Where We Go From Here
I convinced myself that we would beat Chelsea, that we would move into fourth and that the absence of our two star strikers, two best players would be less keenly felt than anticipated. I’m an idiot.
Jose Mourinho pre-warned of rotation for the run of three games in six days, and this team selection reflected both that plan, and a plan to match up to Chelsea’s back three. But whereas Chelsea’s was a definite back three, Mourinho set up in a flat back five. Japhet Tanganga had not played full-back before moving into the first team, but was deployed on the right of a back five here.
Serge Aurier had two poor games against Aston Villa and RB Leipzig and was overdue a rest, but this didn’t seem an ideal use of Tanganga’s skillset. Whilst he was not asked to run forward with the ball or be particularly progressive, the ball was regularly shuttled out to him as Chelsea pressed from the front. He tried three things to get out of trouble: finding an angle for a pass inside (easier said than done); winning throws by playing up the line; stepping inside to commit the pressing player. He had limited success with each, such is his skillset and he endured a difficult afternoon. Unfortunately, Juan Foyth, who is better in possession and may have been a better selection, is still recovering from injury, so Mourinho’s choice was ‘keep flogging Aurier and pray he doesn’t get injured from fatigue’ or ‘try Tanganga’. On the other side, Ben Davies was just as ineffective, playing his third game in the period – not ideal when just returning from injury.
The full-backs weren’t Spurs’ only problem, of course, but the inability to beat the press was playing into Chelsea’s hands. As Mourinho pointed out post-match ‘If they press us high, they know that if we go long we don’t win a single ball against the opponent’s defenders, If they drop the block and go with low block, they know it’s difficult for us to get into the box, especially from the sides. So opponents they know if they score a goal before us we’re in trouble.’
Frank Lampard certainly motivated and organised his players well but, essentially, without Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, we are easy to plan for.
Mourinho tried to do his best to find solutions to the press – namely by selecting our most ‘press-resistant’ midfield in Harry Winks, Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso, but then he played Lo Celso from the right, in a curious move. He still had more touches (87) than any other Spurs player on the pitch but we struggled to get him involved in the first half when his presence was badly needed to help move the ball through midfield.
Ndombele looked – as ever – unfit whilst Chelsea’s midfield of Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic, with Mason Mount and Ross Barkley snapping into tackles and closing space quickly ahead of them, looked the opposite: fit, sharp, spritely, motivated.
One positive came in the shape of Steven Bergwijn. Though these were small steps towards finding a solution to missing our two best goal-getters, he showed an ability to be able to play with his back to goal. Bergwijn is excellent technically – an immaculate first touch, neat turning circle and – crucially – a real awareness of those around him. His lay-offs and link-up play were impressive, particularly given he was up against three centre-backs with little support.
And thus we move onto Lucas Moura. Lucas Moura is a club legend in my eyes – his name will never be forgotten at White Hart Lane. That display against Ajax will be recounted to new fans for generations. But Mourinho’s persistence with Lucas as a starting player is hurting us.
Lucas’ first touch is an issue in itself. It’s not consistent enough, often ending up with his second being a tackle as the ball gets away from him. But it’s decision-making that’s so problematic. Like Son, Lucas dribbles with his head down. He’s an effective dribbler – those quick feet and that burst of acceleration – but the fact that he’s got his head down means that he 1. often runs into defenders, and 2. is unaware of his teammates. But, unlike Son, there’s little of note at the end of his dribbles.
Whilst Lucas’ effort levels are tremendous, they are not matched by his output. In his last ten starts he has one goal and one assist. And let’s remember that he has mostly played up front in that time.
But it isn’t just the last ten games – it’s Lucas’ productivity across his Spurs career. A goal or assist every 184.6 minutes; it takes more than two matches for Lucas to get a goal or assist. This season it’s 227.9, or 257.8 in the Premier League; this is very bad.
Lucas has nine assists in nearly 6,000 minutes played for us. It seems cruel to compare his 184.6 mins per goal/assist ration to Son’s 109.1 minutes, but even the oft-criticised Lamela manages a goal or assist every 152.9 minutes.
Of course, the other reason for removing Lucas from the starting XI for a while is that he’s a genuinely useful ‘change up’ option to have on the bench. When you need an injection of pace against tired legs, he’s ideal.
Lucas seems to be a Mourinho favourite – we all remember those quotes at the beginning of Mourinho’s tenure about wanting to sign him previously. Plus, removing him from the team now will be seen as madness, given our lack of other forward options. But, in my opinion, it’s essential that we try something new if we want to start scoring regularly again.
Mourinho’s impossible situation
It didn’t take long for sections of the fan-base to turn on Mourinho – plenty were never fully ‘for’ him in the first place. But it seems to me to be the wrong time to be judging him.
The team that Mourinho inherited was fundamentally broken. On a downward turn that – if we’re honest – had been going on for the best part of a year (the Champions League run tricking us into thinking everything was okay). There was no structure or cohesion on the pitch, team unity seemed to be lacking. I think he did the right things in letting Christian Eriksen leave, in getting rid of Danny Rose, in tying Toby Alderweireld down to a new contract. The January signings seemed sensible, albeit more reinforcements would have been nice (more on that here).
The number of matches since he arrived three months ago has meant that he has had limited time on the training ground to implement tactical improvements and, when he has had that time, he has been hit by injury after injury: Hugo Lloris, Ben Davies, Moussa Sissoko, Harry Kane and now Son Heung-min. Giovani Lo Celso wasn’t available at the start. Tanguy Ndombele has barely been available either.
I understand that fans don’t want to see a low to medium block, inviting teams that we feel we are on a par with onto us, and trying to counter-attack them. But I believe that Mourinho has very few options at the moment that don’t involve doing that. Had he attempted to play through midfield against RB Leipzig they would have picked us off at will. Chelsea pressed us effectively and forced us to play long and then mopped up those long balls. When we tried to play it into midfield, they got bodies around us and won the ball back. These are not easy matches when you have so many limiting factors at play at once. It’s not like we had a working system pre-Mourinho and he just needed to tweak things: he had to go back to basics and try to re-build the team structure from scratch.
We now have a comparatively favourable run of fixtures in March (though it involves six matches in 20 days):
- Wolverhampton Wanderers (H) – PL
- Norwich City (H) – FAC
- Burnley (A) – PL
- RasenBallsport Leipzig (A) – CL
- Manchester United (H) – PL
- West Ham (H) – PL
What I hope to see from these matches is a solution forming up front that does not involve Lucas. I’d like to see Bergwijn continue through the middle, with Dele from the left and Lamela from the right, but both close to Bergwijn to try to connect with him and create opportunities through clever movement and interplay.
I’d like to see some more rotation of and experimentation with the full-backs – I’m happy with Tanganga on the right if it is the ‘withdrawn full-back’ role and Ryan Sessegnon comes in on the left. Foyth could also play there too. Aurier’s performances are so mixed, whilst Davies is clearly not the silver bullet that Mourinho hoped he would be.
I’d like to see Ndombele get a run of games to build fitness – he’s one of our biggest hopes. Keep that midfield together and make it gel.
And I’d like to see us work on set pieces. I have been shouting it into the void on Twitter, but Tanganga needs to be in the box for every corner. He is one of our best players at attacking the ball and he is always held back to cover the counter. We need goals from all possible sources, and set piece goals would be incredibly useful right now.
Fourth is still possible if we can eke out some results, and fifth may yet get us Champions League football. The run-in won’t be pretty, but there’s plenty left to aim for.