At first, Jose Mourinho looked to be something of an awkward fit for Tottenham Hotspur.
This was a project club. A club whose fans had grown accustomed to modern, expansive football under Mauricio Pochettino and a club which had established a well-trodden pathway between the youth ranks and the first team over a number of years.
Mourinho, on the other hand, has cultivated a reputation as European football’s go-to guy for instant results. Tottenham’s appointment of the Portuguese coach in November 2019 was a jarring ideological move that seemed to reveal more about Daniel Levy’s ego and his personal fascination for the former Chelsea and Manchester United boss than anything else.
Twelve months on, though, and Spurs have moulded around Mourinho better than most envisaged. The North London club currently sits at the top of the Premier League table with many tipping them to win the title. The attritional nature of the 2020/21 season could suit Mourinho and his players.
Key to this turnaround has been Tottenham’s midfield. Mourinho struggled to get to grips with his central unit last season, with his disgruntlement at the performances of Tanguy Ndombele in particular well documented. Since then, though, he has found a combination that has given Spurs the drive and protection they need in the middle of the pitch.
Last season saw Mourinho experiment with a number of different shapes and styles, testing his players to gain more information about them. Not since his formative years as a coach in Portugal had Mourinho gone into a club midway through a season and so it took him some time to work out exactly what he had inherited and how he could use it.
If Spurs are to win the Premier League title this season, the signing of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg in the summer will be reflected upon as a pivotal moment. The Dane has been installed in the ‘regista’ role in the centre of the pitch, switching play from side to side to give Tottenham mobility in the way they make the ball travel. Hojbjerg also does a lot of the defensive work that allows more attack-minded players higher up the pitch freedom.
Indeed, Hojbjerg has made more total passes per 90 minutes (71.4) in the Premier League this season than any other Tottenham Hotspur player (of those who have played at least 500 minutes). Alongside the Dane, Mourinho has deployed Moussa Sissoko as a ‘Special Ops’ figure. Mourinho likes a midfielder in this mould, someone who can perform a very specific duty in a specific game to achieve a specific objective (see his use of Ander Herrera and Scott McTominay on various occasions at Manchester United).
Kane's playmaking history
Against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, Sissoko was clearly instructed to man-mark Timo Werner, essentially following the German forward wherever he went on the pitch. This resulted in Sissoko frequently playing as something of a right-back, with Werner drifting out to the wing in an attempt to shake off the Frenchman.
Then there’s Ndombele. Mourinho has unlocked the Frenchman’s potential by deploying him as the furthest forward of the midfield three. At times, Harry Kane drops so deep that Ndombele is Tottenham’s furthest forward player alongside Heung-min Son. Ndombele is a ball carrier, illustrated by his average of 2.9 dribbles per 90 minutes this season - only seven Premier League players have a higher average.
A key feature of Tottenham’s midfield play this season has been a willingness to switch play quickly. It was this ploy that was central to the win over Manchester City - see Kane’s disallowed goal that saw almost every player in white on the pitch touch the ball. This is a different sort of possession game, but it was a sweeping attacking move that City just couldn’t cope with.
Hojbjerg is the one who tends to start these moves. He does so by dropping in between the two centre backs, forcing the full-backs (primarily Matt Doherty and Sergio Reguilon) to provide width up the field. This in turn pushes Kane and Son inside, which leaves them prepared for any pass that comes inside from wide.
Another method of starting the sweeping passing moves that have come to define Spurs’ play this season involves one of the full-backs tucking in to form a back three with the two centre backs. This gives Doherty, for example, the freedom to get forward down the right, where Hojbjerg can find him with a long-distance pass.
Giovani Lo Celso has been used in the midfield when Tottenham require more creativity, with the Argentine averaging 21.1 final third passes per 90 minutes this season. With Ndombele missing against Arsenal, it was Lo Celso who was picked to play as the furthest forward of the midfield trio. He was crucial in the way Spurs created opportunities, particularly in the first half, driving into space and carving open the chance for his team’s second goal.
Nonetheless, it is the unit of Hojbjerg, Ndombele and Sissoko that feels most quintessentially Mourinho. As a trio, they have become the epitome of the perfect Mourinho midfield. Without Ndombele to keep the ball in difficult situations, often with two or three opposition players attempting to crowd him out, Spurs found themselves without an outlet in the second half of their derby win over Arsenal. A more creative, cutting opposition side would have made that count.
Tottenham as a whole might just be the epitome of the perfect Mourinho team. The Portuguese coach likes to give his attackers space to indulge their individualist qualities and that’s exactly what his Spurs midfield does for Kane and Son, and Gareth Bale when he features. Hojbjerg, Ndombele and Sissoko provide a platform.
The circumstances of the 2020/21 season might be ideal for a Mourinho team to succeed, but the Portuguese still had to forge a side capable of taking advantage of those circumstances. If Spurs are to win their first ever Premier League title this season, they will need their midfield engine to keep driving them forward.