Tottenham's most audacious goals

Jose Mourinho shows little sign of inspiring Tottenham out of self-inflicted downward spiral

The Portuguese pointed to “individual mistakes” in the 3-1 loss on Thursday night to the champions

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Friday 29 January 2021 08:07

As the Liverpool players were revelling in the release of scoring again in the away dressing room, the Tottenham Hotspur players were getting riled in theirs. Serge Aurier had particularly strong words, to the point he actually left the stadium. That is a story that could grow, although Spurs were playing it down. It was, in the words of Jose Mourinho, a team “not happy” with going behind.

This, it should be stressed, was at half-time - not at the end of the game. Spurs were still only 1-0 behind and, even without Harry Kane, had the chance to play through it. They got worse, something you could actually say of their long-term form since the first defeat to Liverpool, back in December.

Neither team has actually been performing well since then, which made this match at White Hart Lane pointed, and all the more instructive.

One of the trends of this season has been virtually every team getting into a particularly bad run, where it looked like they could have more far pronounced problems than a normal poor spell, with the lingering danger of really spiralling out of control.

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So, one of the key traits of this season is going to be whether a manager can work his way out of such periods.

All of Pep Guardiola, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Mikel Arteta, Sean Dyche, Scott Parker and Chris Wilder have managed it. Through this game, Jurgen Klopp looks like he may have done similar. Frank Lampard was not given the opportunity to, but offered little suggestion he could. Mourinho is currently offering little suggestion he can, either. In fact, as with this match - and as a consequence of it - it may be getting worse.

There is a self-inflicted element, and Spurs’ approach certainly facilitated Liverpool in getting back to their best.

The champions are still at a somewhat delicate point, mind, and Klopp must maintain balance to keep going. That, however, has been part of the wider challenge.

For all the many variables of this campaign, with so many issues stemming from Virgil van Dijk’s injury, Klopp’s primary problem has revolved around one main dilemma. It is how far he can push his team up without compromising one of its key components. This is why Van Dijk was such a transformative signing. It is rare to see a player who so completely fits what a manager wants. He is so commanding at the back, he allowed the rest of the Liverpool team to push up so far they became so good.

Without the centre-half - or any senior centre-half - Klopp has had the challenge of working out where that line needs to go. Too high and the defence is far too exposed. Too low and the attack lose any verve, as well as the chaos they thrive off.

Mourinho reacts on the sideline

Klopp had the perfect balance against Spurs, although it’s possible that Mourinho’s withdrawn approach played into that. It gave Liverpool the space of the pitch. It just made it obvious for them, as Mourinho teams sometimes do.

The solutions for the Spurs boss are anything but obvious. It is now as if there are problems all over the team.

The biggest is of course with the biggest star, and Kane’s injury, above all because he represents 50% of their attacking ideas. It is really just get it to him or Son Heung-Min and hope they produce.

Mourinho first of all has to figure out how to attack without one of them, something which seems all the trickier when he evidently didn’t yet have the trust in Gareth Bale to throw him on at half-time.

It is not just an issue of personnel, though. It is about the system, or lack of one. That is why they’re so overwhelmingly reliant on their few big stars, rather than, say, putting in place an approach where the team creates through constructive play. It’s all the more remarkable when you have a creator like Tanguy N’Dombele to elevate such a system. The absence of Kane to hold the ball up could meanwhile put even more pressure on that creaking defence.

Firmino puts Liverpool ahead

Mourinho maybe created more issues in lambasting most of them - Joe Rodon was excused - after the game. He also refused to answer a question on whether the defenders are individually good enough.

It raises a key point, that has been a core issue of Spurs’ decline. If Mourinho doesn’t fully trust that defence, why lean on it? Why not weight the team towards its best talent - which is all in attack?

That is maybe a bit easier to figure than Spurs’ problems, because it revolves around Mourinho’s inherent conservatism.

On top of all that, then, there’s the issue created by Aurier. There’s so much to sort out. The mood in the Spurs’ dressing room reflected that. The mood in the Liverpool dressing room, compared to last week, meanwhile illustrated how quickly things can change.

The ability to get out of such runs is going to be the real key to this season.

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