One of the most fascinating narratives over the last decade in football has been the fall from grace of Jose Mourinho.
When he moved from FC Porto to Chelsea in 2004 for his first spell in charge of the London club he did so in a wave of publicity. At his opening press conference, he famously anointed himself as the ‘special one’, with his unique brand of arrogance and tactical brilliance catching the public's imagination. This created an air of mystique around Mourinho that was only heightened following moves to Inter and Real Madrid.
When Mourinho decided in 2013 to return to Chelsea, however, it became evident that he had changed and his arrogance was no longer as charming as it had once been. Perhaps, more importantly, the game seemed to have left him behind from a tactical perspective. Mourinho still preferred to play a largely pragmatic game with great emphasis on transitions and controlling the pace of play.
The emergence of counter-pressing as a common tactical concept stifled the ability of Mourinho’s teams to play in transition effectively. This became increasingly evident following a subsequent spell at Manchester United when Mourinho appeared increasingly combative in the media.
When Jose Mourinho left Manchester United in December 2018 it appeared that he would find it difficult to move straight back into a position with a top club. His increasingly fractious relationship with the players at United and his pragmatic and often tedious style of play had seen his stock fall considerably.
It caught many by surprise then when, after parting company with their previous coach Mauricio Pochettino, Tottenham Hotspur appointed Mourinho as their head coach in November 2019. Spurs had, under Pochettino, been extremely successful finishing consistently in the top four and reaching the final of last season Champions League.
Their success in Europe last term, however, masked their indifferent league form, while they started poorly domestically this campaign, too. There were steady rumours that the relationships in the dressing room were breaking down and Pochettino was no longer having the same impact that he had before at a tactical level. Now, with Mourinho in charge, there was a hope that a change of leadership could bring the squad back together and improve performances on the field.
So far, however, this has not been the case. The loss of their captain and attacking talisman Harry Kane to a significant injury has not helped but Spurs look like a team without any clear plan whether in or out of possession.
In this tactical analysis, we will look back at two matches, against RB Leipzig and Chelsea, to see what these fixtures tell us about the tactical issues facing Spurs.
OUT OF POSSESSION
First of all, we will take a look at the way that Spurs play out of possession. Mourinho is well known as a coach who favours a safety-first approach when his team do not have the ball and this is clearly shown by their performances on the pitch. The first thing that strikes you when Spurs are playing against the ball is that they are so passive in their defensive positioning.
Instead of being proactive in looking to engage the ball carrier and close down passing lanes we see Spurs remain relatively static in their positioning. This effectively allows the opposition to progress the ball quite easily into advanced areas and by the time the Spurs defensive block reacts to close down the threat they are already defending in dangerous areas.
We see an example of this above with Chelsea allowed comfortable possession of the ball in their defensive line. Without a first-choice striker, following injuries to Kane and Heung-Min Son, we see that their new signing Steven Bergwijn is playing out of position as the central striker. He is passive and allows the Chelsea player time and space to play forward without even moving to disrupt the passing lane.
The four-man midfield unit is in a straight line and they are unaware of the positioning of the Chelsea players behind them. The vertical pass is made through the Spurs midfield line and immediately there are five Spurs players who are caught out of possession and behind the ball.
Having the striker apply at least some pressure or having the midfield line play in a more compact manner would at least prevent the vertical pass from being connected as easily.
Spurs consistently allow the opposition space in between the lines of their lines of midfield and defence. The opposition players are capable of either taking possession of the ball in these areas or making runs that threaten the space behind the defensive line.
In the match against RB Leipzig, we saw Spurs line up with two strikers. The German side, however, set up with a back three and again they were comfortable when progressing the ball as the two Spurs strikers struggled to press effectively. We can see in the image above that as the ball progresses into the Spurs half of the field there are three RB Leipzig attackers who are positioned in the gap between the midfield and defence.
The ball can then be moved outside and then into the space behind the defensive line as these three players make runs from these slightly deeper positions to threaten the penalty area.
Again there is a chance for Spurs to negate this threat by having one of the midfield players positioned deeper to deny the opposition the space between the lines in which they can play.
There are times in which Spurs players will look to press the ball, unfortunately these pressing actions tend to be isolated and not as part of a group effort and that allows the opposition to play through the press relatively easily.
Above is an example of why pressing as an individual can be detrimental to the overall team structure. As RB Leipzig are progressing the ball we see one of the Spurs midfielders move to engage and press the ball. The intent is good, but because he is the only player who presses, the ball is simply shifted quickly forward and then into the space that is vacated by the pressing player.
The pressing movement could have been supported by the other Spurs players moving tighter to the advanced RB Leipzig players. Instead, they stand off and the ball is played through into a dangerous space very simply.
When we consider the way that Spurs play in possession of the ball under Mourinho we have to do so in the understanding that they are without their key attacking player in Harry Kane. The use of the likes of Lucas Moura and Steven Bergwijn as the focal point of the attack has been somewhat lacking with both more comfortable playing as wide attacking players or even as second strikers who support from deeper areas.
Given that Mourinho favours a slightly more direct style in the attacking phase this lack of an effective focal point in the attack is problematic. While width tends to be provided by the fullbacks there is a lack of effective movement from the front line and as such the opposition defensive unit are comfortably able to prevent Spurs from attacking in behind their defensive lines.
Above we see an example when Spurs should have been in a very strong position. They are attacking in transition against RB Leipzig and they have an effective 4v3 overload on the defensive line. The ball carrier, however, is hesitant and seems to be unable to make a decision. The closest attacking player is Bergwijn and he seems unsure as to which run he should make,
We have highlighted the most efficient move which would take him outside the defender and would, in turn, create space for the ball carrier. Instead, the player in possession runs straight at Bergwijn and when the Dutch attacker eventually looks to make the highlighted run above he is too late and the chance is gone.
A lot of the attacking issues for Spurs under Mourinho suggest a lack of a rehearsal or coherent game model with too many players being unsure of the runs that they should be looking to make.
This image again shows the issues that Spurs have with the lack of a genuine focal point in the attacking line. With the ball in the wide-area, we see Spurs again with a strong presence in the attacking third. In this position, we would normally see Harry Kane threatening to make a run in behind the defensive line centrally. This threat alone would generally be enough to force the defensive line back and this would create space for the other attackers to attack into.
Instead, with no genuine presence in the attacking line, we see movements towards the ball or across the face of the defensive line but no genuine attempts to get in behind and threaten the penalty area. Once again a positive attacking opportunity comes to nothing for Spurs.
The issues surrounding Spurs under Mourinho should come as no surprise given what we have seen from the Portuguese coach in recent years. His pragmatic and slow approach to the game has been left behind with the likes of Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola, in particular, having come to the English game and taken with them new tactical concepts that have changed the game.
Teams that neither press nor form compact defensive blocks can be easily played through and the lack of an effective attacking game model has seen Spurs struggle in recent matches. Can Mourinho turn it around? Potentially, but not without significant investment in the playing squad this coming summer. Even then it is entirely possible that we are seeing the last matches of the 'The Special One' coaching at the top level.