While the Chelsea squad have been energised by the ingenuity of Thomas Tuchel’s training sessions, some at Tottenham Hotspur have started to get worried about where the spark has gone. There is a new sense of life with one side, a worrying lifelessness in the other. It could be seen in the reaction of opposition teams, too. The Burnley players on Sunday became primarily concerned with “not getting ripped apart”, as Chelsea threatened to overwhelm them, but many sides have been surprised at just how unimaginative Spurs have been – at least compared to October.
It is one of a few differences between the teams going into this game, that has suddenly put all the pressure on Jose Mourinho. This is the first ever meeting between the two managers, and that fact hints to why there is such a contrast in attacking approaches.
Tuchel got his first senior job, at Mainz, at the start of the 2009-10 season, a campaign that brought Mourinho’s magnum opus with that treble at Internazionale. The young German was already looking to the coming force, and Mourinho’s great opposite: Pep Guardiola. Tuchel sees the Manchester City boss as an “idol”.
It is why the two represent real contrasts, which will inform key current differences on the pitch on Thursday – how they attack.
Tuchel says his “philosophy is an aesthetic one”. Mourinho has derided “philosophers” in the game. The Spurs manager says the “result is the most important thing”. Tuchel says “we are here to create performance on a level that allows us to increase the possibility to win”. The German says his teams look to “force mistakes”, Mourinho has instructed his teams to avoid mistakes at all costs. One wants the ball, the other willingly gives it up.
It all ensures the most relevant difference going into this game, which has dominated discussions around the teams, and could make the difference in terms of result. It is how they try and score. Tuchel’s attacking play is among the most collectively coherent in football. Mourinho eschews attacking structure in favour of individualism.
As tends to happen with such figures, and as absolutely happened between Mourinho and Guardiola, they actually represent two sides of the same coin. Hugely different approaches come from the same root principles.
Both Tuchel and Mourinho are practitioners of ‘Differential Learning’.
“It’s a really modern and dynamic coaching method that encourages players to think within a system,” Calvin Betton, a sports coach who works in talent development, explains. “It basically means you set a task – say, to penetrate a low block – and let them figure it out, but skilfully, and this is the important part because it is a skill of a very good coach, ask effective questions and occasionally suggest what ‘might be worth trying’ rather than telling them exactly what to do. It’s a holistic method, and takes in both techniques and tactics. Tuchel making players practice set pieces with everybody holding tennis balls in both hands, so they couldn’t grab shirts, that’s a genius example.”
There are naturally huge variations within the wider concept. There is prescriptive coaching, which is when a coach specifically details how players do something and repeat it until it is drilled. Louis van Gaal immediately comes to mind. There is constraint-led, which is adding parameters but telling them nothing, and asking leading questions. The theory is there is no right or wrong way of doing things, as it’s adaptable. Tuchel practices this.
‘Guided discovery’ is then a halfway house between the two, which Mourinho has been a high priest of. The Portuguese is said to have been a visionary at this early in his career, which is where the high reputation really came from beyond the trophies. It led to brilliantly constructed counters, especially at Porto, Chelsea and Internazionale.
“The skill of the coach is when you ask the question, how you phrase it, when you give praise, affirmation, charisma”, Betton explains. “It requires seriously good coaches to carry out – and patient ones.
“Basically, if you don’t do guided discovery right, you’re basically just telling them to play, and getting pissed off if it doesn’t work.”
It’s difficult not to see some of this in Mourinho’s later career – and possibly points to some of the issues at White Hart Lane of late.
Well before Harry Kane’s injury, Spurs were beginning to encounter problems in attacking play that had become more frequent at his most recent clubs. There has been little imagination or construction to their play, and it sometimes feels as if they don’t really know what to do in attack. Some put it down to the training, that has been a complaint since at least his time at Real Madrid.
While their Spanish international teammates with Barcelona were enjoying the benefits of Guardiola’s revolutionary ideas, those at the Bernabeu complained they received no such coaching at all.
“None of them could remember working on [organised attacks] during pre-season in Los Angeles and in Tianjin and Canton,” Diego Torres wrote in his landmark book on Mourinho’s time at Madrid, ‘The Special One’. “One of the players made fun of the situation, inventing the ‘Peking Manual’, an imaginary dossier the coach neither knew of nor had ever applied to teach his players the art of static attack. In the coming months, on the many occasions when they lacked creativity and were unable to create chances against teams that defended deep, they usually recalled it. ‘Mou’, they would mumble under their breath, ‘take out the Peking Manual!’”
Mourinho’s supporters would immediately point to the record goal returns of the 2011-12 as evidence against that. Many at Madrid would instead point to the presence of a goalscoring anomaly like peak Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese was one of a few players Mourinho has had who was brilliant enough to instantly come up with any solutions themselves - along with Deco, Didier Drogba, Arjen Robben, Samuel Eto’o, Wesley Sneijder, Mesut Ozil and Eden Hazard.
Hazard greatly respects and likes Mourinho, but is known to have told colleagues that the Portuguese’s attacking coaching is “the most basic” he’s come across. That suited him because the Belgian is such a dominant individualist. The same could be said of Kane, if from different attributes.
Some sources at Spurs say the attacking idea genuinely doesn’t extend much beyond getting it to Kane and Son Heung-Min. There is little preparation for progressing the ball up the pitch. This is what has struck opposition staff in planning for games against Spurs. Matches thereby reflect the training, which has largely been based on defensive organisation, set pieces and second balls.
It works fine when Kane and Son are on the kind of form they were in in November. Similar happened at Manchester United when Romelu Lukaku started 2017-18 at a rampaging level, or Chelsea for the first few months of 2014-15.
Gareth Barry, who has played against a few Mourinho teams, doesn’t recognise much difference from his days as a midfielder. He is asked what they were like to defend against.
“You always go into a game against a Mourinho team thinking these are going to be hard to break down, rather than this is a team who are going to be dominating the ball," Barry explains. "Obviously he’s worked with a lot of world-class players who can produce magic out of nothing, which he’s got at Spurs, but he’s always sorted out the defence first. As a defensive midfielder, you would concentrate on counters.
“Early on in the season it was working, but teams might have solved that from early on, worked them out, and they’re struggling to find another route.”
Finding another route is what Tuchel’s training is all about. If sources are right that Mourinho’s attacking training is “basic”, the German’s is the complete opposite - and described as “visionary” now.
Players are prescribed initial “zones” and roles within a variety of different systems and formations. Sessions can be long, often up to two and a half hours. Within that are numerous examples of “constraint-led learning”, such as when Tuchel wanted his players to become more adept at devastating play through the centre. Funnel-shaped pitches would be set, where the narrowest point would be the six-yard box, conditioning players to think that way.
It followed the idea of Ralph Rangnick, one of his early mentors, to make “training more complicated than the game” so matches seem easy.
“In the end it’s like an orchestra,” Tuchel says, as he expanded on much of these themes in his pre-game press conference.
“I believe in a disciplined structure on the field, and respect from every player for his position. It gives us the chance to play faster, because everyone knows where the other guy is in this moment, to have more confidence, and give every player a couple of possibilities from where to choose.
“It’s just to give possibilities, and from the possibilities it is the free choice of the players. It is their creativity.
“It is also the moment - is he in this moment comfortable? Does he see the same things we see from the outside? What is his view in this moment? Is he tired? Is he relaxed? Is he stressed out? Did he do a mistake? So there are a lot of choices in the blink of an eye - and this has to stay with the players, with their quality.
“So maybe Mason Mount goes for a different solution than Hakim Ziyech on the same position, for sure he will than for Kai Havertz. But I absolutely want that they have all one, two, three, four options to take which one they take, and there are players that will take the fifth one or sixth one that I don't even think about, and even don't know about.
This has to be the choice and the creativity of the players. And that follows a little bit like what you say, and what we try to implement also in training, the mix of respecting your zone, and to have a structure and then the freedom for the creativity and the quality and the intuition of the players. “That is a constant mix, of decision-making and to challenge them in different fields of the training, to give them the tools to the game, but they have to use the tools, that is absolutely clear.”
In other words, “respecting your zone” - your position - is the constraint. The task is to figure out how to score.
At the weekend, Burnley struggled to figure out how to stop Chelsea. Robbie Brady could be heard arguing with Sean Dyche about how their instructions to stop Callum Hudson-Odoi were useless. It will be instructive to see how Mourinho prepares for this challenge, all the more so because Tuchel is still only in the job a week.
For all their philosophical differences, the two share another root belief about the game – that all the preparation in the world can be undone by a moment’s action. “Football is an insecure game,” in the words of Tuchel. Luck, emotion, commitment can still play decisive parts. Mourinho may need all of these on current form. Tuchel may need some of them given his current lack of time with the squad.
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