You win first. In his first two seasons at the club, he won Chelsea’s first two Premier League titles in over 50 years. In two years at Inter, he won two Serie A titles and the Champions League. In his second season at Real Madrid, he put together the most dominant team in La Liga history. In his second year at Chelsea, he won another league title. He ensured Manchester United’s only win since Alex Ferguson’s retirement in his second season at Old Trafford.
Then the drama begins. Eventually… usually in your third season with the club… Result flag. The players are also no longer responding to the intensity of Mourinho’s demands, the poor results are piling up – a disappointing last-minute defeat here, a heavy defeat there – and rumours of discord between players are surfacing from the dressing room and quickly increasing. Mourinho is feeling more and more pressure from the media. Both the club (mostly through anonymous sources) and its supporters have expressed displeasure at the choice of training, often due to a lack of confidence in the young prodigy.
He’s finally leaving. He usually walks away with a large ransom in hand.
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Whoever signs Mourinho commits to winning trophies, investing heavily and immediately in the talent of players – from Michael Essien and Didier Drogba at Chelsea to Paul Pogba at Manchester United – and a more spectacular exit than usual.
However, his move to Tottenham Hotspur went according to a different scenario. Firstly, while the club has more money and talent than most of his peers, it does not have the financial (or grade) superiority that most of Mourinho’s previous employers could boast of. Partly as a result of the aftermath of the pandemic, the club has shifted to a more calculated and less profligate approach since Mourinho was hired in November 2019 : They have loaned out Gareth Bale and Carlos Vinicius, while their biggest transfer spending has gone to solid players like Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Sergio Réguillon (although Real Madrid have an exit clause) and Steven Bergwijn, who are not at Pogba’s level.
Any difference? Well, Mourinho hasn’t won much.
When strikers Harry Kane and Son Heung-min were healthy, Spurs was a great team. From the start of the reboot project last summer (which ended the postponed 2019-20 season) to mid-December – a span of around 21 games for each club – they have amassed 43 points, matching Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola majority in the league. They have also qualified for the League Cup final; when City meet on the 25th. In April, it will be his first major trophy since 2008.
However, they suffered an embarrassing defeat in the Europa League round 32 in March and despite a strong run of results in the league, they remain three points clear of qualifying for the Champions League next season. The initial wave of victories and trophies to be drawn – the reason the potential drama is worth so many clubs – failed to materialise.
When the players return from international break later this week, the Spurs will be entering one of the most important periods in their existence as an emerging heavyweight. With the League Cup clash against City ahead and the remaining league games with Manchester United (April 11), Everton (April 17) and Leicester City (May 23), the season could end with a cup win and Champions League qualification, or neither.
While we wait for the results, it might be a good idea to take a look at Mourinho’s team performance, Spurs’ weaknesses so far and what it looks like when he drops the tennis hoops through.
First, let’s clear up the misunderstanding about Special.
Mourinho has long been associated with the word pragmatism, and his first championship at Chelsea yielded 15 league goals all season (in 38 games), but his best teams of the 2010s were exceptional at both ends of the pitch. His Real Madrid team scored 121 La Liga goals in the 2011/12 season, 3.2 per game. Most of his teams from Real Madrid, Chelsea (second term) and Manchester United had above average shooting frequency and quality.
Data from Stats Perform. The color code is based on the values of the 5 major European leagues from 2010-11 to 2019-20. Green is good, red is bad.
It appears that Mourinho’s combination of pragmatic stupidity with excellent attacking talent – Cristiano Ronaldo in his prime with Angel Di Maria and Mesut Özil at Real Madrid, Eden Hazard and Diego Costa in their prime at Chelsea – works well. Think of something. While he has always been the centerpiece of the defensive structure and is never overpowered offensively unless necessary, he doesn’t necessarily stand in the way of superior offensive talent.
Well, I… at least not at first. The longer Mourinho has been at Chelsea and United, the more the attacking output has declined. His teams got a few more bunkers, the number of shots decreased, and the fact that his teams weren’t under full-court pressure meant that there weren’t as many easy scoring opportunities created by that pressure.
Towards the end of Mourinho’s tenure, the attacking and pressing statistics are getting weaker.
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– Last year, under Mourinho at Real Madrid, Los Blancos played 2.9 per game in the attacking third and 0.9 per game in the offensive third, completed 50% of their possession in the attacking third (46%), allowed 9.9 passes per defensive action (PPDA) (11.9) and had possession of the ball 59% of the time (56%).
– At Chelsea, his Blues had 3.2 more ball possession than their opponents in the attacking third, and 0.6 less in the third. Offensively they went from 47% to 43% and opponents from 35% to 39%.
– At Manchester United, the possession margin initially increased from +1.5 in year one to +0.0 in year three. Their PPDA rose from 10.0 to 11.9.
For the most part, these changes seem quite small, but they have tipped the balance. In tie games – usually by zero or one goal difference – Real went from an unsustainable 2.5 per game in their second season to 1.6 in their third, while Chelsea went from a low 2.0 to a low 0.9.
These problems did not occur with every game, of course, but by the end of the century they were becoming more common. At the end of his third year at Real Madrid, for example, the counter was:
– Borussia Dortmund 4, Real Madrid 1 (24 April 2013): In the roughly 17 minutes of the Champions League semifinal, RMA averaged just 0.05 shots per possession. Once behind, they were unable to apply pressure, starting 5 of 109 on a third down.
– Espanyol 1, Real Madrid 1 (11 May 2013): Los Blancos had 70% possession of the ball and attempted more shots, but they averaged just 0.05 xG per shot and again launched just five shots in the offensive third.
– Real Sociedad 3, Real Madrid 3 (26 May 2013): Gonzalo Higuain’s goal set the tone for the first half, but although RMA scored in the 80th minute, it wasn’t enough. Until the final minute, they averaged just 0.09 shots per possession and launched just six shots per possession in the offensive third. RSO outscored them 28-11 and eventually found EQ in overtime.
Mourinho’s teams always start strong and then distance themselves. Same at Tottenham, but much faster than the previous stages of the special forces career? Tottenham Hotspur Football Club/Tottenham Hotspur Football Club via Getty Images
Chelsea and ManUnited also ended up with the same story.
– Stoke 1, Chelsea 0 (17 Nov 2015): Chelsea took seven shots, at just 0.07 xG/shoot, when Stoke scored early in the second half. Chelsea only averaged 0.06 xG/shoot from there, starting in just five lineups and falling in the attacking third.
– Spurs 0, Chelsea 0 (November 29, 2015): Chelsea let Spurs have most of the ball possession (as Mourinho often does against top teams), but couldn’t hit back and ended the game with just five shots on goal at a rate of 0.06 xG/shot.
– Leicester City 2, Chelsea 1 (14 December 2015): In the end, the champions had to cede 65% of the ball possession to Chelsea, but the Blues shot 0.03 times per possession and 0.07 xG/shoot over the course of about 33 minutes of play – a totally non-existent attack. By the time Chelsea came up with attacking ideas, they were already 2-0 down. (Mourinho was sacked on December 17).
– Manchester United 2, Arsenal 2 (Dec. 5, 2018):. Different club, same story. In the 85 minutes of the tie, United fired just seven shots, at just 0.04 xG per shot. They blew up twice when they were behind, but they couldn’t create anything until then.
– Valencia 2, Manchester United 1 (Dec. 12, 2018):. The match of the Champions League group stage took place in the 16th minute. In the 53rd minute the score was tied, but despite 53% ball possession United couldn’t get a shot off. At the other end, they failed to take the lead until they were down 2-0.
Liverpool 3, Manchester United 1 (16 Dec 2018):. This match was 0-0 or 1-1 for about 64 minutes. In this interval, United fired twice, with 0.03 xG per shot. Liverpool in the same region: 28 shots, 68% ball possession. (Mourinho was sacked on December 18).
If this kind of defeat sounds familiar to Spurs fans, there’s a very understandable reason for it.
This is how Mourinho’s teams lose games.
Team average in wins, Big 5 leagues in Europe (2020-21): 0.14 shots per ball possession, 0.15 xG per shot
Tottenham Hotspur in wins: 0.13 and 0.15
Team average in losses, Big 5: 0.11 and 0.11
Tottenham Hotspur in losses: 0.09 and 0.09, respectively
With their victories, Spurs fit the normal profile of a team in the big five European leagues. When they lose, they are more modest offensively than the average losing team. Again, the difference doesn’t seem big, but it adds up.
Jurgen Klinsmann has spoken out about Harry Kane’s possible departure from Tottenham this summer.
Tottenham had an average of 0.05 shots per ball possession in the first 60 minutes and 0.08 overall in their 2-0 loss against Leicester City at 20. December. The 28th. In January, they managed just three shots (0.03 per possession) against Liverpool. They were 0.08 per ball possession in the 1-0 defeat to Brighton, 0.07 in the 2-1 defeat to Arsenal and 0.05 in the 2-1 defeat to West Ham United.
The Europa League loss against Dinamo Zagreb had a similar theme. The Spurs averaged just 0.05 shots per possession in the first 60 minutes while taking a 2-0 lead in the first leg. Eventually, the Dynamo scored two points to force overtime, then quickly scored again in overtime. Spurs finally found the accelerator, but thanks in part to the incredible work of Dinamo goalkeeper Dominic Livakovic, it was too late.
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This occasional abuse is accompanied by an extreme lack of pressure. The Spurs allow 13.1 PPDA (10th in the league) and allow opponents 5.3 assists per possession (11th); they start just 5.7 possessions per game in the offensive third (17th), while opponents average 7.8 (18th).
To their credit, Spurs have played better after a terrible run of six defeats in eight games in February. Since then, they have won six of their eight games, scoring 18 goals in the process. Gareth Bale is starting to find his fifth step, giving Spurs an extra attacking option alongside Son and Kane, for whom there has been no plan B all season. Also, rumors of player dissatisfaction and/or Mourinho’s whims with the media have been limited. While this is the case, we are not necessarily in Mourinho’s end times.
Of course, there was also a small arsenal in March and the collapse of Zagreb. That was two steps forward, one month back, and it puts a stop to serious hopes of winning the League Cup or qualifying for the Champions League.
The same goes for knowledge of the problem. In all Mourinho’s years of innovation – particularly in the area of tactical periodisation, which has become so prevalent over time that teams in other sports have adopted its principles – he has never had a plan B in attack. Not everyone can stop Plan A, but when they do, Mourinho seems to trust his players to find a solution. This is not always the case.
The difficulty for the Spurs this year is that, as you can see from the chart above, their defensive magic is somewhat gone. The Spurs aren’t allowing many good shots, but opponents are taking more shots than they are. They are one of only two teams in the big five European leagues averaging over 1.6 points per game, despite taking fewer shots than their opponents (the other team: Everton). They are the best of a team that doesn’t shoot, but in this age of football, creativity in possession and pressure all over the field are the most direct paths to victory. If you don’t offer these things, your ceiling will just be lower.
However, in their last five league games, they have taken 52 shots on 47 opponents, generated 8.9 xG – 4.6, averaged 7 shots in possession (not good, but better) per game from the attacking third, and have only suffered one Mourinho special loss. If this is the start of a trend, the Spurs could still be done with the 2020-21 season pretty quickly. If it had stuck to one good month and a quick turnaround, Tottenham’s Mourinho experiment would probably not have had a third season.
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