One of the more noteworthy moments from Tottenham Hotspur’s 4-2 victory over Olympiacos on Tuesday came in the first half after Spurs were already 2-0 down. After just 28 minutes, Spurs head coach Jose Mourinho rolled the dice and did something that surprised many observers — he made a first half substitution, taking off Eric Dier and bringing on Christian Eriksen.
It’s never a good sign when a player gets hooked in the first half of a match. Almost always it’s because of injury, but Dier didn’t look hurt. He didn’t seem especially upset at the time, and Jose took the time to whisper something to him as he came off the pitch. The two theories on social media at the time was that this was Jose’s first rage-sub at Tottenham (something he’s not averse to doing from time to time, and Dier wasn’t exactly at his best in that match), or it was a last-ditch tactical adjustment. After the match, Mourinho made it clear from his opening remarks that this was emphatically NOT a rage-sub, apologizing to Dier for taking him off so soon.
“Well the first thing, the most difficult moment for me, was not when Olympiacos [scored] the first or second goal, the most difficult moment for me was when I made the change in the first half. It hurt the player but it hurt myself. It’s not easy for the player nor easy for myself.
“It’s important that the player understood and I was lucky that my choice was a very intelligent boy who has a very good understanding of what the team is, because I did it for the team. It was not about his performance. It was about what the team needs. We are losing 2-0 and in a very difficult situation in that moment and I felt in that moment that one positional midfielder was more than enough.
“I thought I needed a second creative player who could play with [Dele] in that triangle, an open triangle as I used to call it, not a closed triangle like we were with Dier and Harry Winks. So I had to do it for the team and I apologized to Eric despite him knowing that I did it for the team and not with any intention to hurt him.
“I think the fans also understood that. I did it for the team and in the end the team is the most important thing. Christian gave us what we needed at that time.”
Tactically, the sub worked just as Jose had hoped it would — Spurs suddenly had two passers in the midfield, with Harry Winks dropping a bit deeper into more of a six role, and Spurs used that to their advantage. Dele scored on an Olympiacos defensive miscue just before halftime, and Spurs ran riot in the second half, scoring three additional times.
For his sake, Dele defended his teammate, telling BT Sport that the whole team was pants in the first half and that it was purely a tactical choice by the head coach.
“We were losing and it’s the manager’s decision to bring on probably a more of a forward-thinking midfielder but to be honest, it could have been anyone that came off in the first 20, especially myself because I thought I was awful. It’s one of them, it’s a team game and the manager felt a change needed to be made. Thankfully it worked in our favour.”