The honeymoon period is over for Jose Mourinho at Tottenham Hotspur.
Without the injured Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, Mourinho has been left without a goalscorer and without much hope. Spurs have lost their last three games, falling five points behind Chelsea in the race for the top four and suffering what could be a harmful first-leg defeat to RB Leipzig in the Champions League Round of 16.
Since Son joined Kane on the sidelines, Spurs have looked disjointed to say the least in attack. But is there an even bigger issue than the absence of a recognised goalscorer?
Indeed, the Londoners have looked just as disorganised at the back, which is majorly surprising for a Mourinho side. The former Chelsea and Manchester United manager made his name as a pragmatist. To him, results take precedence over performance. Of course, he wants his team to play well, as a cohesive unit. But doing so and subsequently losing is a no-no, which is why he has completely bought into a defence-first mentality.
José Mourinho's 2004/05 Chelsea side set the record for fewest goals conceded in a single Premier League season.
15 goals conceded in 38 games is obscene. 😳 pic.twitter.com/NwQL31UjUq
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) January 26, 2020
The fact Mourinho is in the midst of his first ever season having come in midway through a campaign might explain his team’s defensive woes. He has spoken of the importance of pre-season preparation in the past, and Tottenham clearly require time they don’t have to work on their organisation at the back.
A larger problem, however, may be the current defensive personnel. For all the justified talk that Spurs need another striker in their ranks, there are arguably four positions that need resolving more urgently…
The lack of protection given to Tottenham‘s back four this season has resulted in the team looking constantly open and exposed. Harry Winks has generally played well under Mourinho, but he is only the deep-lying answer against certain opposition; Spurs need an Eric Dier-like figure, something the actual Eric Dier sadly no longer resembles.
Dier has been desperately short of form when deployed in central midfield this season, and dropping him into a back three against Wolves on Sunday didn’t work either. As a result, Mourinho‘s patience with Dier – much like that of the supporters – could be wearing thin. The Spurs boss defiantly came out in defence of his player on Sunday despite a typically ropey performance from the 26-year-old. Mourinho‘s words may have been protective rather than truthful.
All of which is to say that a defensive midfielder should be one of Tottenham‘s highest priorities this summer. They simply cannot afford to let another season go by without a defensively capable player sitting in front of the back four.
Eric Dier’s passing flow (Premier League 19/20)
During Mourinho‘s hugely successful early years with Chelsea, the opposition’s attack always knew – and feared – who they were facing: Paulo Ferreira, Ricardo Carvalho, John Terry, William Gallas. And such familiarity bred cohesion, a chemistry that grew stronger as the season progressed.
In contrast, Mourinho has constantly rotated his centre-backs at Spurs duo to form issues. Toby Alderweireld has been a regular but even he was left out against Wolves with Mourinho claiming he wanted his fastest centre-backs to deal with the visitors’ pace up front.
That went well; the inconsistent Davinson Sanchez and the inexperienced Japhet Tanganga were all at sea, hardly helped by Dier. What’s more, Jan Vertonghen suddenly looks his age and is set to leave when his contract expires this summer, and Juan Foyth is yet to convince Mourinho he is ready to play regularly.
Mourinho needs a centre-back – or even a pair of them – good enough to play near-every minute without question if he is to create a cohesive defensive unit. Again, Tottenham have no choice but to act in the summer window.
Totttenham’s defensive line action areas (Premier League 19/20)
In his first three matches in charge, Mourinho deployed three different left-backs. He lost Ben Davies to injury in his first game, leading to Vertonghen, Danny Rose and Ryan Sessegnon being rotated. Such frequent changes at left-back (and centre-back) is a trend that has echoed Mauricio Pochettino‘s final, fruitless days at the club, something that concerns former r_f-c”>Spurs midfielder Jermaine Jenas.
“How he (Mourinho) is behaving now is a little bit how Mauricio Pochettino was behaving at the end of his tenure as Tottenham manager, where he was trying everything to get it right,” said the BBC Sport analyst. “There are not many teams in the history of football that, if they change their two centre-halves as often as Tottenham do, are successful. Partnerships have to be made and Spurs do not have one right now.”
Jenas is mostly speaking about centre-backs here, but Davies – who is now back from injury – is another key to Spurs‘ defensive solidity as his role requires him to drop into a back three, allowing the opposite full-back to get forward.
The problem here is that since returning from injury, Davies has been out-of-form. This might lead to Sessegnon being given another shot, which in turn will upset the tactical balance. Again, this all points towards one solution: Tottenham must be in the market for a let-back when the transfer window rolls around.
Ben Davies’ passes made network (Premier League 19/20)
Serge Aurier has been one of Spursan>’ most important attacking players under Mourinho to date. He has scored two stunning goals – against Olympiacos and Wolves – and provided some timely assists, facilitating Mourinho‘s preference to have his right-back play as more of a winger.
That said, his defensive contributions continue to be baffling. While his pace and willingness to tackle have helped Tottenham at times, they have mainly been a hinderance. Aurier constantly jumps into challenges in dangerous areas, leading to anxiety in the stands every time he faces a tricky attacker one-on-one. And his propensity to needlessly give the ball away has led to opportunities being handed to the opposition on a plate.
Serge Aurier’s defensive action ratio by zone (Premier League 19/20)
It doesn’t help that he doesn’t have any competition, somebody to keep him on his toes. Tanganga was trialled as a more defensive right-back option against Chelsea last month but failed that particular test. Mourinho deserves credit for turning a player many had written off into a useful attacker, but Aurier’s future will be in doubt if Spurspan> move for a new right-back before next season – and they surely will.