Will good things come in threes for Mourinho?
Background image: Bluejam, CC BY-SA 4.0
Call me an elitist but, working on the assumption Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United are Tottenham’s chief rivals in their quest for a 2020/21 Champions League berth, then Jose Mourinho has one thing going for him. Spurs already play in the competition. Chelsea do as well but this theory applies to the three sides with ground to recover.
The notion is simple. Because Tottenham [and Chelsea] play on Tuesdays or Wednesdays while Arsenal and Manchester United's Europa League games follow on Thursdays, Spurs will often play on Saturdays while the Gunners and Red Devils watch. Mourinho’s side can post a number. The onus then reverts to Freddie Ljungberg [or the next permanent Arsenal manager] and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to match that number on Sunday or, should Tottenham fail to claim all three points, better it. With every Spurs victory, pressure on the other two increases. As the remaining matches dwindle, so does hope for Gunners and Red Devils faithful.
In the short term, then, assuming the reins from Mauricio Pochettino mid-term proved a coldly calculated choice by the Special One. He put himself in a winning situation. No one should be shocked or outraged; it’s vintage Jose. Mourinho’s CV overflows with short term thinking and coldly calculated moves. Not all pay off but, unlike his Argentinian predecessor in North London, there's always Plan B.
Ignoring for the moment the irony in Jose letting players off their leashes this time around, freeing Spurs attacking players is exactly what he did. Dele Alli’s resurgence can be explained by the tactical difference between his former and present managers. Pochettino demanded his side control possession, passing the ball laterally to shift defences and create gaps. Mourinho doesn’t worry about controlling possession. He wants his team to win the ball and go for the jugular on the counterattack. Direct, forward movement is Alli's strength.
As a result, Spurs erupted for 10 goals in three games following Mourinho's appointment. On the other hand, they conceded five. At some point, you expect the Portuguese to tighten up defensively. Meanwhile, Tottenham are rampant and their fans hopeful the squad gives the new boss no reason to clamp down. When he does, the goals dry up.
As well as keeping Arsenal and United in their rearview, Tottenham must catch Chelsea. You might say Aaron Cresswell and West Ham did the Lilywhites a solid on the weekend, knocking off the Blues 1-0 at the London Olympic. In truth, Frank Lampard’s side were their own worst enemies, not taking their chances in a match during which they dominated possession nearly 2:1, attempted almost four times as many shots, found the target more frequently, won three times as many corners and were 20% more accurate with their passing. Jose might comment on what’s lacking in Lampard’s squad if he notices the goose-egg next to fouls in the Chelsea column.
He certainly won’t complain about the physicality Moussa Sissoko brought to his lineup against Bournemouth. Tottenham constantly won the ball at midfield and in the Cherries' half to spring counterattacks. The Frenchman even got on the end of one to score his first goal in 96 appearances, the last coming on 25 October 2017 against West Ham in the EFL Cup.
All that said, Spurs must make up another six points on Chelsea even as they try to distance themselves from Arsenal and United. With 26 matches to play, there’s no reason to believe they can’t but it’s hardly a given. Tottenham will drop points at some stage. It’s inevitable even if we keep saying the same thing about Liverpool.
Should Spurs enter March as lions but leave as lambs, Mourinho might steal a page from his Manchester United notes. In his first Old Trafford season, Jose decided soon after winning the EFL Cup that fourth place was beyond his squad. He focussed on the Europa League, won it and qualified for the Champions League via the less traditional method. Who is to say he can’t win it with this squad?
“Could Mourinho get through 3 rounds as an underdog? Without a doubt.”
“He'll be thinking: There's no reason we can't go one better than last season.”
Danny Mills says Tottenham could win the Champions League this season. 🏆 https://t.co/dmEopwel3k
In North London, he didn’t inherit a team in disarray as he did at Old Trafford. Instead, Spurs are more like the one he took from Roberto Mancini at Inter, a group that last year's final in Madrid revealed as only lacking a commander who knows how to win big matches. Mourinho claims he’s been promised funds in the transfer market but he doesn’t need any before June. He enjoys an abundance of useful parts in every outfield position.
In Alli, Harry Kane, Son Heung-min and Lucas Moura, he has a forward quartet all capable of registering double figures in goals. Kane is already there. Son is on the verge. Dele is halfway. As long as Mourinho remains in an expansive mood, Lucas or Erik Lamela, both with three strikes a third of the way into the campaign, could join them.
In midfield, Jose can field three dangerous playmakers in Harry Winks, Christian Eriksen and Giovani Lo Celso. He also possesses three battering rams in Sissoko, Eric Dier and Tanguy N’Dombele, maybe a fourth in Victor Wanyama.
With Serge Aurier chiselled in as right-back, Mourinho can rotate the other three positions between Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, Davinson Sanchez, Ben Davies, Danny Rose and Juan Foyth. Paulo Gazzaniga’s composure and shot-stopping put the pressure on Hugo Lloris to win back his job when the French keeper recovers from his dislocated elbow.
Spurs are already through to the Champions League knockout stages. That gives Mourinho 24 Premier League matches and however many FA Cup ties to gird his side for six European encounters and a ticket to Istanbul.
Short term thinking? No doubt. Cold and calculated? Absolutely. But don’t kid yourself into thinking this possibility wasn’t front and centre in Jose’s mind when he interviewed for the job. If two Champions League titles and his failures since Inter teach us anything, it’s that Mourinho isn’t a builder; he’s a closer. That’s exactly what Tottenham need.