Jose Mourinho doesn’t like statistics being used to assess a football match. Just last week, the Tottenham manager complained that, too often, they are like “badly cooked meat or fish” when used out of context, but here is one stat that the Portuguese cannot argue against — Spurs have now collected just two points from a possible 12 after throwing away victory late in a 1-1 draw at Wolverhampton Wanderers.
For a team and a manager who were beginning to harbour genuine ambitions of a title challenge this season, recent results have highlighted their shortcomings and brought some old failings back to the surface. Primarily, Tottenham’s creativity problems and Mourinho’s struggles with motivating a group of players who do not possess the winning mentality of those he worked with in the early, trophy-laden stage of his managerial career.
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The first issue should be a simple one to address, but it requires the second problem to have diminished within Mourinho’s makeup for it to be corrected quickly, and without long-term damage, in order to Spurs to get back on track. Basically, has Mourinho learned how to be less demanding and unforgiving of underperforming players since those traits led to the breakdown of his relationship with the players at Chelsea and Manchester United in his past two jobs?
It is a question that will soon have an answer, because Mourinho won’t accept the same old mistakes costing his team points for long. His postmatch comments, when he pointed the blame at his players, are not a good sign, however.
“It is very disappointing, it is like against Liverpool where you control dangerous players for 90 minutes and concede from a set piece,” Mourinho said. “Defending deep, that’s not the intention. They know what I asked them at half-time, if they couldn’t do better it’s because they couldn’t do better. I know the way I prepare the team, I know all that and don’t want to say much more than that. We didn’t have that ambition or desire to go for more.”
The current Spurs slump began with a 1-1 draw at Crystal Palace two weeks ago, but since they travelled to Liverpool with the opportunity to go three points clear at the top of the Premier League on Dec. 16, Tottenham have lost two out of three games and now find themselves in fifth. Rather than set the pace in the title race, Mourinho and his team have fallen back into the pack.
At Palace, an 81st-minute goal denied Spurs victory, and then at Anfield, Roberto Firmino’s 90th-minute header turned a 1-1 draw into a 2-1 defeat. On Sunday at Molineux, it was an 86th-minute header by Romain Saiss which cancelled out Tanguy Ndombele’s first-minute opener and secured a deserved point for the home side.
Conceding such punishing late goals will be a source of intense irritation for Mourinho, who places great importance on concentration and organisation. Wherever he has managed, his basic principles have always been rooted in defensive solidity, and Spurs are beginning to let that side of the game slip.
Against Wolves, just as against Liverpool at Anfield, Spurs lined up well and were rigid in their defensive shape. From a tactical perspective, they were impressive. But shape only goes so far in determining the outcome of a game and at Molineux, as before at Anfield, Spurs were too willing to sacrifice possession and allow the opponent to dominate.
And although Spurs were undone by a failure to defend a late corner in both games, the mental fatigue of having to concentrate on defensive organisation for such lengthy periods may have contributed to defenders switching off when their focus was needed most. The blame for that can be laid at Mourinho’s door because his reluctance to play with greater flair ensures that Spurs will have to do more defending than a title challenger should.
Mourinho sanctioned the departure of attacking midfielder Christian Eriksen to Inter Milan last January — a move Spurs had little option but to allow due to the Dane’s dwindling contract — but Eriksen has not been replaced. Dele Alli could be used as Tottenham’s creative force in the attacking third, but the former England midfielder has been overlooked repeatedly by Mourinho and appears to be heading for the exit door, just as Eriksen did almost a year ago. Perhaps the money being spent on Gareth Bale’s wages during his season-long loan from Real Madrid could have been better used on a No. 10 to replace Eriksen, but that didn’t happen and Mourinho has shaped his squad in a different way.
But right now, the players he uses, especially away from home, don’t create enough for Harry Kane and Son Heung-min and also don’t allow Spurs to keep the ball and command possession. The downside of that was seen at Wolves, just as it was seen at Anfield and Selhurst Park this month. Mourinho’s approach invites pressure and his players are creaking under it.
So this is now a big test for Mourinho. He has to get Spurs winning again, but he also needs to do it without making enemies in the dressing room. It sounds simple enough, but history has shown us where it can go wrong with Mourinho in circumstances like these.