Jose Mourinho’s whole season so far may be proof of how quickly football can change, but Tottenham Hotspur games tend to take a little longer to change. That’s usually after the 75th minute.
Ivan Cavaleiro’s goal, to earn Fulham a point at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, was the seventh Spurs have conceded after that mark in just 17 league games so far this season. Six of them have been consequential, costing the side points. Four have come in the last six games. So much for Mourinho changing the mentality of the club. His approach seems to be changing games for the worse.
There is a clear trend, of a type that would see an attacking manager get accused of being “naive”. How isn’t he learning? How does it keep happening?
The temptation is to immediately turn to Mourinho’s philosophy, but there is an issue that comes before that. It does complicate things, in the sense it makes life much more difficult for the Portuguese.
The Spurs boss ultimately leans on his defence, but there are big questions over that defence – or, rather, the individual defenders – are actually good enough to warrant that.
Mourinho did specifically criticise their technical execution after the game.
“This is the same story basically since the beginning of the season. We can talk about not killing the game, yes, we can speak about that, and today was a clear situation where we could and should have killed the game in the first half but then you go back to the goals that we concede and it’s not also easy to assimilate that.
“I think there are things that have to be with the characteristics of players. There are things that are difficult too.
“There are some things they have to do with organisation of the team, but other things they have to do with individual skills, individual ability, and it’s as simple as that.”
That may be a sentence with more meaning than Mourinho intended. It may well go to those questions of basic quality.
Of the back four that started against Fulham, there is an argument that only Sergio Reguilon is close to top class. Davinson Sanchez has potential but it is some way off being fulfilled. Eric Dier has rarely been much more than serviceable in that role. Serge Aurier is, well, Serge Aurier.
Beyond that, it doesn’t get that much better. Toby Alderweireld is probably the defender with the highest profile in terms of his standing, and Mourinho did want him at Manchester United when Mauricio Pochettino was Spurs’ manager. Some close to Pochettino nevertheless say that management team always felt it was the system that got the best out of Alderweireld, rather than the Belgian quite being top class.
Which of course brings us back around to the bigger question, about Mourinho’s approach, and what his idealised system would be.
When you compare Spurs’ defensive players with their attacking players, it’s simply impossible to make the argument that the former is anywhere close to the level of the latter. It is abundantly clear that most of Spurs’ class is weighted towards the attacking positions, especially Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min.
It’s also impossible not to imagine what they might be like working in tandem and in flow with Tanguy N’Dombele and Giovani Lo Celso – and maybe even Dele Alli, let alone the forgotten Gareth Bale – in a more proactive system. This is the potential side Spurs are missing out on, especially since the early form now seems something of a temporary illusion based on opposition sides allowing them to counter.
So why doesn’t Mourinho weight his system in that direction? Why isn’t it based on the supreme attackers, rather than the serviceable defenders?
Is it because it is just against his football nature?
If so, the nature of Spurs’ season might be to continue conceding frustrating late goals.