Last weekend against Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur held the ball only 35% of the time. They had 2 shots on goal, against 17 by City. Yet, Spurs won 2-0. For Spurs manager Jose Mourinho, a display where only the one number that matters falls for his side makes for vicarious pleasure.
Prioritise cussedness at the back over flair at the front is Mourinho’s blueprint for his clubs he feels lack all-round completeness. A year since taking over at Spurs, he’s pierced his claws deep into the team’s spine, and moulded them to play “his way”.
His way is far removed from how Spurs played under their previous coach Mauricio Pochettino and punched above their weight. A quarter into this year’s English Premier League, Mourinho’s Spurs are delivering, and the change in style is not being bemoaned-yet. That style, which pivots around defence, has three other trademarks in the context of how he is shaping this Spurs team.
Strike first to stay ahead
In the City game, both Spurs goals were against the run of play. The first one came in the 5th minute. Through his career, Mourinho’s sides have won all their games at home when leading at half-time, according to data from footystats.com. Of the five clubs he has managed since 2008, his lowest winning percentage was with Manchester United (54%). Even then, United won 85% of away games when leading at half-time.
The forte of Mourinho’s teams is not coming back, but in taking a lead and then defending it resolutely. Among the teams he has managed in the last decade, he’s expressed a completeness only for the Real Madrid of 2010-13. His other squads, he rated a notch below. Those sides have seldom turned things around when trailing at half-time. But when leading at half-time, he’s delivered numbers with them that are up there with Real’s numbers.
The shifts in Spurs tactics from Mourinho to Pochettino are visible. For most of his tenure, Pochettino deployed attacking formations, be it a midfield diamond in a 4-4-2 (backs, midfield, forwards) or a 4-3-3 or a 3-1-4-2 earlier. The Spurs side then played attacking football, often sacrificing width for domination through the centre.
This was one reason why Spurs fans viewed the appointment of Mourinho with scepticism. Mourinho plays the more traditional 4-2-3-1, often resorting to the defensive 3-5-2 (Carabao Cup win against Chelsea this season). Only twice has he employed the attacking 4-3-3 formation this season. Both were away games, and were huge wins for Spurs: 5-2 against Southampton and 6-1 against Manchester United.
The defensive philosophy adopted by Mourinho are reflected in a metric called ‘expected goals’. This is calculated based on the shots on goal, its attack type, type of assist, angle, and the body part used to take the shot. It is a good indicator of chances created, rather than just possession, and is thus a superior measure of dominance. Even at home, Mourinho’s Spurs have managed fewer expected goals than Pochettino’s Spurs.
Mourinho, however, likes to point out that he is more result-oriented than he is made out to be. His Spurs team has won games against top teams they had no business of winning. His first away game against City, managed by arch rival Pep Guardiola, was a 2-2 draw that showed 3.29 expected goals for City and just 0.08 for Spurs. Likewise, when Spurs beat City 2-0 this February, their expected goals count was 0.38 against City’s 3.00. Last week was similar: 0.79 for Spurs against 2.18 for City. Guardiola’s side huffed and puffed, but failed to break the dogged Mourinho squad.
There was another difference in the two 2-0 Spurs wins over City this year. Mourinho has his star Harry Kane back this season. The Amazon Prime hagiography on the club and Mourinho, ‘All or Nothing: Tottenham Hotspur’, starts with Mourinho assuring Kane he can take him to the heights of a Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi.
It’s early days still this season, and Mourinho’s words are resonating. But the Kane of Mourinho is no longer the poaching striker of Pochettino. The evolution was visible in Spurs’ 5-2 away win against Southampton, where Kane had 4 assists and 1 goal. He dropped deeper and pinged balls to Heung-min Son throughout the game. It’s something he has managed consistently this season. Son’s two-footedness, pace and elite finishing qualities has made this duo one of the most prolific striking pairs in English Premier League (EPL) history.
This season, Kane leads EPL in assists (9) and Son’s 9 goals are only one behind the leader. However, as much as their individual brilliance, it is their partnership that is all important for the ambitions of Mourinho and Spurs. This decade in the EPL, the most assists a player has provided another player in a single season is 7. The Kane-Son duo surpassed this record in just 6 games this season.
Their total goal combinations (29) over their 6-year partnership is now level with Arsenal’s Thierry Henry-Robert Pires and City’s Sergio Aguero-David Silva. Another 8 goals, and they will match the all-time partnership of Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba at Chelsea.
Mourinho knows something about that partnership, since he brought Drogba to Chelsea. This season, the Kane-Son duo has managed an impressive 3.15 goal involvements (goals, assists and key passes) per 90 minutes, be it individually or together, the highest in Spurs’ history. The last time this duo breached the 2 goal mark was in 2016-17, a year when Spurs challenged for the title.
Spurs take on Chelsea on November 28 as the league leaders. Can they carry this vein of results on Mourinho’s tactics? The next month will offer some answers. In a tough run of games up to Christmas, Spurs face both their London rivals Arsenal and Chelsea, reigning champions Liverpool and Leicester City. If they manage to nick these games, as they did with City, they will certainly be frontrunners in an EPL title race that is the most open in a long time. Till then, rivals can hold on to Sir Alex Ferguson‘s famous words “Lads, it’s only Tottenham”.
(howindialives.com is a search engine for public data which is there at the top of the script attached)