Football Features

How José Mourinho is turning Tottenham into his latest counter-attacking project

By Oliver Young-Myles

Published: 18:15, 3 February 2020

Tottenham’s 2-0 victory against Manchester City on Sunday was the quintessential Jose Mourinho inspired ‘smash-and-grab’ job and it may, in time, prove to be the game that marked a new stylistic direction for the club.

Pep Guardiola kept his players locked inside the cavernous NFL-inspired locker room at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium for over 45 minutes after Mike Dean’s final whistle had sounded, presumably to chastise them over a glut of missed chances.

In the first half, City had 11 efforts on goal to Tottenham’s none and by full-time, the scoreline in that regard read: Tottenham 3-18 Manchester City. Yet for the second time this season, City’s domination against Spurs failed to yield three points. In the two Premier League meetings between the clubs, Spurs have scored four goals from six attempts compared to City’s two from 48.

Post-match discourse predictably centred around City’s profligacy and whether VAR had got big decisions involving Raheem Sterling right or wrong, but it was a massively important victory for Spurs and Mourinho, regardless of the circumstances in which the three points came.

It was obviously a fortuitous victory. Had İlkay Gündoğan converted his penalty in the first half or what was virtually an open goal in the second, or had Sergio Agüero capitalised on one of the two big chances presented to him, Spurs likely would have gone on to lose.

But while City snatched at their opportunities, Spurs took theirs clinically, initially through Steven Bergwijn’s first effort on goal in the Premier League and then Heung-Min Son’s effort which took a nick off Fernandinho as it zipped beyond Ederson.

Yet while Tottenham snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, the foundations for a different style of play under Mourinho are slowly starting to be laid, as evidenced on Sunday.

During Pochettino’s first couple of seasons in charge of Tottenham in which the squad was the youngest in the Premier League, the team was renowned for their relentless pressing style high up the pitch which unsettled and unnerved opposition defenders.

Gradually, though, pressing made way for possession as Pochettino sought greater control in matches: Tottenham’s possession rate rose from 55% in 2014-15 and 2015-16 to 60% in 2016-17 and then up further to 62% in 2017-18 before dropping back down to 60% again last season.

Fast forward to the present and Spurs have averaged just 48% possession across their 13 Premier League matches under Mourinho with their highest total of 59% against Southampton below their season averages in 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19. It is clear from the numbers that Spurs are gravitating towards a counter-attacking style.

Speaking after the game, Dele Alli acknowledged as much, saying: “We changed tactics [under Mourinho] but it takes time to work. He is a very tactical manager, so you have to work a lot in training.

“We can take a lot of positives from taking three points off a tough team. We are going to keep working on different tactics and a ­different style. We have to keep adapting.”

That Bergwijn was thurst into action five days after arriving from PSV was in itself telling. With the Dutch dribbling demon on one side, the perpetually moving Son on the opposite flank and (for the time being at least) the quicksilver Lucas Moura through the middle, Spurs are a team positively geared towards hitting teams on the break.

Considering Mourinho is behind this design shift, that isn’t much of a surprise. During his first stint at Stamford Bridge, Mourinho moulded a side reliant on the directness of Arjen Robben – who, like Bergwijn, was a player signed straight from PSV – and Damien Duff on the flanks. Elsewhere, at Real Madrid, he had Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria tearing after searching passes forward made from Mesut Özil’s left boot.

Following Christian Eriksen’s departure to Inter last week, Spurs no longer have a creator capable of consistently conjuring chances for their attackers, but they do have an extremely dynamic set of midfielders that can thrive in transition phases and progress the ball quickly up the pitch.

Against City, Harry Winks and Giovani Lo Celso impressed as a midfield double pivot, despite seeing little of the ball, with the former’s burst forward leading to Oleksandr Zinchenko’s game-changing red card on the hour mark. Tanguy Ndombele added to his highlight reel, meanwhile, with a penetrative assist to Son and an incredible stepover that left Rodri floundering in his wake.

In order to prosper as a counter-attacking unit, though, a team must be resilient enough to withstand heavy pressure defensively and while Spurs unquestionably rode their luck against an unusually wasteful City attack, they ultimately held firm.

A shaky moment aside, Hugo Lloris was inspired, denying Gündoğan from the penalty spot, making a vital intervention with his left-foot to divert an Aguero effort onto his post and then acrobatically tipping a looping Kevin De Bruyne curler over the bar when it appeared destined to nestle in the top corner.

The sudden emergence of Japhet Tanganga since the turn of the year has been one of the big positives from the Mourinho era and it appears as though he has settled on a central pairing of Toby Alderweireld and Davinson Sanchez, with the soon to be out-of-contract Jan Vertonghen left on the bench at the weekend.

Miraculous as it was, Spurs managed only their fourth Premier League clean sheet of the campaign against City and Mourinho will hope that can mark a turning point in his team’s defensive solidity moving forward.

It may have taken the best part of two months but after five-and-a-half years of Pochettino, Spurs slowly but surely are beginning to resemble a Jose Mourinho team.