Why The Mourinho Makeover Is Failing At Tottenham

Awful league form and an early Champions League exit have raised the question whether José Mourinho is still an elite football manager. Public ramblings towards Tanguy Ndombélé, Eric Dier hurdling rows of seats to confront supporters and Mourinho’s eccentric comments on how the Leipzig bench could play in his first team have epitomized a club that looks no closer to finding a solution. 

Written by Joel Parker.

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Tottenham have seamlessly tried to get out of their downfall throughout the course of the season. A remarkable and outstanding journey to the Champions League final overshadowed their dreadful form towards the end of last season; uncovered at the beginning of the next. Not only were results going against Spurs, the underlying numbers suggested they were deservedly in the 14th placed position by the time Mauricio Pochettino was given the boot.

Mourinho was announced as Tottenham boss the following day, something that came as a surprise. Firstly, the timing, and secondly, his disastrous spell at Manchester United, which saw various fallouts with players, unsuccessful signings and boring, passive defensive football, without any attacking bite. 

His successful reigns at Porto, Chelsea and Internazionale are well-documented; his stock throughout the 2000’s and early 10’s rapidly increased thanks to his tactical acumen and the trophies that came with it. However, third season collapses at Chelsea and Manchester United showcased that The Special One isn’t exactly immortal and the Joséfication of both team and club can leave a devastating aftermath. 

From a results perspective, Mourinho’s start at Spurs began positively, winning five out of his first seven league fixtures, whilst making it through their Champions League group. However, since the turn of the year, Tottenham’s form has diminished and any form of progress under their new boss has derailed. Granted, the injuries of Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son have not helped, but Mourinho has used this as an excuse, rather than attempting to resolve the issue. 

What made José such an incredible manager was his proactive thinking; making changes before the problem even arose and blaming the result on everything else, rather than himself or his team, now we are just witnessing the opposite. So how have Tottenham got to this stage? How has Mourinho set this team up? And what are the tactical issues that he needs to overcome, in order to prove he still has it? 

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The 3-4-2-1 buildup

Mourinho has tested a variety of different systems at Spurs, most notably using the 4-2-3-1 and 3-4-2-1 formations, although both follow similar buildup principles. In the 4-2-3-1 formation, Tottenham form an asymmetric passing structure thanks to the movement of their fullbacks. Ben Davies would remain in the defensive line to form a back three, whilst Serge Aurier pushed further forward, almost like a winger. Against West Ham, Mourinho’s first game as Spurs manager, this positional structure was already installed and has been in place since, yet the issues within their buildup remain. A strong piece of Joséfication came when Mourinho blamed Ben Davies’ injury for their struggles in bringing the ball out from the back. If we zoom in more closely and look for a genuine explanation for Tottenham’s problems, a couple of problems come to the fore.  

Firstly, the positioning of their double pivot. Regardless of who is playing in the midfield roles, they are often too central and cover the same space in their buildup. This results in them being taken out of passing sequences thanks to the opposition striker’s cover shadow When a player is positioning himself between the opponent that has possession of the ball and another opponent, he is blocking the passing lane. When applied the right way, his ‘shadow’ is effectively taking the opponent in his back out of the game, because the pass can not be played. when Spurs attempt to build from the back. Giovani Lo Celso is the only player in the double pivot to make runs and create better angles for them to build, though Ndombélé is also capable of this. 

Against organized medium blocks, A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. Tottenham’s issues in this buildup structure are very visible. Their only progressive options come in the form of the two players occupying the flanks. In the 4-2-3-1 formation this would be Aurier and the left winger who dropped deep, whilst in the 3-4-2-1 system, this would come from both the wing-backs.

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Tottenham’s 3-4-2-1 buildup shape versus Burnley’s 4-4-2 medium block.

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Away to Burnley, Sean Dyche’s team created massive problems for Tottenham and virtually stopped them from getting past the middle third. Tanguy Ndombélé and Oliver Skipp were heavily overloaded and passing lanes towards both players were occupied. This meant the two progressive options would come from Jan Vertonghen and Japhet Tanganga, although both players are far from the natural wing-backs. Vertonghen and Tanganga sat against the sidelines, though this stretched the field, it also limited their space and made them vulnerable to the press formed by the Burnley wingers.

Mourinho’s buildup system also showcased its weaknesses against high blocks too. Chelsea matched Tottenham’s shape, Willian, Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount all pressed against the back three and Spurs failed to effectively feed their forwards and bypass their opponent as a result. 

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Bad buildup effects the final third

Tottenham’s shape has changed over the short amount of time that Mourinho has been in charge. With the asymmetry in their fullback positions resulting in the right back pushing far forward, the right winger, usually Lucas Moura, would drop more centrally. Dele Alli, deployed as a central attacking midfielder, would drop into the left halfspace, If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. whilst Heung-Min Son would hug the touchline. This resulted in Spurs looking to operate in a 3-2-4-1 shape, with a vast amount of attacking players behind Harry Kane.

Since the injuries to both Kane and Son, Spurs have usually set-up with two narrow wingers and Alli as a traditional number nine. The three sit in between the lines, constantly moving in proximity of each other to try and make space to receive the ball. However, due to Tottenham’s bad buildup structure; Mourinho’s team are reduced to inaccurate long passes down the channels, towards a target who isn’t there. Such poor pass selection results in their front three receiving possession in areas of little benefit.

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Tottenham’s equalizer at home to Brighton saw Serge Aurier unoccupied inside the penalty area, thanks to Dele Alli moving central and pinning Bernardo. 

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Tottenham’s attack is reliant on the overlapping runs of Serge Aurier. He often finds himself unmarked when charging forward thanks to the right winger being instructed to move more centrally, who pins the opposition fullback to him. Against four-man defenses, this has proven to be quite effective, but against teams with wingbacks, Aurier can be pressed without room opening in the halfspace. 

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Passive defensive structures

In the past three seasons before the current campaign, Spurs were a top-three pressing team under Mauricio Pochettino. This came in the form of a compact pressing structure, which pinned opposition teams out wide before Spurs overloaded When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. the channels to stop the opposition from forming short passing sequences. In terms of PPDA numbers, Tottenham were one of the top teams in this sector, but this season, these numbers dramatically dropped.

Under Pochettino, Spurs’s PPDA Passes per defensive action is calculated by dividing the number of passes allowed by the defending team by the total number of defensive actions. was 11.4, which means twelve teams in the Premier League produced more effective pressing than Tottenham. Moving into a 4-3-1-2 formation did not accommodate their press, which left vast amounts of space down the wide channels in the middle third for opposition teams to play into. This left a major conundrum for their fullbacks; press into this area and space opens behind or stay in your position and allow your midfield three to be stretched. 

After years of outrunning opponents with high intensity and pressing, Tottenham found themselves easy to play through and conceded plenty of goals in the process. Under Mourinho, such pressing does not exist, but the issues in defense still remain and this isn’t helped by the poor structure in place. 

Tottenham move into a 4-4-2 / 4-4-1-1 shape off the ball, which sits in a medium-to-low block, but the room between the lines gives the opposition an easy route to progress the ball into. Space behind the fullbacks is an easy access for their opponents to breakthrough; transition of play both Pochettino and Mourinho have struggled to nullify. 

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Tottenham’s 4-4-2 medium block falls apart following a transition of passes along Aston Villa’s defensive line. Matt Targett forces Serge Aurier to press forward, opening a passing lane for Jack Grealish to get on the ball.

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Aston Villa showcased just how disorganized and unresponsive Tottenham are when they are out of possession. Their attacking players surge forward to try and win the ball high, but once the ball is played to Danny Drinkwater, four players cannot contribute to the defensive transition. 

In this specific situation, Serge Aurier presses forward on Matt Targett, which creates space for Jack Grealish to receive possession and drag the Tottenham defense out wide. What followed was a high-quality chance for Douglas Luiz with acres of space created down the right channel. 

Mourinho has also rotated to much more defensive minded systems when facing better attacking teams, which has not worked. Following Chelsea exploiting Spurs on the wings at White Hart Lane, Mourinho deployed a 5-4-1 low-block on the return fixture, which still had passing lanes for Chelsea’s back three to exploit and room between the lines for Lampard’s team to take shots. Tottenham’s only route of attacking in this game would come from long balls to the lone striker, who was 5 ft 10 inch winger, Steven Bergwijn. No wonder Spurs recorded 0 expected goals The amount of goals a team is expected to score based on the quality of the shots they take. from open play in this match.  

Tottenham did record a 2-0 victory over Manchester City, deploying their 4-4-2 / 4-4-1-1 defensive block, but this was hardly the Mourinho masterclass over Guardiola as seen in the past. This is the importance of breaking down what we’ve seen on the pitch, rather than taking observations from the results. Man City’s positional play down the left side resulted in an overwhelming amount of chances being created for Guardiola’s team, a game in which, at least from an expected goals perspective, Man City should’ve won comfortably. 

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Tottenham’s defensive personnel no longer have the ability to cover large distances, but their problems in the defense are not just down to their structure. Toby Alderweirld, who signed a three-and-a-half year deal in December, and Jan Vertonghen are well past their prime. Tottenham fans would’ve hoped Juan Foyth would have made more of an impact at this point, but the 22-year-old still has plenty of time to develop. Mourinho’s choices are limited in the defensive line, another issue that Tottenham would look to resolve in the next transfer window.

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Defending set-pieces

Set-pieces take very limited minutes out of a game, they can be the difference between conceding five and fifteen goals in a single campaign. Defending from corners has been a major issue for Mourinho, his Manchester United team ranked as one of the worst in the league and the stats aren’t looking any better. Tottenham conceded 1.3xG vs Burnley, 1.02xG vs Wolverhampton Wanderers and 0.95xG vs Aston Villa, just from set-pieces and conceding shots which have a very high chance of hitting the net.

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Tottenham’s set-up from corners heavily favors the opposition to win the aerial duel. Oliver Skipp drops back into the same position at Dele Alli, which results in two Tottenham players covering the area just in front of Hugo Lloris. Burnley have two players near the back post and are man marked by Jan Vertonghen and Japhet Tanganga. 

The three center-backs man mark Burnley’s main targets, however the body positioning results in very ineffective blocking. Burnley players find it very easy to slip away from their marker and are already able to attack the ball, even if Tottenham players follow, they are at a disadvantage. This set-up makes Spurs very vulnerable from in swinging corners, in and around the six-yard box. Both Mourinho’s Man United team and current Spurs side concede high quality chances around this area, an issue which if resolved, can save a vast number of goals going in.

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Takeaways

When football returns to our lives, Mourinho has a number of tactical issues to resolve, from the start of the season under Pochettino and old trends from The Special One’s past. After twenty years in the limelight, this could be José Mourinho’s final ride at a top club. He has a young, dynamic and talented squad at the helm; Lo Celso, Alli, Sánchez, Ndombélé and Bergwijn are all under the age of twenty-four and all have crazy levels of potential.

Though this Tottenham team does have the capabilities to be an elite team, old school Mourinho is showing more of hindrance, rather than being an asset. Singling out an individual performance has proven not to have worked in the past, as well as incidents involving Eric Dier racing up the stands and Dele Alli throwing a tantrum when being subbed, have all created a negative energy around the club.

With a better structure on and off the ball in place, the current Tottenham team can reach the highest level once again. The Joséfication of this Spurs side isn’t going to work in its current format, especially if the power of the transfer market is in the hands of Mourinho. Will this “change of philosophy” come into place or will Tottenham continue their decline?

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Joel Parker (19) is an Everton fan. Whenever he’s not watching his beloved Everton, Joel spends his time analyzing all sorts of football. Chief editor and Founder of Toffee Analysis. [ View all posts ]

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