For only the second time in his Tottenham tenure, Jose Mourinho has stuck with the same midfield combination for four or more Premier League games in a row.
Indeed the Portuguese coach has regularly tinkered with his system and personnel since taking the reins last autumn, looking for the optimal formula to unlock the true potential of his side.
Even this season, Mourinho has consistently shuffled the pack to try and find answers to his midfield puzzle. The visit of Everton on matchday one shone a light on the issue, with Carlo Ancelotti’s new look Toffees running out comfortable victors against a cumbersome and lethargic Spurs.
The Italian’s remodelled trident of Andre Gomes, Allan and Abdoulaye Doucoure formed a luxurious axis that orbited the centre circle and dominated the middle third, with Spurs’ own system of Harry Winks, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Dele Alli flattering to deceive.
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Leading up to the match at Old Trafford in early October concerns about consistency and Mourinho’s best XI remained high on the agenda, with Spurs exhibiting Jekyll and Hyde halves in each game against Southampton and Newcastle.
So, returning to his old stomping ground to face Manchester United last month, Mourinho dropped Winks, who had started the three matches prior, and introduced Moussa Sissoko for his first start of the campaign, deploying the Frenchman alongside Hojbjerg and Tanguy Ndombele.
That match in the north west, of course, saw the Londoners run rampant in a 6-1 mauling, with the visitors playing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s 10-man United completely off the park. Ndombele netted hit first goal of the campaign, while Hojbjerg was a surprise creator, registering his first assist since December 2019.
Mourinho’s men became only the second team to net six goals at Old Trafford, while they also matched United’s heaviest defeat in Premier League history. And since that spectacular showing, Mourinho has stayed true to his midfield combination, which has since fired them up to second in the table.
Against West Ham the following match Spurs sauntered to a 16-minute 3-0 lead and controlled large spells of the derby. It was only when Mourinho tempted fate and replaced Winks for Ndombele in the 73rd that the hosts capitulated and David Moyes’ side got a foothold on proceedings.
With less than 20 minutes left and three goals to the good Mourinho felt he had the luxury of rotation. However, Ndombele’s withdrawal bred confidence into West Ham and the Hammers produced a comeback that will sit long in the Premier League annals, with Winks’ tame clearance responsible for the historic equaliser.
Mourinho hasn’t allowed the same mistakes to creep in. Winks was dropped from the matchday squad all together the following match against Burnley and he kept Ndombele on until the 80th minute this time, while the 2-1 win over Brighton was Spurs’ sixth match unbeaten since their curtain raiser against Everton.
The combination Mourinho has stumbled upon has allowed Hojbjerg to anchor the midfield and protect the backline, while the more dynamic and all-action Sissoko works far better in tandem with the Dane than the often one-dimensional Winks. Ndombele has also shone in a more attack-minded role.
Given more freedom to push forward, Ndombele has averaged more touches in the opposition box (3.16 to 1.61) and more shots (1.26 to 0.36) per 90 minutes in the last four games than he had previously mustered under Mourinho (dating back to November 2019) — and the leap is quite eye-opening.
Indeed Ndombele, who struggled for form and fitness in his maiden campaign, has been the fulcrum of this newfound combination, with Mourinho recently describing him as “so different” to the Ndombele of last season, a campaign in which he singled out the midfielder in the 1-1 draw at Burnley earlier this year.
Ndombele’s Spurs career looked to be in danger of failing before it ever really got going, but he has since been the keystone in Mourinho’s recent success and looks to finally be vindicating the lofty price tag that has been looming above his head since last summer.
With Spurs averaging more chances per 90 minutes (10.25 to 8.72) in the last four league games than the 29 previous under Mourinho, registering more shots (12.75 to 11.55), more passes (541.25 to 480.52), touches (722 to 678.31), as well as tackles (18.75 to 17.21), interceptions (10.25 to 10.1) and possession won in the final third (4.75 to 4), the decorated tactician looks to have finally found his best midfield combination