If Jose Mourinho believed that his presence alone would fix Tottenham, then he’s certainly not under that illusion anymore. Manchester United gave a moderately competent performance at Old Trafford, winning through two goals from Marcus Rashford – who was excellent – but the story was an insipid Spurs, who produced a showing as bad as anything that brought about Mauricio Pochettino’s demise.
There have been encouraging aspects to Mourinho’s arrival; the form of Dele Alli being the most obvious. Serge Aurier has also played well and the use of Lucas Moura, while uninspiring on Wednesday night, has produced the occasional positive moment.
But what will concern Mourinho is the reduced appetite he saw at Old Trafford. United played the better football and created many more chances, but the biggest difference between the two sides was in effort and application. Mourinho recognised that in his press conference: “We didn’t lose because of the attacking set-up. We lost because how we came to the game, in a more emotional way. They had more emotion than us.”
That’s concerning. At this stage under a new coaching team, a group of players is hardly likely to be well-drilled. Passes are going to be misdirected and combinations are going to be thin on the ground. But that’s fine, it’s tolerable, just so long as the players exhibit enthusiasm for the change and seem enlivened by the prospect of the journey they’re embarked upon.
But at Tottenham that already isn’t the case. After three games – three wins no less – a few of Mourinho’s players look as sluggish and flippant as they did before he arrived. A night game at Old Trafford is an enticing, adrenalin-inducing prospect; It remains a circled date on the calendar despite United’s decline. Added to which, every player at Spurs should still be energised by the need to impress their head-coach.
So while it’s fine to be muddled and confused and imprecise in these first formative weeks, it's inexcusable to be quite so lethargic.
That Tottenham are proves the existence of a problem which can’t be cured by Mourinho alone. It also serves as a sharp reminder that there are players at the club who should no longer be there.
There’s no need to identify them – their names appear in the media often enough, –but Tottenham’s recovery will only properly begin when that group has departed. Some of them are open about their desire to leave the club. Others have been fighting silent, background battles over money for years. The specifics of each situation aren’t actually that important.
What matters, is the recognition that players in that kind of situational limbo are a terrible malignancy within a club environment. They needn’t be plotting or undermining anyone, because it is actually their disengagement which is so toxic. It's infectious, too, particularly when an attempted transition in styles is taking place.
That's because whenever a new coaching team arrives, a squad is faced with an communal intellectual challenge. They need to learn new positioning habits and disciplines and, in the beginning, that can manifest in some very disjointed football. But that’s a best-case scenario; it's a lag which applies even when all the players are equally focussed and committed to learning whatever is being put in front of them.
But Tottenham are in nothing like a best-case scenario. Their internal dynamics have been short-circuited by mixed agendas and dressing-room relationships will have been changed forever. Between players who want to leave and those who don’t. Between those empathising with that first group and those who see them as disloyal. Further factions probably developed in the wake of Pochettino's departure; some players were closer to him than others.
Breaches of trust will have occurred and friendships will be changing or, at worst, disintegrating. A lot of these players have been together for a long time now and the gradual fracturing of their group will be a trauma of sorts.
It's a mess which has to be resolved. Changing head coach was a cosmetic solution. So while as dramatic - and sensational and attention-grabbing - as employing Mourinho was, Tottenham have still left their central problems untreated.
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