davies, Alderwiereld, could mean that these players are no longer good enough for Spurs. However, whilst the players named here have been prone to a mistake in the past, never have they continually made the same mistakes as consistently as they have this season, suggesting that perhaps Mourinho needs a rethink of his defensive approach in games in open play and from set pieces.
In addition to these defensive issues, Spurs, despite scoring 46 goals in the league this season, have struggled in several games to find any attacking rhythm. This is most likely due to the lack of attacking structure employed by Mourinho, preferring to leave his forwards to interpret any given attacking situation on their own. Indeed, Kane and Son have found great joy in their partnership this season, combining for 14 goals and edging ever closer to the all-time Premier League record for most goal combinations. It makes sense to allow Kane and Son the freedom to do as they wish in the attacking third, as they both possess extremely intelligent footballing brains and so are easily able to improvise. The same can also be said for Gareth Bale. However, the other players that have mostly been used this season in Lamela, Lucas, Bergwijn and Vinicius aren’t on the same level in terms of footballing intelligence as the aforementioned three. This is not to say these players aren’t talented, just that they struggle in systems which require them to consistently think on their own feet.
Stay or go?
It would be ignorant not to mention that Spurs have seen a slight up turn in form more recently, with three wins in their last 3 premier league matches, scoring 9 and conceding just 1. The introduction of Gareth Bale into the starting had been a long time coming and Mourinho is finally starting to reap the rewards of that. There was a period this season where it looked as if injury problems had gotten the better of him, as in the few games he’d played he looked rather sluggish and Mourinho preferred to play Bergwijn or Lucas ahead of him. But Bale has given something in this short run of games that the other two have not yet shown, a total control of games and the ability to conjure up something magical – a classic trait of a world class talent.
Bale’s introduction feels like the missing piece of the jigsaw in that front three. All 3 are world class players that are able to produce the magic needed to win trophies. On top of that, Bale brings something that Spurs have desperately lacked for a long time and that is someone who has won multiple major trophies and played a big part in doing so. That experience is invaluable in the dressing room and undoubtedly will come in handy for Tottenham’s upcoming Carabao Cup final with Man City and for the latter rounds of the Europa League should they make it.
Despite the fact that Spurs are in the league cup final and still in the Europa League, there’s a good proportion of Spurs fans who are totally Anti-Mourinho and have been since the day he was appointed. This proves to be of issue when things start to go wrong as those who are against him are all the more vocal, perhaps making the issues seem worse than they actually are and contributing to a grim atmosphere around the club. It almost seems as if some want to see Tottenham lose to ensure his demise quicker. There is a point to be made there though, regardless of weather or not you totally agree with these fans. It cannot be argued that the last three jobs Mourinho has had have all ended on a sour note and resulted in, eventually, practically the whole fan bases of Real Madrid, Chelsea and Man United turning against him. It begs the question as to how this happens considering what he achieved at those clubs. Maybe its that it always seems to be about him, and that he thinks he is unequivocally right in every situation and so is stubborn to change when things go wrong. This can be traced all the way back to his early coaching career under the likes of Louis Van Gaal, who pointed out this stubborn trait in him and how he is not afraid to speak his mind.
Ultimately, Jose Mourinho was brought in by Daniel Levy to firstly, retain the club’s status in the champions league, and secondly to win trophies. He is the perennial quick fix manager for those in need of trophies (this is not to undervalue his achievements). After all, he has won trophies at every club he has managed. Expectations at the start of this season were not to win the league title, but to qualify for the Champions League and win a trophy and show some serous signs of progress within the squad. Mourinho has implemented his style fully this season and progress, regardless of how much you think has been made, is clear to see. The evolution of Harry Kane, inclusion of Ndombele on a more regular basis and addition of Pierre Emile Højbjerg are promising signs of progress and have given Spurs a strong spine with which to further evolve their squad around. In addition to the progress clearly shown this season within the squad, Spurs are in the league cup final, are still in a good position to go far in the Europa League and could still finish in the top four. When you consider this and the fact the squad still has issues within it, then the criticism Mourinho receives from Spurs fans is unwarranted.