Tottenham Hotspur defeated Stoke City 1-3 at the bet365 stadium in Stoke-on-Trent to progress to the semifinals of the Carabao Cup. That they did it with seven changes from the team that lost to Leicester City at the weekend is perhaps not entirely surprising — Stoke had a good run to get to the quarterfinals, but are still a club that is seventh in the Championship. Spurs were comfortable favorites before the match and despite a nervy few minutes after Jordan Thompson’s equalizer, Spurs ended up winning quite comfortably.
If you watched the match, you probably would’ve noticed the performance of Dele, who made a rare start under Jose Mourinho after seemingly falling out of the Spurs’ managers plans entirely. One wonders whether his start was really due to merit — he’s played well in the short cameos he’s had recently — or more due to the fact that both Giovani Lo Celso and Tanguy Ndombele were both carrying knocks that kept them out of the match.
Even so, Dele looked... good! He was bright and lively on the ball and was making good runs into space throughout his 66 minutes of action. He cut a frustrated figure at times, as many of his shots or attacking moves didn’t quite come off, but it was objectively the kind of encouraging performance that you’d expect to see rewarded with additional time in the lineup.
But not if you’re Jose Mourinho. The Spurs manager ripped into Dele over an incident in the second half where Dele lost the ball and, Mourinho claims, led to Stoke’s equalizing goal. This is how the Telegraph (£) described the incident as it happened:
Just after the home side equalised Gareth Bale’s opener in this quarter-final, Jose Mourinho ran to the touchline to unleash his fury at Alli for yielding possession in the build up with an extravagant flick.
“Your flick has cost us that goal,” bellowed the Spurs manager. And Alli was substituted moments later.
— Jim White, The Telegraph
Naturally, Mourinho was asked about the incident, which was clearly audible as the match was held behind closed doors. Here’s what he had to say about Dele in the post-match press conference:
“For me a player that plays [in the hole] is a player that has to link and create and not to create problems for his own team. In that situation, an objective counter-attack would probably end with a goal, and it ended with a counter-attack behind our defenders.
“We were unbalanced because when you are in possession you have full-backs out wide and another midfielder in a different line and they caught us in a counter-attack and they transformed the result of the game that was totally in our hands, so yes I am upset.”
Really? Is that what happened? Let’s take a look at that play. Here’s a clip of the incident, from moments before Dele’s backheel flick through Thompson’s equalizer.
So let’s start with the obvious: yes, Dele was trying something cool and it didn’t work out, and yes that play did (eventually) result in a Stoke goal. However, upon rewatching that play, it seems extremely harsh to suggest that Dele’s flick was the one thing that precipitated that goal. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that Mourinho has blatantly scapegoated Dele for the failings of other players.
Mourinho has a decent (if small) point — if Dele had made a different choice it might have had a more successful outcome. Dele chose the dramatic no-look backheel to Son, who he knew was behind him, instead of passing to the open Lucas Moura. However to hear Mourinho tell it, Dele’s giveaway resulted in an immediate Stoke counterattack that took advantage of Spurs’ defense being out of shape, as they are expecting Tottenham to push forward on the attack.
But that’s not at all what happens. Instead of holding the ball up and waiting for teammates to push forward in a counter, the ball deflects off a Stoke player into space, and is eventually played all the way back to Andy Lonergan in goal. Lonergan has enough time to take a couple of touches before hoofing a long kick up to midfield. Through a combination of good, alert passing and some terrible Tottenham defending, Jacob Brown is able to fire a long ball to Thompson who finishes past Hugo Lloris at the back post.
Upon re-watching this play the ensuing goal was much more the result of a Spurs back line that was all at sea than anything Dele did. As soon as Lonergan launches the ball, the following happens: Ben Davies gets sucked into the middle of the pitch in the opening part of that play. Moments after, Eric Dier gets caught unaware and is absolutely roasted by Brown, who roars past him with acres of space to work with. Davinson Sanchez is forced wide to cover the run of Brown, and last defender Matt Doherty is ball-watching and fails to track Thompson who one-touches the ball past Lloris, who himself could’ve done better, at the far post.
It’s obviously ugly. I’m still struggling to find out how Dele is culpable to the extent that he deserves a rage sub and a tongue lashing to the media from his manager. There was more than enough time after Dele’s flick for Spurs’ fullbacks to get back and the defense to reset. What happened may have started with a giveaway, but it is absolutely not Dele’s fault.
Dele is a flair player. It’s what we expect from him, and it’s one of the reasons why he has been so exciting to watch over the course of his Tottenham career. He obviously saw Son making his run behind him and knew that he wouldn’t have time to turn with the ball and play a forward pass to Sonny’s feet. So he tried an audacious backheel pass. Maybe it was the wrong decision. It didn’t work. But what if it had?
Dele is one of the few attacking midfielders Spurs have who will go out and just try stuff. He’s possibly the only guy on the team who would think to try a backheel flick to a running Son Heung-Min in that situation, and honestly I have no problem with it. I certainly have more faith in Sonny with the ball at his feet than I do Lucas Moura.
Mourinho obviously doesn’t agree, and his reaction probably lies at the root of why he and Dele have had a falling out this season. Many have argued that Dele is not the kind of player who excels in Mourinho’s tactical system, but it’s also true that Mourinho now appears to be looking for things to keep Dele out of the team for reasons that are beyond me.
Mourinho’s scapegoating of Dele and the subsequent rage sub is bad enough, but what infuriates me more are his comments to the press. Dele was thrown completely under the bus for that play, in a way that is emblematic of Mourinho’s worst qualities as a manager. “Create problems for his team”? Where was Mourinho’s public criticism of Eric Dier or Matt Doherty? Why not have a go at Harry Winks for jogging back instead of hauling ass to make a defensive play? Instead, it’s Dele who gets lambasted for a play that didn’t even begin until 12 seconds after his “problematic” flick.
This is the kind of thing that made me hate Mourinho when he managed other clubs, and what keeps me from embracing him fully as manager at Spurs. It feels at times as though he isn’t happy unless he has a player to serve as a vessel for his withering scorn. Last season it was Tanguy Ndombele. This year I guess it’s Dele’s turn, and it’s not right.
Dele is very likely leaving Tottenham in January. As much as I like him, I hope he goes. This is not because I think he’s no longer good enough for Tottenham Hotspur, but because it’s unfair to him to remain at a club where he does not have the trust and respect of his manager. By all accounts, Dele has been working hard in training and waiting for his chance with the first team. If in the midst of an otherwise good performance in the League Cup he gets scapegoated for the mistakes of others, then he should leave, because the club has failed him, not the other way around.