Two games under Jose Mourinho, and two wins! That’s good, but it sure gave Tottenham Hotspur fans a bit of an ulcer in the process. Spurs went down at home 2-0 to Olympiacos in a Champions League match they needed to win or draw to progress out of the group stage, but roared back in the second half, winning 4-2. Tottenham got a brace from Harry Kane, and goals from Dele Alli and Serge Aurier as they completed the comeback, and qualified for the Round of 16 for the third consecutive year.
Here are four things we learned from Tuesday’s win in London.
Spurs got good performances out of some somewhat unlikely players
Let’s set aside the opening 20 minutes of the match for a second, which was an unquestionably poor performance from Tottenham. The big story was not the fact that Spurs went 2-0 down at home against Olympiacos — it’s how they turned things around after that point. They did it through solid overall performances from a couple of the usual suspects — Harry Kane, Dele — but also via unexpectedly solid outings from players who have been perceived as struggling this season.
Serge Aurier tops this list. The Ivorian right back has been (rightfully) maligned this season. His performances have been charitably described as “uneven” in the past, with good moments marred by mental lapses or mistakes, often in the same play. One play in particular from the West Ham match stands out — Aurier did well to nutmeg Robert Snodgrass on the wing, but he went on to pass the ball straight to a West Ham player seconds later, breaking what could’ve been a good counter attacking move.
But against Olympiacos, Aurer was outstanding. He had another assist from the flank, this time to Dele right before halftime, and was solid defensively making a number of good stops and blocks. And that’s to say nothing of his wickedly curling second half goal that should end up a contender for goal of the season. Spurs fans would be forgiven for wondering when the other shoe is going to drop, but it’s important to give credit when due. And Serge is due for some praise.
Davinson Sanchez has also benefitted from the tactical tweaks brought in by Jose Mourinho since his arrival. With Spurs’ back line now sitting in a lower block, Davinson has had less need to move around and has been able to concentrate on actually defending. He made a great recovery in the first half to prevent another Olympiacos goal (bailing out Harry Winks) and fizzed a header just over the bar in the second half. Less encumbered by the pressure of playing out of the back, Sanchez has improved his defensive positioning and his mental miscues have gone down. That bodes well.
We should also briefly mention Christian Eriksen, who put in a fine shift as a substitute central midfielder, adding a dimension of creative passing in a deeper role that worked well. But more on that later.
Of course, there were still a few poor performances — Winks, Eric Dier, and Son Heung-Min spring immediately to mind — but having an important Champions League win where two of your standout performers are guys you normally can’t rely on is pretty huge.
Mourinho’s first half tactical sub was a shot to the system and it worked
When Jose Mourinho hooked Eric Dier for Christian Eriksen after just half an hour, many immediately assumed it was because he was mad at the player. The shock of seeing a non-injury related sub aside, Spurs were pretty awful in that first phase of the match, and it sure seemed at first blush that Dier would be the victim of Mourinho’s wrath, rightfully or not. But the switch was not made out of anger, but out of tactical necessity. Things weren’t going well, and Mourinho needed to fix it, and fix it NOW.
Mourinho quickly realized that after Olympiacos’ two goals that the only way for Spurs to get back into the match was to start being more progressive with their passing. To that end, he took off the defensive midfieler — Dier — in favor of a more creative passer — Eriksen — and pushing Winks deeper into the base of a midfield three. Eriksen and Dele then took turns pushing forward, trying to find pockets of space to progress the ball to the attacking midfielders. That put extra defensive pressure on the defenders, who were up to the task for the most part, and Spurs responded with three goals in the second half as they put Olympiacos to the sword. Eriksen in particular had a very nice match, playing a different role but doing so very effectively and working well with Dele, Lucas Moura, and Harry Kane.
It was a risky gamble, but it worked. Mourinho apologized to Dier after the match and said in his press conference that it was a tactical decision that was not based on Dier’s performance. That should be music to Spurs fans ears for two reasons — first, he didn’t throw one of his players under the bus for what was in truth a poor performance, and secondly, Tottenham’s manager was quick to see the problems inherent in a match and make an appropriate change. That’s something that has long been a criticism of Mauricio Pochettino.
The midfield still needs work
As hinted earlier, Tottenham’s midfield pivot of Dier and Winks were pretty bad for much of the match. Winks especially was either directly or indirectly responsible for both of Olympiacos’ goals, and while he improved a bit in the second half, it’d be charitable to say that he was anything beyond mediocre in this match. Dier too did not have a good opening 20 minutes, and was hooked before he had a chance to improve. Olympiacos midfielders Daniel Podence and Youssef El-Arabi had tons of time and space to do whatever they wanted in the opening half hour, and they took advantage.
While there are legitimate reasons to stick with Dier, Spurs’ only true defensive midfielder (we’re ignoring, for now, the ghost of Victor Wanyama), it’s becoming hard to justify continuing to play Winks over Tanguy Ndombele, especially now that the Frenchman is back from injury.
Mourinho has options, apart from Ndombele. Giovanni Lo Celso remains mired on the bench, which is super frustrating from this fan’s perspective, and Moussa Sissoko has also shown that he can at least be cromulent in a box-to-box midfield role. Winks isn’t a schlub, but he has shown himself to be a defensive liability over the course of the season. Spurs have better options, and Mouriho needs to start implementing them.
Harry Kane isn’t broken, but he’s still not quite the striker he was.
Earlier this season, we openly wondered whether Harry Kane’s best days were behind him, and there were some pretty good reasons to think that way! But maybe we were too quick to worry. Since Mourinho’s arrival, Kane has scored three goals in two games and has looked reinvigorated, and his defenders on social media and elsewhere have been crowing at people like us who had started to worry.
That’s great, and I’m unquestionably delighted to be proven wrong! However, there are still reasons to think that Kane has slowed down a touch after his ankle injuries. He’s still not making the explosive runs that he made earlier in his career, and he’s been a little less accurate on his trademark cross goal snap snots. However, he’s working well with Dele behind him in the 8.5/9.5 role and is getting into better goal scoring positions. He’s running too, but timing his runs a little better and continues to drop deeper into the half-spaces to play others in.
So no, Harry’s not broken, but he’s not quite the same guy who was scoring for fun back in 2015-16. That doesn’t mean that he can’t score goals or isn’t Tottenham’s most important player, though — it’s a matter of tweaking to bring out his best. It looks like Mourinho recognizes this too and is trying to structure the team to accommodate for Kane’s slightly decreased mobility. Kane is still a striker who thrives on service, and with Dele at the 10 he’s starting to get more of it, as are Kane and Lucas. That should serve him, and Spurs, well going forward.