Gary Neville spoke for many when he described Tottenham’s appointment of Jose Mourinho as a “marriage of convenience.” Less than two months in and it is already clear that either the Portuguese or Spurs will have to change if this partnership is to be a success.
Liverpool only beat Tottenham by a single goal on Saturday. Had the home side been less profligate in the second half, they could have held the Premier League leaders to a draw. That would have been significant. After all, the Reds had won 19 of their previous 20 top-flight encounters.
Even so, Spurs fans will have been disappointed by their team’s display. There is no shame in losing to this rampant, relentless Liverpool team. But the passive, back-foot approach favored by Mourinho once again looked out of date against opponents who embody many of the principles associated with top-level football in 2020.
Mourinho believes football matches are won and lost in transition. According to his philosophy, an opposition team is most vulnerable in the seconds immediately after they lose the ball. In big games, Mourinho usually adopts a risk-averse strategy and aims to minimize his side’s mistakes. He also urges his players to take advantage of any opposition slip-ups.
That was the approach he took on Saturday. Tottenham sat back. They did not press. They packed men behind the ball. They waited for Liverpool to make mistakes.
Jurgen Klopp’s side was sloppy at times, and better finishing could have seen Spurs take advantage. But Liverpool controlled proceedings. They dominated possession and created numerous chances of their own. The Reds were proactive while Tottenham was reactive.
Mourinho looks increasingly out of step when compared to other elite-level managers across Europe. Diego Simeone has enjoyed tremendous success at Atletico Madrid with an emphasis on defense and clean sheets. Elsewhere, though, most coaches competing for the game’s biggest prizes set up their teams to attack.
Liverpool is perhaps the best example. Klopp’s team presses high. They play on the front foot. They look to score goals but also possess a fine defensive record. Saturday’s shut-out against the Spurs was their sixth in a row in the Premier League.
It is far easier to get players on side when you are practicing the type of football Klopp preaches. Mourinho is still a charismatic character who has, for instance, provoked an improvement in Dele Alli at the Spurs. But in the long run, players tend to tire of both his adversarial personality and his tactical demands.
The beauty of football is that there are many different ways to play the game. That is what has made the sport such an international success. A variety of styles have flourished at different points in football history. Nevertheless, it is difficult to ignore the fact that Mourinho’s favored approach has become less and less widespread over the last decade.
When Mourinho took charge in November, Tottenham was 11 points adrift of the top four. That gap has now closed to nine points, but there are fewer games remaining to eliminate the deficit.
Given their poor start to the campaign, securing Champions League qualification was always going to be a tall order for Tottenham. However, Mourinho will have wanted to build positive momentum going into next term, which is when he will be properly judged.
The jury is still out. Mourinho still does not look like a natural fit for Spurs. The Portuguese has won trophies wherever he has been, but after eight weeks in his current job, he already has his work cut out.