In the aftermath of Tottenham Hotspur’s 1-1 draw against Manchester United, Spurs’ first match since mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the biggest headline was about — surprise! — something Jose Mourinho said.
Mourinho was roundly criticized by fans on social media and elsewhere for only using two substitutions out of a possible five (with the Premier League’s new temporary substitution rules). Mourinho made one double substitution in the 70th minute, bringing Gedson Fernandes and Giovani Lo Celso on for Steven Bergwijn and Erik Lamela. That was frustrating at the time seeing as how Mourinho seemingly had nine bench players to choose from and couldn’t be bothered to even use the standard three.
Afterwards, Mourinho addressed this in his post-match press conference. Here’s how it was reported by many football media outlets:
'I was reading the game and had no bench to react to it'— MailOnline Sport (@MailSport) June 19, 2020
Jose Mourinho unhappy with lack of alternative attacking options in draw against Man Unitedhttps://t.co/A2qUhdpOX8
Yikes! That does sound pretty bad! With nine players at his disposal, only using two of them over a 90 minute match where players looked to visibly tire on the pitch, and then saying basically saying I didn’t have a good bench sure does sound like he’s back to throwing his players under the bus.
I’m certainly not one to rush to Jose Mourinho’s defense in most circumstances. I’ve said before that he will have to do a lot to win me over as manager of Tottenham Hotspur, and I’m certainly more predisposed to think poorly of him based on his and my history than perhaps others.
But I’m also someone who doesn’t appreciate lazy narratives, and this one is, in fact, lazy. If you read Jose’s full quotes on the subject from the press conference, there’s actually a logic behind his comments that makes sense within the context of what happened in the match.
First, the full comments, from Football.London’s transcript of the press conference.
“From minute 65, 70, I had some tired people on the pitch without the options to change them, because the way we were playing our attacking players were fundamental on the defensive intensity. But at the same time they were very important on transition and finding the spaces they were giving us in those moments.
“Without Lucas and Dele, we didn’t have these attacking players on the bench. That could be Dele [and] Lucas, but could also be Bergwjn or Lamela or Sonny. I think we felt that in the last 20 minutes, it was easy for them to organise from the back because our pressure was not so intense because we dropped the block due to fatigue.”
And again, from later in the press conference:
“You ask me better today the options than the last part of the league before the lockdown? Of course, much better, as in that period we had zero attacking players and today we had four. We played with Bergwijn, Lamela, Kane and Son, and our bench was very strong in defensive options. We had Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen on the bench but we didn’t have Lucas or Dele or Lamela or Bergwijn.
“Imagine Bergwijn on the bench and Lucas playing and coming out minute 60-65 and Bergwijn coming for the last period, I can imagine the impact that we could have. So a bit of frustration but at the same time really happy with the players. Really happy to see people like Harry, Sonny, Moussa four months without playing, Harry six months without playing, and then giving us 90 minutes, I think from the boys I can only be really happy with them.”
So now, the context. Jose set up Tottenham in a vintage Mourinho-ball setup — defensive, low-block football with the intent to counterattack with pace whenever possible. People may not LIKE those tactics, especially after five years of swashbuckling Pochettino football, but it’s what Mourinho is known for. And it mostly worked — Spurs looked pretty fun going forward in the first half through Son Heung-Min and Steven Bergwijn, and was defensively solid overall.
Now, let’s take a look at Spurs’ nine bench options from this match: Paulo Gazzaniga, Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, Gedson, Giovani Lo Celso, Ryan Sessegnon, Tanguy Ndombele, Oliver Skipp, Harvey White.
The key to Mourinho’s comments was the absence of Dele and Lucas Moura from the match — Dele due to suspension and Lucas to a late knock. That takes two quality attacking players, ostensibly starters, out of the match entirely, and there’s not a ton of attacking talent left on Spurs’ bench with those two missing, even with nine players. (Troy Parrott might have been a hail mary option, but he too was out after having an appendectomy the week prior.)
In addition, there were major questions over the fitness of Lo Celso, who it was revealed suffered a serious injury just before the shutdown and wasn’t able to get the correct treatment, and Tanguy Ndombele, who has been struggling with fitness ever since he arrived. We can only speculate on both of them, but it seems reasonable to say that at least Lo Celso wasn’t 90 minutes fit, and there are questions as to whether Ndombele would’ve been a good fit for Mourinho’s tactics in this match.
By the time United equalized the score in the 81st minute, Mourinho had already put his best bench attacker, Lo Celso, on the pitch, along with Gedson to help shore up the midfield. With the rest of Spurs’ attacking options — Kane and Son in particular — looking exhausted, there wasn’t a whole lot of talent left on that bench to put on if you’re trying to chase a late winner.
So what Mourinho said is correct. Had he had Dele and Lucas available, he would’ve likely had at least one or two attacking players on the bench ready to come on to spell tired legs in the closing minutes. It certainly would’ve been much better to have someone like Lucas or Bergwijn available to sub in the 85th minute than [checks roster] Harvey White.
Mourinho, also in Friday’s press conference, also made the point that changing the substitution rules benefits the bigger, deeper clubs like Liverpool and Manchester City far more than it does everyone else. That’s also a fair point.
The counterpoint to this, however, is that taking Mourinho completely at his word lets him off the hook for the mistakes that he did make, and he’s certainly not blameless here. Mourinho may not have had the offensive substitutions he wanted, but he did have options.
The decision not to use Tanguy Ndombele, even as a late-game substitute to add a dash of creativity when chasing the match was a bit baffling. Other fans suggested that Ryan Sessegnon could have come in as a left sided winger for an obviously gassed Son Heung-Min, though it’s an open question as to whether a fresh Sessegnon is actually an upgrade over a player like Sonny, even when tired. There were other options, even defensive ones, that could have put some fresh legs on the pitch and potentially added a spark. And keeping a dead-on-his-feet Harry Kane on for the full 90 minutes is almost an act of cruelty, considering the pretty woeful match performance and his lack of fitness.
I’m not here to put in a full-throated defense of Jose Mourinho. I’m still not a fan. I don’t especially like the way he sets up his teams to play, and there are numerous things from this past match alone that are his responsibility and are fair game for criticism.
However, in this case, I think he has a point. Having at least one of Lucas or Dele available in this match might have been the difference between one point and three on Friday night. You can argue whether the decisions he made were the right ones, but I don’t think it’s fair to argue that pointing out that he didn’t have the depth that he wanted is inaccurate.