Lately, Jose Mourinho hasn’t been talking much about the project, this ghastly, emotionless term that reduces the heritage and future of a football club to the barren business-speak of a clapped-out motivational speaker.
All successful clubs need a strategy for the future, to plan ahead according to their resources and aspirations. The most effective plans incorporate an understanding of what a club stands for, what it means for supporters, with a leader able to put it all into practice.
Back in December, he was all about the project and the vision. Spurs need that sense of purpose more than many of our rivals because our chairman wants us to live within our means, therefore any manager must make the most of the finite resources available to him.
At the moment, it’s very much about the here and now with team selections and tactics defined by expediency. It’s hard to see what Mourinho’s Spurs is all about. After the Leipzig defeat, he admitted as much in one of his jokey, throwaway but carefully planted and full of meaning press conference remarks that reveal what he really thinks and sum up the state of play so far: “If I could, I would move immediately to the first of July.” It’s a resonant message, born of his frustration. This is not my Spurs. This lot can’t do what I want so I need to buy and to have a pre-season.
Throughout the life of Tottenham On My Mind, my main aspiration has remained consistent, that Spurs are contenders, that we are good enough to challenge for honours. So far, what follows from there, that we might actually win something, has not been fulfilled and I live with the pain. All part of being a Spurs fan, eh?
Leipzig are everything we once were, not so long ago, but are no longer. A well-coached side with players who have faith in their manager because he’s brought out the best in them, players comfortable in their style and shape, eager, able to improvise up front and who know what to expect from their team-mates.
I saw a stat this week, which I haven’t factchecked, saying that since Mourinho took over, only Liverpool have won more points in the PL. We’re fifth in a year when that could mean CL qualification. I’m grateful, but you know things aren’t right. Jose knows. Hence his comments. He’s not trying to sit on the problem.
Mourinho played up his excitement at the squad he inherited. He quickly found out the scale of his necessary rebuilding. His first ten or twelve games were about experimentation, trying different combinations at full-back, centreback and central midfield. He’s discovered that we are sorely lacking. That Dier, a player he coveted when at Manchester United and who he brought straight in to his Spurs, is a diminished force. That Wanyama is gone in all senses except his pay cheque. That our record signing cannot play 90 minutes and whose warm-up on Wednesday was described by my friend Russ as possessing the athleticism of a man dragging a bag of wet cement up and down the pitch. That a team with Tottenham’s resources and aspirations cannot run to a back-up central striker. And while we’ve lived with this for longer than many of what I once called long-term relationships, it is utterly scandalous that our club has left ourselves so open to injury.
Leipzig are not the best benchmark in the sense that they are a coming force in Europe. The trouble is Norwich, Villa and Southampton exposed the same faults in our defence but failed to take their many opportunities. Last Sunday, Villa were their coach’s dream, time and again doubling up on our left with Serge a-wandering and drawing Toby out of the centre, only to fail to do anything with the space they created. Southampton ran the cup game for extended periods. So open are we at the back these days that Mourinho has almost elevated this to a footballing philosophy: we can’t defend so we’ll do what we can and aim to score one more than you. But relying on the opposition to miss chances is not a footballing philosophy, it’s an admission of failure that cannot be sustained in the long run. Or indeed as far as tomorrow lunchtime.
Leipzig are a team, we are a collection of individuals, and that sums up Mourinho’s Spurs at this point. Some of those individuals are top quality players who deserve enormous credit for their efforts on our behalf. Their goalscoring has kept us fifth in a Premier League that’s average this year with the exception of the runaway leaders. Son lately, Kane before his injury, not at their sharpest but always a goal threat. Kane the leader, his remarkable second half performance against Brighton where he took it upon himself to lift the side and win the game, first with a goal then covering every area of the pitch to compensate for his team-mates’ failings, in the process knackering himself after four or five long seasons unbroken save for his injuries. Bergwijn looks highly promising, Moura unstinting in his efforts, with Le Celso the pick, quickly adapting to the demands of this league.
While it’s legitimate to question Mourinho’s long-term fit with Spurs, it’s unfair to make any lasting judgements at present. This squad and the injuries impose limits on what he can do. A sound team selection could easily contain four or five players each of whom has fewer than 10 starts for the first team.
The above quote is of course classic Mourinho, conveying a message crushingly familiar over the years which has been, when things go wrong, it’s not his fault. However, it’s perfectly legitimate to express concerns about what he has done with the players he has available. We have lots of midfielders but cannot either dominate midfield or stop opponents from playing. If his chosen method is the low block, the problem is that it doesn’t do enough blocking. On Wednesday, there was a moment in the second half when Sacramento, the coach, urgently waved players forward to press in the Leipzig half, the players seemingly unaware that pressing was what they were supposed to do. Teams drive the press themselves.
If sides attack our flanks, e.g. when Aurier stays forward (which despite his problems with positional sense is what his manager tells him to do), we don’t cover that. If we don’t have a striker, methods other than aimless long balls are available, like passing it through midfield.
This is not Mourinho’s Spurs. We’re still passing through the debris from the trail of Pochettino’s comet. And I’ve done the thing about Levy’s transfer policy for many years now, so no more here. JM needs time and funds to rebuild. He and the chairman have got to sort something out. On and off the pitch, Spurs have become reactive rather than assertive or proactive. That has to end. Spurs need a plan, starting now, regardless of who is fit or not. Call it a project if it makes you happy but find one soon.