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Attacking players, defensive mindset: why Tottenham aren't scoring more under Mourinho

Tottenham Hotspur
(Image credit: PA Images)

Erik Lamela departed, the scorer who was sent off, almost certainly the lone footballer in Premier League history with the idiosyncratic distinction of being a substitute who struck with a rabona and then received a red card. The Argentinian stood apart in Sunday’s North London derby in a different respect. When he made his 76th-minute exit, he was the only Tottenham player to have had a shot of any variety at goal: one unforgettable rabona and one header that may lodge in the memory banks for a rather shorter period of time.

Welcome to the Mourinho paradox. Tottenham played defensive football with attacking players. Arguably they began against Arsenal with five offensive-minded individuals: Harry Kane, Heung-Min Son, Gareth Bale, Lucas Moura and Tanguy Ndombele. The South Korean’s early hamstring injury resulted in the introduction of another, in Lamela. And yet the sole goal they scored was an anomaly, a stroke of brilliance. They only really showed attacking intent when down to 10 men. 

It felt a recurring theme. Jose Mourinho can provide an instant answer to his critics with his teamsheet; accusations of negativity could be answered with a list of names of progressive players, especially since he moved Ndombele into a deeper role to accommodate another forward. And yet both evidence of the naked eye and the statistics show his teams can be insufficiently attacking. Ostensibly positive outfits are less than the sum of their parts; Mourinho, with his aversion to taking the blame, can often appear to blame his players for that. Sunday appeared a problem of mindset and tactics; or, some would say, of Mourinho. The initial personnel choices were not a deliberate veer into dullness but while there were reasons to attack Arsenal, Tottenham did not. 

And Spurs’ miserable performance at West Ham came when Kane, Son, Lucas, Lamela and Ndombele all started. They lost 3-0 at Manchester City with the same quintet, though it scarcely revived memories of Ossie Ardiles’ ‘Famous Five’ of carefree attackers in the 1990s.             

Rewind to the end of his time at Manchester United and Mourinho fielded Romelu Lukaku, Anthony Martial, Paul Pogba, Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard and drew 0-0 at home to Crystal Palace. Pogba and Lukaku were joined by Marcus Rashford, Marouane Fellaini and Alexis Sanchez in the starting 11 at home to Valencia. They drew 0-0 that night, too. In both cases, these seemingly bold selections also included a converted winger, whether Ashley Young or Antonio Valencia, in one of the full-back positions.

It does not render him the puritan of caricature, the defensive mastermind who simply names a battalion of holding midfielders, as much as a man struggling to adapt to an era of more attacking football and actually doing less with more. It can be simplistic to split footballers into two categories – attacking and defensive – but arguably Jurgen Klopp’s definitive Liverpool side only fielded three out-and-out attackers. They scored 89 and 85 goals in their last two full league seasons, more than any Mourinho team has done in a full Premier League campaign. 

And the unwanted part of the Mourinho paradox is that some of his attackers are generating the kinds of numbers more associated with defenders. Lucas has three goals in his last 43 league games under the Portuguese, Lamela one in his last 31, Steven Bergwijn none in his last 25. Kane and Son have been altogether more prolific but there is a sense history can repeat itself: players as different as Rashford, Martial and Sanchez were more potent for other managers than Mourinho. Some have been encumbered with more defensive duties – perhaps, at times, as a result of trying to compensate for ostensibly attacking selections, perhaps because many a Mourinho winger can become an auxiliary full-back – but it can feel a product of confused thinking. The real test is not how many attackers his sides field, but how much they attack. And on Sunday it was not enough.

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