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José Mourinho

Tottenham Hotspur, 2019

Managerial profile
Confirmation of José Mourinho’s return to the Premier League, this time as the successor to Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham, has divided opinion. The Portuguese remains among the world’s leading managers, but Pochettino had deservedly become a popular figure at Spurs; in his little over five years, he transformed them from an underachieving club to, most recently, Champions League finalists.

He had also done so having nurtured multiple promising young players – one of those, Harry Kane, has become one of the world’s leading strikers and captained England at the past World Cup – encouraged an entertaining brand of football and, by modern standards and particularly in comparison to their rivals, did so while working within a modest budget. Perhaps more than anything, Pochettino will be remembered for establishing Spurs as a consistently superior team to their greatest rivals, Arsenal.

In Mourinho, Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy has appointed a manager he first approached in 2007, when seeking a successor to Martin Jol. It may even have been his admiration for Mourinho that contributed to his recruitment of André Villas-Boas, once the Portuguese’s protégé, after Harry Redknapp’s departure in 2012. Regardless, there is little question that, even if his most recent roles at Manchester United and Chelsea did not conclude as he would have hoped, he remains among the world’s most iconic managers.

That Real Madrid continued to be credited with an interest in reappointing him, even after the return of Zinedine Zidane, owed to the fact he once inspired them to a Liga title when Barcelona – then managed by Pep Guardiola – had long been considered the finest team in the world. Sections of the support at Chelsea, Inter Milan and Porto consider him the greatest manager in their clubs’ histories; if he succeeds as Levy hopes, the Spurs fans may end up feeling the same.

When he first arrived in English football, at Chelsea in 2004, Mourinho inspired a club that had long lacked the winning mentality to truly challenge Arsenal and Manchester United at the top of the Premier League. For all of Spurs’ improvement under Pochettino, they are perhaps in a similar position, having yet to mark that improvement with trophies.

Mourinho was, at different periods of his time at Old Trafford, said to have targeted Toby Alderweireld, Eric Dier, Danny Rose, Dele Alli and Kane, who remain significant figures in the squad he has just inherited. It might therefore transpire that he is more suited to the job at Spurs than any other since he left Inter almost a decade ago.

The priority at Tottenham
Defensive solidarity – often built on a double pivot – has been crucial to Mourinho’s past successes. At Spurs, he has numerous options, in Harry Winks, Dier, Moussa Sissoko, Tanguy Ndombele and Victor Wanyama, capable of forming the combination he is likely to demand; perhaps only Winks is not an immediate, natural fit for the defensive organisation the new manager will seek for lengthy periods.

Spurs had kept only four clean sheets in 2019/20 at the point of Mourinho’s arrival. Pochettino had prioritised a 4-2-3-1 structure and, increasingly, a deeper, more reserved defensive block. Once they were in that shape, however, they proved too easy to penetrate – especially via balls over the top of their defence (above).

Their full-backs have too often been isolated against inside-running forwards, and then overloaded, so greater stability is required out wide. Many of the goals Spurs have been conceding stem from attacks around those full-backs (below). A back five could prove a suitable solution – albeit it’s not a formation Mourinho has often favoured – because the additional central defender can cover wing-backs in the first third and encourage their attacking teammates to remain relatively advanced, ready for attacking transitions, in the last.

Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Davinson Sánchez are proven both in the air and in possession. They are more reliable, defensively, than Rose, Ben Davies, Serge Aurier and Kyle Walker-Peters, so Vertonghen – at left-back – and Juan Foyth are in contention to become the new manager’s favoured full-backs.

Reviving the Spurs attack
Once his new team is again solid out of possession, Mourinho will also have to provide more support for the consistent Kane in the final third. Alli and Christian Eriksen, previously so potent in roles behind the lone striker, have been short of top form for some time.

If Alli and Eriksen are both better suited to narrower roles in the front three of a 3-4-3 (below), Son Heung-min, Lucas Moura and Erik Lamela represent interesting alternatives – and all are arguably better suited to a 4-2-3-1 shape. Alli, Eriksen and Son have been guilty of offering too little defensive cover, contributing to the problems that have existed in Spurs’ defence. By improving that defence – particularly its full-backs, when defending one-on-one – those used further forward can remain in more advanced territory for lengthier periods; transitions into defence would also be strengthened.

Spurs’ midfielders would therefore also be able to remain in attacking positions, inviting Alli and Eriksen to drift inside, where they excel. Kane’s effectiveness is such that he demands an attack is built around him, as Mourinho previously has when managing other powerful strikers – Didier Drogba, Diego Costa and Romelu Lukaku prominent among them.

Kane offers the variety of those strikers, but while his link play and ability to connect defence to attack has continued to improve, he has adopted fewer threatening positions as a consequence. Above all else, Kane is an outstanding finisher, which means Spurs’ greatest chance of success will come from an approach that, while defensively secure, encourages their creative players to dominate between the lines. This would allow Kane to remain further forward (below), where he can offer a constant threat to the opposing defence.

Herein lies the importance of creating an effective double pivot. Beyond the defensive cover one can provide, it can encourage more consistent periods of attacking possession. If the ball is in more threatening areas, and the necessary defensive cover exists in the event of transitions, Spurs’ supporting attackers can dominate in the territory to which they are most suited – and, in turn, encourage Kane to remain further forward.

When he is again adopting those advanced positions – and an occasionally selfless streak can also contribute to him being elsewhere – an attack that has been lacking penetration will again have its greatest asset in the areas to which it is most suited. Alli has also previously thrived when joining Kane further forward, in the same way that Eriksen has relished delivering to him there.

The mark of Mourinho
Beyond winning trophies, a consistent theme of Mourinho’s management has – contrary to increasingly popular opinion – long been his ability to adapt the nature of his coaching, and the strategy he pursues, to the players at his disposal. It is perhaps only at United that he did not do so to the same, impressive extent he has previously demonstrated in different leagues and competitions.

The aggression of Mourinho’s Porto team after losses of possession contributed to so much of their success; their ability to counter-press to negate opposing transitional attacks and then to enhance those of their own contributed to them dominating domestically and in Europe. In his first spell at Chelsea, ball-winning central midfielders were used to encourage the attacking threat posed by athletic wingers such as Damien Duff, Arjen Robben and Joe Cole, and the powerful strikers who were supported by late runners from deeper territory.

In his two seasons at Inter, Mourinho’s team was built on an extremely organised low block that absorbed pressure for lengthy periods, to mentally and strategically wear opponents down. A fine, experienced defence was coupled with a similarly experienced attack (below); Inter lacked the energy and youth of Porto, and the speed and ferocity of Chelsea, and were therefore incapable of remaining as far forward for as long as those teams once did.

Upon leaving Inter for Real, and inheriting a youthful attack (below), he developed a transitional team, having just left one at its best when counter-attacking from deeper positions. A peak Cristiano Ronaldo was most consistently supported by Ángel Di María, and one of Gonzalo Higuaín and Karim Benzema. Not surprisingly, their attacks after regains could be devastating.

It is therefore logical to suggest that, after improving Spurs’ defence, Mourinho may build a team capable of prolonged periods of attacking football. Guardiola, Diego Simeone and Jürgen Klopp are all rightly recognised among the world’s finest managers, and largely because of their clearly defined styles. Mourinho may actually be the most tactically flexible of them all.

If Spurs can be expected to swiftly improve, and to potentially even win one of the trophies that have long been eluding them – the last was the League Cup in 2008 – a further challenge that should not be overlooked will be how Mourinho encourages longer-term success. One thing is for certain, however – all eyes will once again be on a man making his first mid-season arrival at a club since he joined Porto in 2002.

José Mourinho

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