In the seventies during the bad old days on the terraces, one north London derby, there was the usual taunting back and forth, fingerpointing and gestures. Then a sudden surge, a scrum, a gap opens on the terrace and in the middle there’s a Spurs face leaning nonchalantly on the crushbar, alone in his donkey jacket, 501s and DMs, minding his own business. Now, Mourinho is that face. We’re Spurs, come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough.
I’ve never seen a derby like this one. I’ve never seen a Tottenham side like this one. Whether you saw it as bravura performance or destructively nerve-wracking, it was remarkable and compelling. Two up, then absorb the pressure. By the end, two or even three centre halves were not enough, we want four. Can’t play out of defence, well sod it, just kick it out and wait. By this time, Spurs were so much in control, to seal the deal our tactic was to give AFC the ball. It’s worth repeating that. To win the north London derby, we gave our opponents the ball.
AFC were left bewildered and utterly frustrated. Torn apart by two stunning pieces of attacking football at its finest, they spent a large portion of the game confronting their own deficiencies. Unable to find a way through the outstanding Hojbjerg and the impenetrable barrier in front of our central defence, they were forced out to the wings, able to create a steady stream of crosses which the excellent Alderweireld and Dier duly headed away.
Earlier in the week, Arteta said that to get over their goalscoring problems, he wanted his players to keep the crosses coming in because that would pay off in the end. Mourinho reduced this able young coach to the percentage game. Academic articles about goals and crosses show that there are variables, but crosses have a success rate in terms of leading to goals of between 1 in 49 and 1 in 70. By the way, don’t excited about corners either: about 3.5 % lead to goals. Towards the end, Mourinho reinforced the full-backs still further. A back eight is surely the future of football tactics. How it turned the screw. Spurs had our opponents by throat and Mourinho wasn’t about to let go.
And this is what we get for our £14m or whatever he gets paid. This stuff about mind games is infuriatingly banal. Mourinho’s press conferences are knockabout pantomimes where according to his mood he plays the dashing handsome hero or the sinister melodramatic villain boo hiss. While you’re at it, stick his carefully curated reality show Instagram account where it belongs, in the recycle bin.
However, he has certainly got through to Arteta and Lampard, who last week put his array of young attacking talent back in the box to preach caution. Mourinho knows that stuff about crossing. He did his homework, and AFC were left floundering.
I regret being unable to write more frequently, partly because I don’t have time, mainly because I expend so much emotional energy surviving life under covid, unable to get to the Lane. But when I get time to think and reflect, it highlights how much has happened in a relatively short space of time. After months of uncertainty, Mourinho has got it together. He’s not only found a formula that works, he’s convinced the players that it works.
Recently I’ve been putting a little something together about Spurs in the past 60 years. What comes over is the fundamental difference between the years when we had a sense of direction and those where we drifted into football doldrums, players coming and going while the club stagnated, Alan Sugar’s era being one example. Using these terms, for several months Mourinho was as directionless as Graham, Francis or Terry Neill. Now, he deserves credit in finally putting a few things together.
One, a few new players make this feel more like his own squad rather than one he inherited. One purchase, Hojbjerg, was inspired. I’m not aware of a player who has made more of an impact on his team in such a short period of time.
Just as important is the way he has turned deficiencies into virtues. Sissoko was becoming a hard-working player whose passing, dribbling and shooting were lousy, so what did he have left to offer? Stick him in front of the back four and tell him to fall into the gap between right-back and right centre back, it strengthens the whole defence. Aurier is a man transformed because he has fewer decisions to make per game. He stays at home, knowing he has cover. No more wandering into gaps. His far-post header to take the ball way from Aub, caught outside the line then comes between ball and attacker to head it away. Not so long ago, he would have had the best view in the stadium as the goal went in. Plus, Dier can be a box centre half, rather than risk being exposed.
If the benchmark of a good manager is getting the best from his players, then Mourinho is doing just fine, at last. His players have clearly bought into his methods. The same goes for N’Dombele, still a relatively young player learning his trade at the top level, and I need hardly point out, for Son and Kane up front. The devasting duo are a marvel. Kane never ceases to amaze me, one of the finest Spurs forwards of all time, and getting better. For his second, 4 v 2 is not enough, to make sure he drifts inside as Spurs approach the goal to occupy the centre half and give the player on the ball a fraction more time. Son’s goal goes up there with the best NLD goals.
The derby is all about character, who can cut it under pressure, a stress ramped up as the weight of expectation fills the stands while the fans can’t. It’s a captivating watch. Hardly the Spurs Way and all that I hold dear, but I can’t look away. It’s entirely absorbing to see the complete and total commitment the players give to the cause, and what else can we ask for but total commitment and a manager who gets the best from his players. Love the shirt, that’s what it’s all about.
Plus, we’ve seen unforgettable moments of breathtaking brilliance, from Kane and Son especially. Even waiting for these to come brings its own special thrill. And stat fans, I’m indebted to James Maw on twitter who points out that Spurs have not scored more goals in this many games at the start of the season since the sixties.
As the season goes on, if we get back Coytey will have to lead community mindfulness at half time to help us stay calm. I find it easier at home, either squirming with anxiety on the sofa or, in games less significant than the derby, slipping into a zen trance, what will be will be and there is no need to worry (BUT GET IT AWAY!!!!!). I fear it will be far worse for me in the ground, although friends have said that will be better for them because it feels as if we have some influence over the outcome. I’d be interested to know how the crowd who were there on Sunday responded. On TV, the noise was great but the anxiety of levels of 60k fans will transmit to the players.
More to do. The next step comes against Palace, another team who sit back and counter, so we have to find a way through with more possession. Also, we can’t away with Sunday’s tactics indefinitely. In the second half, the gunners clustered players around our man as we tried to get out, hence the number of turnovers. More able opponents will exploit that.
This was a proper derby in its all gut-wrenching, stomach-somersaulting glory, and where would I be without it. A reminder that the Hotspur alone stirs the emotions so, for me a precious reminder of normal life in case I lose sight of who I am. The TOMM mantra: enjoy the good times. Top of the league. Tottenham Hotspur are top of the league. For now, that’s all that needs to be said.