The Season So Far
Tottenham Hotspur’s season can be divided into two halves: the Pochettino months: the painful end-of-an-era games through which they sleepwalked and collapsed, until something had to give; and the Mourinho months: the stop-start, inconsistent games in which they’ve occasionally looked like the potential world-beaters they’re supposed to be, but more often looked like the strange collection of has-beens, could-bes and seriously-just-nos they are. Right now, we’re no nearer to knowing what José Mourinho’s Spurs will end up looking like. There are mitigating circumstances, of course, but nonetheless, they were supposed to be better than this by now.
They need to end the purge of the dressing room they’ve started, and get a full pre-season under their belts as a new team, before we can see the best of them. Players like Christian Eriksen and Danny Rose, agitating for exits for what feels like forever, have gone; others like Toby Alderweireld have been convinced, finally, to commit their futures to the club; new blood in the form of Steven Bergwijn, Giovani Lo Celso, Tanguy N’Dombélé and Ryan Sessegnon has been added. Further movement can be expected in terms of ins and outs in the summer, and it’s undoubtedly necessary if Mourinho’s hard reset is to have an effect.
Right now, Spurs aren’t a team in his image, but nor are they the team Pochettino left as Champions League finalists. They don’t press well anymore, but as their midweek thrashing — how was that only 1-0? — against RB Leipzig showed, they can’t really contain or defend well either. They haven’t been able to pick through a low block without Eriksen’s help all season, and though Mourinho is coaching counter-attacking style, they can’t play well enough without the ball to make that a viable strategy in the long-term.
But for a spectacular last-minute error, they wouldn’t have beaten Aston Villa last weekend, and their victory over Manchester City in the previous game will go down as one of football’s most glaring clerical errors based on the balance of play and chances created.
TL;DR – they’re tremendously out of form right now.
The Season Ahead
With three months left of the season, Spurs are 5th in the league, on the verge of a Champions League exit and they have no strikers left — they’re “a gun with no bullets”, according to Mourinho himself. Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min have sustained long-term injuries and Kane looked exhausted and immobile anyway. They’ll have to spend the rest of the campaign alternating Lucas Moura and Erik Lamela as false nines. This would normally mean they’d be unable to achieve anything more.
However, their fixture list is relatively kind, and the teams around them are playing as badly as they are, so it’s hardly a given that they won’t make the top four. Similarly, a European exit could be a blessing in disguise, freeing up valuable coaching time between league matches and allowing Mourinho to do extra work on team strategy and personalised individual drills instead of preparing the side for games they can’t win.
They’re still in the FA Cup as well, and a kind draw could shove them towards the latter stages and perhaps even a trophy win. We know enough about Mourinho to know that he’ll have impressed on his players the importance of winning something — anything — as soon as possible. Once they get that taste of glory, they’ll want more, and they’ll work harder to achieve it.
Could this somehow end up being Spurs’ most successful season in years?
Mourinho’s Spurs are a purely counter-attacking outfit. It seems clear he wants them to become something like his iconic Real Madrid side — packed with individual talent and burning pace, unafraid of playing without the ball, drawing their opponents away from their goal and exploding in behind them to finish clear scoring chances in the blink of an eye. In every game, Tottenham’s high-intensity sprints forward en masse are notable, and Chelsea have been caught on the break enough times this season for this to be a major worry.
At the same time, they are nowhere near as defensively solid as Mourinho’s most iconic sides, be they Porto 2004, Chelsea 2005 or Madrid 2012. All of those sides were capable of frustrating possession-based sides, holding them at arm’s length and baiting them into leaving themselves vulnerable to a fast knockout blow. This Tottenham side simply can’t play defensively without allowing their opponents to create clear scoring chances at will.
It’s worth remembering that Frank Lampard outmanoeuvred Mourinho in the game in December, and Willian silenced the Spurs’ crowd with two sucker-punch goals. Since then, Spurs have lost their two best strikers and sold their best and most creative midfielder.
Right now, this Spurs side is relying on their pace on the break and their premium level of individual talent in attack. Dele Alli is just amazing; Lucas Moura and Erik Lamela are frustrating and inconsistent, but nonetheless capable of the sublime; Steven Bergwijn and Giovani Lo Celso are still finding their feet in the Premier League, but both will be key players for the next few years; Tanguy N’Dombélé has clear physical issues but, when available, is among the most electrifying midfielders in the Premier League. Any of these players can produce an unstoppable moment of magic and make their team’s flaws irrelevant.
Mourinho didn’t describe Tottenham as “a gun with no bullets” for no reason. It’s not just that Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min are injured, it’s that most of his remaining attacking players are exhausted or still adapting to their new surroundings having recently arrived at the club. These are far from optimal circumstances for his side to play their best football and it’s showing.
Even worse than that, however, is that they just can’t defend. They’ve gotten away with it in recent weeks, beating Man City and Aston Villa in staggeringly fortunate circumstances, but they can’t escape their Expected Goals Against figures forever. The last time they conceded fewer than 1 xGA in a game was December 15th. Their xGA figures while keeping clean sheets against Watford and Man City were 2.15 and 3.23. The RB Leipzig game midweek was just another match in which Spurs somehow managed to keep the score down.
Neither side is in good form but neither can do much about it in terms of ringing the changes due to the number of unavailable players across the board. Expect familiar teams from both managers.
Spurs can’t defend and Chelsea can’t finish — or can they? 3-0 Chelsea, Giroud to show Lampard what he’s been missing on a cathartic lunchtime for the Blues.