Jonathan Liew: Mourinho effect is already limiting Tottenham’s horizons
Under the coach a culture of pessimism and restraint is starting to take hold
Liverpool goalscorer Roberto Firmino in action during Saturday’s win over Tottenham. Photograph: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
Champions aren’t flawless. It’s just that you glimpse their flaws for only a fleeting instant – a shadow you think you saw in the mirror – before they are gone.
For about half an hour on Saturday evening Liverpool looked flawed. Roared on by a capacity crowd, Tottenham slung themselves forward in waves – attacking the spaces, pinging crosses across the box, getting shots away. The substitutes Giovani Lo Celso and Érik Lamela grabbed control of the game in the middle third, often by sheer force of will alone. The irrepressible Lucas Moura scrapped and slalomed his way into threatening positions. Big chances came and went.
And then it was all over. Liverpool sauntered off the pitch, their work complete, their lead at the top of the Premier League looking more ridiculously impregnable with every passing week. Afterwards José Mourinho talked about having a “good feeling” from the game, claiming that his team deserved at least a draw and, based on those last 20 minutes, he had a decent case. It was almost enough to make you wonder how Tottenham might have fared had they decided to play for the full 90.
After all, the chaotic denouement was merely the final act of a game in which Spurs had been at best partial protagonists. And in a way that late flurry merely illustrated the folly of their initial approach: cagey and closed, low and deep, spurning possession and inviting pressure. Their first-half possession was just 27 per cent. Son Heung-min, their best attacking player, did not have a single touch in the Liverpool half between the 30th minute and the 60th. None of which, of course, would stop Mourinho attempting to spin this basic poverty of ambition as some ingenious masterplan.
“If we tried to play the way we did in the last 20 minutes from the beginning,” he said, “I think we would collapse. Because the players are not used to playing in this style and they are not adapted. I think we did the maximum we could do.”
This is, of course, the founding principle of Mourinho-ball: the opposition are infinitely strong, we are infinitely weak. Already in his short Tottenham career Mourinho has told Moussa Sissoko that he lacks the discipline to play in central midfield, accused Ryan Sessegnon of lacking physicality, criticised Tanguy Ndombele for getting injured too much and claimed that Tottenham cannot play their normal game while Harry Kane is injured, even though they managed to reach a Champions League final without him.
In essence it’s a form of managerial negging: chipping away at the self-esteem of the club until it is no longer able to resist the twin lures of Mourinho’s silver-tongued genius and his lavish demands for transfer investment.
Admittedly this is a far easier sell when you are playing a Liverpool side that had 58 points in 20 games, boasting the triple threat of Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah. Admittedly Mourinho has had some past success in nullifying the threat of Salah. Alas, leaving him on the bench at Stamford Bridge for a year and then sending him on loan to Fiorentina is no longer a viable option. And so in the face of Liverpool’s famous front three, Mourinho offered up a jaunty bespoke solution: a double right-back, with Serge Aurier playing just ahead of the 20-year-old debutant Japhet Tanganga.
Like many of Mourinho’s wheezes these days it was both imaginative and desperately cynical, a strategy geared towards containment that ultimately worked for only as long as it took for the novelty to wear off. About half an hour in, Gini Wijnaldum began to push a little higher, restoring Liverpool’s numerical superiority on the left, and two clear openings came from that flank before the throw-in that produced Firmino’s goal. Liverpool could have been out of sight by the time Lo Celso and Lamela arrived with 20 minutes to go: a £90 million (€106 million) double substitution that is worth bearing in mind the next time Mourinho moans about the lack of resources available to him.
In a way it scarcely matters that Mourinho’s tactics almost worked or that they ultimately didn’t. The point is that Tottenham – a team that reached a Champions League final seven months ago and have spent much of the last few years playing some of the most scintillating attacking football in the club’s history – is already being recast in his image.
Excuses are beginning to supplant expectations. A culture of pessimism and restraint is taking hold, in which losing 1-0 at home with 33 per cent possession can legitimately be sold as an encouraging sign of progress. The motto of the new Tottenham may as well be “To Play Two Right-Backs Is To Do”.
It took Mauricio Pochettino half a decade to purge Tottenham of their jaded mid-table mentality. And yet even the mediocre Spurs sides of the 1990s would always have a go at home, no matter how strong the opposition, however low the morale of the club. This is the legacy that Mourinho is busily sweeping aside. He narrows your horizons, convinces you not to get ideas above your station, warns you to stop the opposition first and only then to think about playing. All this has taken him just eight weeks. Imagine what he can do in four years.