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Early Tactics Notes on Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur

How does the Special One’s approach differ from Pochettino’s?

Tottenham Hotspur v Olympiacos FC: Group B - UEFA Champions League Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

We have only played two matches in the Jose Mourinho era at Spurs. But already a few notable themes have emerged.

Mourinho has imposed his traditional take on the 4-2-3-1.

This was most apparent against West Ham and in the early phases of play against Olympiakos. Once Spurs were down 2-0, they became more aggressive and the shape was less conventional. But in normal phases of play, it looks like Mourinho will work with a fairly rigid 4-2-3-1 system.

This change in system is going to lead to several shifts in personnel. First, this suggests that Eric Dier is likely to take away Moussa Sissoko’s minutes in midfield. Sissoko works as a midfield shuttler in a diamond or even in a 4-3-3. He does not have the technical or defensive ability needed to play in a double pivot. Dier, though extremely limited as a passer and clearly sluggish right now, does in theory have the defensive abilities required to play as the deeper player in midfield.

Second, Lucas Moura is a right winger now. This isn’t a shock—the Brazilian played on the wing in his days in Brazil and then stayed on the flank during his time at PSG. It was only upon arrival at Spurs that Pochettino attempted to turn Lucas into a striker. The experiment was not wholly without success—a magical night in Amsterdam comes to mind—but even after only two games it does seem obvious that right wing is a more natural role for the fast, dribbly attacker.

Third, Dele Alli is a number 10 now. Dele’s exact position has always been up for debate. He was described as a midfielder when Spurs signed him from MK Dons. His early starts for the club came in the midfield two. Then as he matured at the club he shifted into the attacking band, sometimes as a number 10 and sometimes as a wide attacker. Then at times last season we actually saw Pochettino drop Dele into the deepest role in the midfield diamond. But under Mourinho, who has said he prefers his number 10s to be part eight-and-a-half, part nine-and-a-half, Dele’s role is obviously going to be in the number 10 spot playing just behind Harry Kane up top.

Mourinho favors a lop-sided back line.

In both of the first two games we have seen Mourinho favor a defensive system in which one fullback is given free rein to get forward while the other stays deep, closer to level with the two center backs. Against West Ham, Serge Aurier had license to get forward while Ben Davies stayed deep. Against Olympiakos, Aurier again looked to get forward while Danny Rose stayed deep.

One of the persistent problems of the past season and a half for Pochettino was that his team simply couldn’t defend. Last season Spurs finished sixth in the Premier League in xGA. That was a significant drop from what had been one of Tottenham’s greatest strengths under Pochettino.

That said, the source of the problem was not hard to spot: The pressing system the club had embraced for most of the past several seasons had been minimized as a result of changes in personnel and fatigue, with the result being a defensive ‘system’ that basically amounted to hoping that Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld would bail the team out when the opposition threatened—which they usually did.

A simple fix for this problem is to play more conservatively. You do not need to have both fullbacks attacking. You do not need to have multiple midfielders surging forward. So far what we have seen of Mourinho’s Spurs suggests that there will generally be three players staying deep in more defensive positions along with a holding midfielder who helps to shield the back line and break up opposition attacks.

It is perhaps worth noting that if Aurier is Mourinho’s choice at right back and if the Portuguese persists in this system, then that would be very good news for Ben Davies and less welcome news for Danny Rose.

Mourinho will make early substitutions.

One of the most frustrating traits in Pochettino was his almost absolute refusal to make any changes before the hour mark. In cases like today, where events early in the match made it clear that the system and personnel on the field weren’t fit for the job, this meant long stretches of play passing where the best we could reasonably hope for was avoiding disaster.

In contrast to this, Jose Mourinho made a sub at the half hour mark. It wasn’t a rage sub, to be clear, but a tactical one: With his team down 2-0, Mourinho (rightly) reasoned that the team did not need two more defensive players in midfield. So he dropped Eric Dier and brought on Christian Eriksen. Eriksen had a mixed performance, but his inclusion in the team changed the system enough that Spurs began creating more chances and, eventually, broke through in the dying moments of the first half.

There is a certain sense, of course, in which this is all a bit boring: The new manager is playing a vanilla system that is fairly cautious and he takes prompt action to correct for issues he is seeing on the field. But then that may, arguably, be precisely the kind of management Spurs need for this era in the club’s life. This is an elite team in terms of talent. They are, arguably, the third most talented team in England. If you play a simple system that allows the club’s players to simply perform at their normal level, you should win most of your games. Those are the changes that Mourinho has brought in over his first two games.