2:44 FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Tottenham’s 3-2 win at West Ham
On the face of it, Mourinho barely tweaked the formation. Understandably so, having had so little time to work with the players. «New training sessions, new ideas. It is difficult to process,» he acknowledged. But there were some signs on the pitch, and in his assessment of the game in the press conference afterwards, of how Mourinho plans to turn this around.
So what exactly did he change?
Twin holding midfielders
Eric Dier was once a target of his at Manchester United so perhaps it was no surprise that he was entrusted with that holding role, but the decision to retain Harry Winks alongside him was something seldom seen under Pochettino. The two men had not started a Premier League game together since winning at Leicester in December of last year.
It gave Spurs a two-man base in midfield, a platform from which to play.
Although Dier’s touch and distribution fell short of what was required at times, the structure worked defensively. Had Davinson Sanchez not left Angelo Ogbonna free to score with the last kick of the game, this would have been Tottenham’s best defensive performance in terms of expected goals conceded in any Premier League game this season.
Alli playing in his best role
The presence of Dier and Winks made Alli’s role clearer ahead of them. He was allowed to operate as a genuine number 10 rather than having to shuttle back into position in midfield. Alli provided the clever assist for Son’s opening goal and a wonderful piece of skill on the touchline right in front of his new manager in the build-up to Lucas’s goal soon after.
Just as significantly, there was evidence of a closer link-up between Alli and Kane than has not been seen for some time. The pair exchanged more passes than they have in any Premier League game this season. In fact, Kane passed to Alli seven times, which is more than twice as many as in any other match in the current campaign. Will this be a priority for Mourinho?
«I think he was the old Dele Alli,» he said afterwards. «The Dele Alli of a couple of years ago that impressed not just England but the world. He did exactly what I wanted him to do. In two days of work, some action and information. I tried to make it clear for him exactly the spaces where we wanted him to play, offensively and defensively.»
Kane’s aggression in attack
It makes sense that Mourinho would look to get Alli closer to Kane and it makes sense too that he will build the attack around the center-forward. The England captain is capable of approaching the role in various ways but whether it is Didier Drogba, Diego Costa or Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Mourinho traditionally favours a robust reference point in attack.
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There were signs that Kane is prepared to fulfil that role for Mourinho in his performance against West Ham. He was certainly a willing runner, covering more ground than any other Tottenham player at the London Stadium — the most that he has in any Premier League game in over three months. There was a real edge to Kane’s game on Saturday.
It wasn’t just that he was booked for a late off-the-ball challenge on Robert Snodgrass late on — his first yellow card in the competition since February. He committed four fouls in total. That might not sound a lot but in fact it is the joint-most that he has conceded in any game in his entire Premier League career. Perhaps Kane knows how to impress Mourinho.
Keeping things simple again
While that was a slightly different side to Kane, the overarching theme of Tottenham’s performance was a return to the fundamentals of why many of these players became so highly rated in the first place. This was not the time to attempt a dramatic overhaul.
It is almost 18 years now — a generation ago — since Mourinho faced the challenge of walking into a new club midway through a season. As a result, it seems that his intention is to keep it simple during a period that will bring 11 matches in just 40 days. That makes sense given that his predecessor was sometimes criticised for overcomplicating things.
2:11 Mourinho said he was very happy for his players after their 3-2 win at West Ham
«I try to give the players comfort, especially in this moment where there is, you know, a little bit of emotion around it,» Mourinho explained. «I try to give them comfort and comfort is asking them to give things they can give. Sometimes we complicate things and we ask from the players things that they are not ready to give.
«I try to ask the boys — Dele, of course Harry, Son, Lucas, Harry Winks, Eric — I try exactly to give them the easier job for them and the easier job that is adapted to their qualities. Dele feels very comfortable in this role with the freedom and the following of the principles that we bring in training so I think they are fine.»
The changes will be subtle. So subtle that he hopes they go undetected.
«Sometimes you see 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 and sometimes people think it is the same. It is never the same because with the same positions what is important is the dynamic you bring. I think I want to do my things. I start doing my things. I hope that you don’t understand it very well. Maybe don’t speak about it a lot. But the positional play is different.»
Will minor tweaks be enough?
The feeling remains that this job is going to need more than mere tweaks in the medium term. Mourinho might be able to rehabilitate some of the wantaway players but it will be tricky. Christian Eriksen was omitted at West Ham and the manager’s comments prior to kick-off suggested that he will focus instead on those who want to be a part of his plans.
There will be far tougher challenges ahead than West Ham but this was an encouraging start nevertheless. Key players seem engaged and though Tottenham tired, they appear organised enough to be able to solve some of their problems on the fly. Mourinho will make his bow in front of the home support on Tuesday with some credit already in the bank.