I’ve been openly quite skeptical of José Mourinho’s approach to managing us so far, partly because I don’t like him as a person (I’m doing my best to put that to one side, honest) but mostly because I’ve not believed that he’s yet maximised our potential.
That sounds really stupid when you look at our results (and when you consider that José Mourinho is one of the most successful football managers of all time and I am an idiot with a laptop) but stick with me for a moment whilst I explain what I mean.
The purpose of a football manager or coach – for me – is to make a team greater than the sum of its parts. You could have eleven brilliant footballers, the best in their positions in the world, and they would probably win the majority of their matches because they are the best. But a manager should be able to put them together in a way that makes them – as a collective – even better than that.
Are we good?
I think we have a really, really good team (and squad). I have been pretty big on how good our team is since we signed Sergio Reguilón and Gareth Bale – here’s a clip of me talking about the strength of our team on The Extra Inch back in October.
The coaching/system/tactics being deployed by a manager/coach should be able to improve the players, put them into a shape that suits them, give them a set of instructions that suit them and, therefore, improve the output. The output could be performances or the output could be points. One would hope that strong performances would ultimately lead to points, and that’s sort of the the crux of this.
A prime example of what I mean is the way Graham Potter has got Brighton and Hove Albion playing some really fantastic football. He has a group of pretty unfashionable players and yet…
Brighton are currently the fifth best team in the Premier League in terms of xPTS (Expected Points). The fact that they are 16th in the actual table reflects a few things, but probably mostly missed chances (Neal Maupay has been especially wasteful). But this also illustrates what I’m coming onto… Mourinho isn’t bothered about how progressively his team plays or how much of the ball they have.
Mourinho is focussed entirely on the end result, and what this means is that we take the most pragmatic route to points that is possible. Graham Potter might have Brighton playing some outstanding possession-based football – football far more eye-catching and impressive than one might expect given the quality of their team – but ultimately they are not getting the points on the board. He’s sort of the anti-Mourinho at the moment. Caveat: I think Brighton will eventually start to improve on how many points they obtain because I think they are playing a sustainable style that does elevate their players. Graham Potter is a very good manager.
This would typically lead us onto the age-old discussion about how accepting we are, as fans, of a style of football that is less easy on the eye. The truth is probably that we’re accepting as long as we’re winning. But I think, even ignoring that discussion, there’s a separate conversation to be had about whether the style is the best way to maximise points.
My view is that the current style we are playing is probably unsustainable – that with the quality we have throughout our side, we should play a more expansive, possession-based style and put the weaker teams to the sword, rather than scraping 1-0s (Burnley, West Brom) and banking on not conceding (Newcastle). Our style puts pressure on the few chances we do get and especially on set pieces (which I’m happy to say we’ve been working on). At the moment, though, with results going as they are, it’s very difficult to argue with what Mourinho is doing. We’re top of the league!
The issues will come if and when the Harry Kane and Son Heung-min hot streaks come to an end because I don’t think – as a team – we are creating the volume of chances that our team should be able to create, and if we don’t have two of the most ruthless attackers in the league taking them, we might find that results start to change a little. But, for now, we can just sit back and enjoy the run we’re on, because everything is coming up José.
I want to also say that I think the low-block-and-counter approach that Mourinho employed against Manchester City and Chelsea – and, indeed, in the second half against Southampton – is absolutely ideal for those sorts of matches. Albeit I would have liked to have seen a bit more ambition in the second half of the Chelsea match.
In an ideal world, though, I would like to see us develop a possession-based model too, for the majority of matches that aren’t against City, Chelsea, Liverpool, etc. How are we going to play against the rest, the majority? I saw some good signs in the first half against Newcastle, but haven’t really seen it since.
It’s worth touching on the tactics deployed so far this season, I think. Last season we saw Mourinho play around the with lop-sided full-back formation, but since we introduced Sergio Reguilón, we’ve done away with that. The full-backs start deep, but have license to break forward when they can. Reguilón is ideal for this system, because he has the athleticism to cover the entire flank.
The main innovations this season have been:
- Kane playing deep.
- The back six.
Kane playing deep
If you boiled down Spurs’ identity this season so far to a particular ‘play’, it would be Harry Kane dropping into his own half to collect the ball, turning, and – without looking – playing a perfectly-weighted pass over the top of the opposition defence to an on-rushing Son Heung-min, who has angled a run from the touchline.
Kane has always been a fantastic passer, but we have never before seen it realised in this way, with both he and Son given such specific instructions and being so elite at the particular tasks as to make them endlessly repeatable.
I used to characterise Kane as a number 10 when he played for the Under-18s, and then he has been very clearly a traditional number 9 (or at least a 9.5) for many of his years in the first team. I think the reality is that Kane is such a talented all-round player that he can excel as a 9 or a 10 and can and will do the job that the tactics require.
The back six
The particualrly interesting part of the defensive displays against Manchester City and Chelsea was the way that Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Moussa Sissoko dropped in between the centre-backs and full-backs to make up a back six, with Tanguy Ndombele then filling in deeper in midfield when required.
This was designed to defend against the roaming number eights that City deploy – Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva – and worked well in terms of restricting their space and movements. It allowed the full-backs to stay wide and defend doggedly man-to-man and meant that the penalty box was so crowded that we were able to block our way to a clean sheet. It then also came into play again against Chelsea, where Mason Mount and Mateo Kovačić played similar roles.
To finish, indulge me a little as I’ve been busily working on some projects that I want to tell you about. Firstly, The Extra Inch has launched a Patreon. We’ve been able to produce a lot more content that we expected (videos, podcasts, newsletters, live Q&As), plus there’s also a thriving community of like-minded, analytical fans on our dedicated Discord server. We have some fantastic contributors and we make sure that they are all paid for their work. If that sounds like your kind of thing, we’d love to have you. You could always sign up for a month, binge on the content we’ve already produced, and then decide if you’ve had your fill or if you’d like to continue.
Alongside this, I’ve been working on The Extra Inch website for the past few weeks. This includes our new line of merchandise! I’m not going to lie, this has been a bit of a nightmare, and ultimately we are going to struggle to break even given the costs involved, but it’s a way for fans of the pod to be able to have something tangible to say ‘I’m a fan!’. Or maybe you just really like xG.
Finally, I’ve been working with Flav from The Fighting Cock on a non-football podcast called 15 Minutes (With Flav and Windy). We put 15 minutes on the timer and discuss a chosen subject until the timer sounds. Wherever we are at in the conversation at that point, it ends. It’s really fun to do and we think that fun comes across pretty well in the pod. It’s a good time filler, so if you’ve got 15 minutes to fill, please do give it a listen. It’s on all of your usual podcast platforms including Spotify. I recommend FIRST JOBS as a gateway if you want to try it out.