The 2019/20 football season is finally over, ending any honeymoon period that Tottenham supporters might have granted new manager José Mourinho. Fans were saddened by the November sacking of his predecessor, Mauricio Pochettino, after five years at the club, though it was perhaps a necessary loss after Pochettino’s winning ways dried up in the season’s early months. News that Poch would be replaced by Mourinho polarized the Spurs support: some hoped that Mourinho would bring the trophy-winning polish for which he is renowned; others regarded him as a liability who has repeatedly destroyed teams and players in service of his own ego; yet others found his personality entirely unforgiveable—particularly his sexist treatment of team doctor Eva Carneiro at his former club, Chelsea—and swore that they could not support a Tottenham team with Mourinho in charge. Still, with the exception of his fiercest opponents, most Spurs supporters likely held some private optimism that Tottenham could benefit from the best of Mourinho without having to bear the worst. After all, he has won trophies at every club he has managed since joining Porto in 2002, and the prospect of silverware at Tottenham is enough to make many supporters suspend their doubts.
Tottenham Hotspur, 2019-20 Premier League
As the season comes to an end, let’s take a look at what Spurs have gotten from Mourinho so far, and whether it’s enough to keep fans satisfied with him. For the first part of this analysis, I’ll provide some data on our league form over the last season to give readers a sense of how the team has played under Pochettino and Mourinho, and in future segments, we’ll dig into particular aspects of both the team’s performance and the cultural changes since Mourinho joined the club. For comparative purposes, I’ve broken the season down into three chunks: games 1-12, before Pochettino was sacked, games 13-29, spanning from Mourinho’s first game in charge until the season was suspended, and games 30-38, the period after the restart.
Under Poch, Spurs saw middling performances, with a mean per-game xG difference of -0.13 and a mean per-game goal difference of 0.08 across the first twelve games. Even excluding their week two trip to Manchester City, which saw Spurs pull a draw from thin air despite creating only 0.2 expected goals to City’s 3.0, the mean xG difference under Poch would have been -0.04. These numbers confirms what any viewers of those games will know: Tottenham were being held to even play by their opponents rather than achieving the sort of dominant performances necessary to challenge for top-four spots. In light of this, the decision to sack Pochettino seems justified, if unfortunate. But did Mourinho improve on the team’s form?
He did at first, in a hopeful period that saw Spurs win five of their first eight games under Mourinho with a mean per-game xG difference of 0.56 and a mean per-game goal difference of 0.75 across those games. Yet as the season ticked on and injuries accumulated, this early improvement in form dissipated, and a sharp rise in xG conceded is visible in gameweeks 21 to 29. This loss of defensive quality corresponded to a mean per-game xG difference of -0.62 and a mean per-game goal difference of zero across those nine games. In other words, Mourinho represented a momentary improvement in form over Pochettino, followed by a decline leading into the suspension of the season. Although the first three-and-half months is too short a time to assess Mourinho’s long-term prospects, it seems fair to conclude that he had no special magic that Pochettino lacked. The team played better, then worse, but there was no striking change in the team’s long-term form as a result of Pochettino’s replacement.
It would be harsh to judge Tottenham’s performance after the break caused by Covid-19 as though Mourinho had an opportunity to train them as he would in the summer, but with extended time on the training ground without the interruption of competitions, some hoped Mourinho would instill his own philosophy more so than he would have been able to in the midst of a competitive season. He may have done so, as a reduction in Tottenham’s attacking ambition and a greater emphasis on allowing the opposing team to attack Spurs’ defense have been noticeable in recent weeks. However, this has not led to significantly better form: since the restart, Tottenham have been lucky, with a mean per-game xG difference of -0.27 in the last nine games of the season but a mean per-game goal difference of 0.78. Thus, despite being undefeated in their final six matches of the season, Spurs are still unable to outplay their opponents consistently, a major concern that will need to be addressed next season. One reason for this is that since the restart, Spurs’ attacking output has fallen considerably, registering only 0.89 expected goals per game compared to 1.32 in the rest of the season. Clearly, Mourinho must find a way to retain the attacking threat as he begins to institute his own defensive play style.
Where Premier League results are concerned, Mourinho does not look to be a major improvement on Pochettino, particularly taking into account the uninspired games since the restart. Nor has he been a disappointment in comparison to the beloved Argentine, at least in a footballing sense. Having gained a sense of how Tottenham performed across a season punctuated by disruptions, first a managerial change and then the suspension of games, in future posts I will delve into specific considerations of how Mourinho has and has not benefitted the club so far, and what fans should expect in the months to come.