On Mourinho And Tactics

We are only a few games into the Jose Mourinho era and it’s not a time to draw conclusions about his approach or his tactics, particularly as he is new to working with the squad and has not had ample opportunity to work out what he has and has not got yet. What we can do, though, is note some of the early changes that he has put into place and comment on them.

There are two really obvious changes that were instant. Firstly, he installed Eric Dier, a defensive midfielder, at the base (NB: this may actually be a point of dispute but is factually correct based on average positions!) of his midfield. Dier hasn’t played every minute of every game under Mourinho — he did not play against Manchester United (fitness?) and he was the one sacrificed on 29 minutes against Olympiakos. But both he and his role seem important to Mourinho thus far, and he did a good job against Burnley in particular. I am pleased to see a more defensive-focussed player in midfield and, more importantly, the breaking-up of the Harry Winks/Moussa Sissoko midfield combination, which I have hated from its inception. Whether Mourinho is wedded to Dier or just the inclusion of one naturally defensive-minded remains to be seen. Certainly his return to the team has not been a universally popular one, and he is absolutely not yet where he was pre-injury.

The second obvious change is the lopsided approach to full-backs, which allows us to play a 3-2-5 in our build-up play and commit to a form of Positional Play whilst maintaining defensive structure. Having one full-back — so far, the left back — hang back means — simplistically — that we have one extra player in reserve should attacks break down. For a team that seemed to have lost a lot of confidence and was conceding a high volume of shots, this seemed a sensible decision for Mourinho to make. We had also been struggling with our left-back selections. With Danny Rose a shadow of the player he once was and Ben Davies struggling to get up and down the pitch, this seemed like an ideal compromise. Interestingly, with Ben Davies getting injured, many people have speculated as to whether we might see Juan Foyth play as the more defensive full-back on the right, with Ryan Sessegnon coming in on the left to play the role that Serge Aurier has been playing up until now on the opposite side. In today’s press conference, Mourinho seemed to confirm the possibility of one of those things whilst denying the other:

Of course, the other problem with shifting the defensive minded player from the left-back to the right-back is that Son Heung-min, our touchline hugger on the left, would no longer be playing the role in which he has been excellent so far.

Other points of note so far include:

  • Increased long-balls from defence, particularly Toby Alderweireld, which have proven hugely profitable in most games, and hugely detrimental in the Manchester United match, where the ball kept coming back at us.
  • Dele playing just off Kane and making a lot of runs behind the defence to stretch them. He has undoubtedly been one of the stand-outs under Mourinho so far, though he was less effective against Burnley.
  • Paulo Gazzaniga largely kicking long; the ‘build from the back’ intent is now much more situational and pragmatic, and Gazzaniga is more likely to go long than play short.
  • Harry Winks/Son Heung-min/others on corner duty; keep an eye on this, but we’ve switched up corner taking duty and seem to be playing a lot more ‘percentage balls’ into the box — i.e. beat the first man and put the ball into an area, rather than firing in low, flat corners into the near post.

I am sure that there will be more tactical innovation from Mourinho once has has more time on the training field, and I think he has been sensible in keeping things relatively simple so far. Certainly he made it clear today that he wants to use the time he will get with the squad in January to get to work.

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Hokey Cokey

I feel like each time I root myself in #PochIn, I’m wrestled back towards #PochOut the following week. That I’m even having this conversation in my head is sad; I love the man dearly. Or rather, I have loved the man dearly over the past five and a half years. He’s brought me more joy as Spurs manager than any of the previous incumbents in my lifetime. That there is a perfect solution to the current situation is pure fallacy.

Option one is that we part company with one of the better managers in world football, losing the prospect of our squad being rebuilt by one of the greatest around who built *his* reputation on building an exciting, young team, developing players from relative newcomer status to fully-fledged superstar internationals.

Option two is that we potentially let that man stay long enough to undermine his own legacy. At the moment there seems little evidence that he is able to motivate the squad that — and I think this is an oft-overlooked point — he has overseen and built. His demeanour and language in press conferences have changed over the last year, with him now more likely to throw blame the way of players or to deflect. It certainly felt that way yesterday.

There is no solution right now that does what we all want: flicks a switch and makes us play well again with a vibrant, happy team and manager. It has been years of letting squad-building get away from us that has led to this point, and it may take another two years to resolve the issues. That’s a painful thing to come to terms with. You are left to decide whether 1. sticking with the man who took us to this point (and I’ve deliberately written that in a way open to two interpretations) is the right solution, or 2. whether bringing in a new man who might (and, wow, that’s a gamble) get us back to where we were more quickly through a change in approach is better.

I alluded above to the fact that I think Mauricio Pochettino gets let off the hook too often when it comes to the critique on building his squad. It is very easy to blame Daniel Levy, very easy to blame a lack of investment. But Pochettino’s very deliberately made himself the Manager, not the Head Coach, and we know that he is very selective with new signings. It’s been widely-reported that he turned down Youri Tielemans on loan in January last season. It was also reported that he wasn’t sure about Ricardo Pereira and so went with Serge Aurier instead. Both now look like wonderful bits of business for Leicester City.

Pochettino has called Levy out in public for his style of operating in the transfer market, sure. I don’t think Levy is the easiest to work with, and I don’t think he parts with money easily. But there were other solutions here. Over the past few years we have also turned our noses up at James Maddison, Demarai Gray, Max Aarons, Ryan Sessegnon (when he was reeeeeally cheap), Ademola Lookman, and Jack Grealish (at various points). These players were all available cheaply and fitted Levy’s previous policy of buying young and buying early. I struggle to believe that these deals would not have been sanctioned — after all, we were employing scouts to find exactly these types of players.

Then we had the possibility of developing players already at the club. I wrote about this this past week. Pochettino has not been keen to develop players in any sort of focussed way, instead letting them stay around the fringes of the squad, having a look in training but not actually playing them in matches at *any* level and, thus, allowing them to stagnate. His refusal to let players out on loan has — as I say in my article — led to contract stand-offs and, ultimately, talented young players leaving or not developing post-scholarship.

So if your hands are tied with the big money moves (maybe), you aren’t interested in the ‘cheap, young punt’ transfers and you’re not developing young players already at the club… how do you intend to refresh the squad? Did Pochettino really spend multiple windows hoping that Levy would eventually change his mind and then try to get four windows’ worth of business done in one?

In the meantime, too many players have been allowed to stay beyond their peak without any succession-planning taking place. Danny Rose is the obvious example, but the same could be said for Christian Eriksen. Meanwhile we sold Kieran Trippier at the right time (probably) but did not have a plan on how to replace him. Indeed, the plan was to sell Serge Aurier too and go into the season with Juan Foyth and Kyle Walker-Peters as our right-backs, two players largely untested because Pochettino hadn’t really committed to testing them. As it turns out, he’s had to go back on that plan and bring Aurier back into the fold.

I think you could argue that there *was* some succession-planning at centre-back, with Davinson Sanchez and Juan Foyth being developed to take over from Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. But it’s been left to rumble on and now we’re in this toxic situation of the Belgians both being out of contract. Pochettino’s fall-out with Vertonghen at the beginning of the season felt symptomatic of the situation that he had created.

Central midfield is, of course, the biggest mess, though. Moussa Dembele has *finally* been replaced properly (with Tanguy Ndombele) but a year of the Harry Winks/Moussa Sissoko midfield axis has been a painful watch, and now Pochettino is unsure who best to partner Ndombele with. Winks is probably fine in a midfield three in games where we are going to have most of the ball, and Sissoko is probably fine in a three in games where we need to press and pounce on loose balls. But both have niche skillsets unsuited to being in a two without a more traditional ball-winner, and signing 30-year old Sissoko to a an extended new contract seemed somewhat desperate.

And in all of this I have not yet mentioned our playing style. The ‘Pochettino Press’ has all but gone. The latest example on Saturday showed a team that didn’t know whether they were staying compact or pressing, and got caught in-between. For the Sheffield United goal (in the tweet below) Giovani Lo Celso eventually commits to the press with Son Heung-min ready to pounce, but the fact that they either ‘go rogue’ or are the only players focussed on winning the ball and countering directly leads to the goal.

The ‘painful’ rebuild that Pochettino spoke of is, sadly, panning out to be way more painful than we all thought.

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Guest Blog: Youth Special

A special guest blog from @CarlItAsISeeIt who you may know from podcasts about our youth team that we’ve recorded together in the past. Carl has encyclopaedic knowledge of our youth teams and big opinions on where it’s going wrong at the moment in terms of the academy feeding our first team. So without further ado…

In my opinion there is a lot of misplaced negativity about Spurs’ academy at the moment; people talk about it as though it is not doing its job. Fans are looking over at Arsenal and Chelsea, seeing the players they are bringing through, and are starting to feel envious, placing the blame at the door of our academy. But, for my money, the players and staff in the actual ‘academy’ are doing everything right and have not really let up over the past few years.

Instead, our youth development is suffering for having a system that does not allow our players to develop post-19; other clubs take our players, and the academy faces criticism when the academy has actually completed its role in the development process (i.e. it ends at 18).

The main issue rests with whomever controls the loans and first team integration. We are feeling the effects of not developing our best talents, as we are now starting to lose players or are unable to recruit at Under-14/Under-15 level; the result of which is that we lack depth in some age groups.

Take as an example England’s golden age group: the 2000-borns. England got to the semi-finals of the European Championships at Under-17 level and then won the World Cup. In that age group alone Spurs had multiple call-ups along the way. That group of players was one of the best England has ever produced and, therefore, it feels reasonable to say — given the fact that we are an elite academic and had so many players involved — that it was also one of the best groups that Spurs had produced. When our 2000-borns were 17/18, we had as many talented players as Manchester City, as Chelsea and arguably more talented players than Arsenal. But if we look at the players from that age group we will see where the development fell away.

Tashan Oakley-Boothe

Oakley-Boothe was one of the biggest talents from that age group at 16. Many youth watchers who know English youth football, myself included, were really looking forward to watching him come through. A lot cited his injury as one of the reasons England did not win the European Championships, and saw him as one of the best or most important players in a group which included Callum Hudson-Odoi, Phil Foden and Jadon Sancho. Oakley-Boothe was taken under Mauricio Pochettino’s wing, promoted to the first team squad early, and ultimately become a shell of the player he once was. He had no loans, was restricted to Under-23 football, and stagnated. Stagnated to the point that he ended up being a bench player for the Under-23s. Why was he on the bench? Because he was eventually overtaken by…

Oliver Skipp

Skipp was another massive talent from that year group; arguably only pipped by Oakley-Boothe and one other, who I will come onto. The fact that he was probably (slightly) less technically able/eye-catching and more industrious, meant that he was allowed to play youth football whilst Oakley-Boothe was promoted to the first team squad. He, therefore, continued to develop and look the part, eventually overtaking Oakley-Boothe and gaining sparse minutes with the first team. He became the ‘next big thing’, which was probably the worst thing that could have happened to him. There is a possibility that we will not see Skipp again this season — at any level. By the end of next season there is a risk that he will become the next player who, in the eyes of the fans, ‘is not good enough’. As I was saying, Skipp was only slightly behind…

Nya Kirby

Another regular in that age group, we lost Kirby as he wanted to join Chelsea. This seemed like a great career choice for him but, owing to the deal going awry, he ended up at Crystal Palace. As almost happened with Aaron Wan-Bissaka (until injury struck and he got his chance), Kirby is now struggling to get any first team minutes. A former Chelsea and Spurs youth coach stated that Kirby and Oakley-Boothe were two of the best players he had ever worked with; the same coach would have worked with Hudson-Odoi, Mason Mount, Fikayo Tomori, etc. Kirby wanted to leave — presumably for money and for developmental opportunities that he would not get at Spurs.

TJ Eyoma

Our final regular in that age group was Eyoma. A player who excelled at bringing the ball out from the back. He was one of the primary centre-backs, along with Marc Guehi and Jonathan Panzo. Eyoma was an excellent centre-back who was a mainstay in that team… who has not developed. No loans, nothing.

Reo Griffiths

Less of a regular, but Reo Griffiths was also called up to that age group. He would have been competing with Rhian Brewster, Danny Loader, and Hudson-Odoi (who was a striker initially). Whilst not the most naturally gifted, Griffiths scored a lot of goals and earned a call-up before leaving Spurs for more opportunities.

Brooklyn Lyons-Foster

Lyons-Foster played quite a few games across different age groups at full-back. Any player getting called up to that age group had talent and watchers were excited about how good he had played for Spurs at centre-back. What we see now is another who has gone backwards.

Tariq Hinds

Hinds was called up to a tournament but missed out due to injuries, which prevented him getting his chance again. But it is worth pointing out that at the point of his call-up he was ahead of Max Aarons, Jayden Bogle and Tariq Lamptey (another impressive Chelsea right-back). Anyone who has seen Hinds will know he is a technically excellent player, but if Kyle Walker-Peters cannot forge a pathway then it is almost impossible to see how Hinds might.

We could look at the 1999-borns: we had Keanan Bennetts, Sam Shashoua, Jaden Brown, Jon Dinzeyi and Japhet Tanganga playing for England in the same age group that had Mount, Joe Willock, Eddie Nketiah and Reiss Nelson. We look over at other clubs and wonder why we cannot match their talent: the answers are all there in front of us. Mount and Nelson were out on good loans while the other two were getting League Cup minutes. Meanwhile, three of ours have now left the club, just to find some sort of game time; Shashoua even personally organised a loan before leaving permanently. Tanganga was arguably the biggest talent of these players, and he dropped behind Dinzeyi in our manager’s eyes only to pop up this pre-season due to injuries. Unfortunately for him, he played so well that he missed an opportunity to get himself a loan or some development. I could go into some depth on Marcus Edwards, Josh Onomah and Kyle Walker-Peters — all England regulars from very young age groups, and some of the biggest talents we have produced — but I would only be repeating myself.

So I am left wondering ‘what more can our academy do when it comes to producing players?’ Onlookers will say that we are not doing a good job compared to other clubs, but the talent is there if you look hard enough.

When comparing the output of our academy with other clubs, we need to start focussing on what is happening between the ages of 19-23. After all, our players have been regularly featured in England squads, and yet everyone can see we cannot get any of them into our first team; we need to change perceptions that this is a fault with the players, and the ‘academy’. Did they all develop a collective bad attitude and give up, while the ‘overpaid, spoilt’ Chelsea stars continued to work? Or, is it simply that an opportunity arose?

Chelsea is perhaps a poor comparison, because their academy is truly exceptional. But they have had a similar problem until this season.

Chelsea won five FA Youth Cups in a row, and seven out of nine. They also won the UEFA Youth League twice and finished as runners-up twice. What is happening now is not just a golden era, they have had top quality players every single year for a long period of time. The key difference is that this year they have a manager that wants to play them.

Players like Kasey Palmer, Charlie Colkett, Jeremie Boga, Dominic Solanke, Charly Musonda, Ola Aina and Jay Dasilva missed out on opportunities previously. The logical conclusion from those not closely watching was that clearly those age groups were not producing players. If Lampard — who also managed Mount and Tomori last year — was not there, how many of these academy players would be getting chances now? Abraham was ridiculed when team selections were announced a matter of weeks ago, based on the impression that Chelsea fans had of him.

I have always said that we could bring through one player a year. Chelsea are not doing anything in cycles, they are doing just that — one or two a year:

1996 – Loftus-Cheek, Christensen
1997 – Abraham, Tomori
1998 – James
1999 – Mount
2000 – Hudson-Odoi

These players have not coincidentally become ready for first team football at the same time; they have been steadily developed through strategic loans and, crucially, they have a manager in place who trusts them.

Chelsea are the pinnacle of academy football; they have a better academy than us. But you can have the greatest academy in the world and will not see its value unless the manager plays the best of the players. The only thing we could hold over them over the past few years was that we gave our academy players a chance, yet we only have Harry Winks to show for it. I am confident that by the end of this season, Reece James (the player I believe will have the fewest minutes of those listed above) will have played more football than Skipp and Walker-Peters combined. So we either praise Chelsea and Frank Lampard or accept the criticism that we are underperforming in this particular area. Given that they currently sit above us in the league and are performing better in the Champions League, comments about rightly not trusting youth players in pressure games feel unwarranted.

The academy is absolutely not failing at producing players. But the club is failing at bringing academy players into the first team. What has happened to Walker-Peters is one of the saddest things I have seen at this club given the amount of trust and faith he has put in the club to manage his career. So many England youth fans were looking forward to seeing what he would become, but he never got the chance. Nothing will change if we do not change what we are doing at the business end. It is a bit like when Chelsea won their string of youth trophies and did not bring through players; everyone assumed that they were not good enough.

Moving forward, there is still a huge amount of talent in the Spurs academy. The only reason that myself and others are not as vocal about it anymore is that it all feels a bit pointless. But there is enough talent to aim to bring one player through per season. Our Under-18s last year put in some of the best displays I have ever seen at that level. We continue to lose players, like Noni Madueke (who is looking good at PSV) but we still have talent below: the likes of Nile John, Roshaun Mathurin, Dane Scarlett, Jordan Hackett, Brandon Bryan-Waugh (and others) are seriously talented players. The future is bright if the pathway is there.

Many thanks to Carl for his insight here — a fascinating read, I’m sure you’ll agree.

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In a week of contradictions from Mauricio Pochettino, his team served up a performance which epitomised the lack of clarity coming from their leader as they failed to beat bottom-of-the-table Watford at home.

The team selection went against the rumours and represented more of the same, rather than the defensive re-build that some had said were coming. He did change to a back three, however, which saw Davinson Sanchez get 45 minutes alongside the rest of Pochettino’s favoured back four. He abandoned that system at half-time, though, as his team trailed, and the additional defender was proving unnecessary. Sanchez was sacrificed but had been far from the worst in the back line.

Pochettino has flip-flopped with his views several times over the last nine months, and it is not clear whether he is simply suffering some inner turmoil and, therefore, saying what he genuinely feels at the time (only to change his views weeks later), or whether he is attempting to send different messages to different people: the team, the fans, his boss. The problem is that these messages are all being sent in public and so the lack of clarity is apparent to all.

A month ago Pochettino seemed to see the January transfer window as a silver bullet, saying ‘January is going to be a good opportunity […] to fix this situation’ – music to the ears of most fans. But in the pre-match press conference this week he had changed his tune: ‘I believe in the players that are in Tottenham today. […] I am going to stick with players because I know have the quality [sic].’

Post-match he was left hinting that he’d changed his mind once more: ‘if we need something we need to act.’

The mixed messages have been around for a while, and the players certainly seem to be suffering from a lack of clarity on the pitch, unsure of themselves and the approach to scoring goals… and stopping them going in.

Against Watford Pochettino focussed attacks through the wing-backs, amassing a vast number of crosses in the first half; crossing is statistically an inefficient means of scoring, and has often been a last resort for Pochettino’s Tottenham, who normally have Christian Eriksen picking the lock between the opposition defence and midfield. But here it was Plan A, and Watford’s centre-backs seemed to relish the opportunity to head and kick crosses away at will, their back three amassing 33 clearances between them throughout the game.

Pochettino’s team selection was questionable, and he corrected it at half-time, adding Son Heung-min to the attacking threat and immediately seeing his team’s attacking impetus grow.  The attempts at goal were lacking, though, and with nobody playing in the area that Eriksen would typically patrol, Spurs lacked creativity. Erik Lamela was eventually brought on to add invention, and his sprightly cameo from the right was helpful, but meant that Son was shifted from the wing, where he had been effective at running into space. This meant that he was often playing in amongst traffic and subsequently he struggled to get shots away. Pochettino seemed to be struggling to get the best out of his team.

Had this performance come from Pochettino changing things up and attempting to inject some new life into the team I would have been far more accepting. But there are players keeping their place in team despite turning out disappointing display after disappointing display, particularly Danny Rose, Jan Vertonghen and – although he wasn’t a complete disaster in this particular match – Serge Aurier. Pochettino’s ruthless banishing of the ‘Kaboul cabal’ in his first season was the starting point for his regime. He needs to work out quickly which of his current squad members he can rely on as Spurs are already five points off fourth, and that gap will grow if things don’t quickly improve.

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Infinite content

What you find with football club content is that when things are not going well, the amount of content related to that club increases. This week I have fallen into the trap myself! Let me assure you that this is (mostly) coincidence in my case. And yet I did find it relatively easy to get my words out this week; hindsight is a wonderful thing, etc etc etc.

I’ve been writing my gloves off (that’s not a saying, I know) these past couple of weeks and I thought I would plonk some links down here in order to aggregate some of it as there’s a chance you’ll have missed some. And, to be honest, a couple of these pieces are things I’m fairly happy with – which is a rare thing with me and my writing. So, going from the most recent:

I wrote this for 90min on how Pochettino may want to freshen up the team.

I wrote this for Paddy Power on what’s gone wrong and how we move forward.

And last week I’d written this, again for Paddy Power, on how Poch could do with cheering up a bit.

And aside from writing, we’ve released several episodes of The Extra Inch podcast, including a recent one where we dissected Southampton and then couldn’t bear to dissect Bayern. That episode, ‘The Extra Flinch‘, has had far fewer listens than usual; I wonder why?! Anyway, have a listen to the podcast if you’ve not before – it’s on iTunes, Spotify, Acast. If you enjoy listening it would be lovely if you’d leave a review! Here’s what some fine, fine people have said about us on iTunes.

iTunes Reviews for The Extra Inch
iTunes Reviews for The Extra Inch

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