Without Harry Kane, Tottenham fans may get a first glimpse of Jose Mourinho parking the bus against Liverpool. Alex Keble explores the tactics.
It has been a chastening couple of weeks for Jose Mourinho and Tottenham Hotspur. The extent of the stagnation in the final 12 months of Mauricio Pochettino’s tenure means there was never going to be a quick fix at Spurs and yet already we are seeing signs of why hiring a man instinctively unpopular among supporters could be a huge mistake.
Where patience is required, some fans are already turning on Jose. Where unquestioning loyalty is called for at the beginning of a new regime, some are already interpreting every minor slip as a sign of Mourinho’s worst traits coming to the fore. Confirmation bias should come towards the end of a tenure, not the beginning.
Tottenham v Liverpool
Saturday 5.30pm - Sky Sports Premier League
Match odds: Tottenham 18/5 | Draw 3/1 | Liverpool 7/10
Anytime scorers: Salah 11/8 | Mane 13/10 | Son 21/10
And yet they do have a point. Petulance in spikey post-match interviews, a needless dig at Tanguy Ndombele, and rumours of Harry Winks being made surplus to requirements certainly ring alarm bells. However, from a tactical perspective Spurs’ poor performances against Chelsea, Norwich, and Middlesbrough are more in line with the Pochettino endgame than anything specific Mourinho is coaching.
The visit of Liverpool this weekend comes at a dismal time. Jurgen Klopp’s side have never looked better or more clinical, and increasingly look like the perfect team – capable of winning in pretty much every conceivable style. Spurs, then, will probably sit a little deeper than they did against Chelsea while Liverpool will dominate for long periods. But the wider shape of this match, and its territorial battle, is a secondary concern given the defensive issues engulfing Tottenham at the moment.
Spurs’ defensive problems
Mourinho certainly doesn’t have a problem with how Spurs’ high pressing dropped off over the course of 2019, but the problem is - having had so little time on the training field in December – the new manager is yet to impart wisdom on how to successfully defend in your own half. If you aren’t compressing space by pushing up, then you need to know how to keep a solid shape in a deeper block.
Until Mourinho gets his tactical message across Tottenham will continue to drift halfway between the two styles. This is why Spurs are so weak in the transition and so oddly disconnected, neither covering space in their own third nor applying pressure to the ball. It is the sort of problem that any energetic and purposeful opponent will take advantage of, as a swarming Chelsea attack did in their recent 2-0 win.
Liverpool will obviously approach this match with similarly furious self-belief. Klopp’s high line, gegenpress, and buzzing front three will drop into the gaps between the lines of a flat-footed Spurs formation and surely put the hosts against the ropes for much of the contest.
Tottenham’s defensive concerns aren’t just about team shape and transitions, mind. Their centre-backs simply aren’t clicking (see Danny Ings’ simple winner for Southampton last weekend) while a static defensive midfield – more on that later – doesn’t help. But most important of all is the on-going calamity in both full-back positions.
Liverpool can hurt Spurs on the flanks
It is no secret that Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold are Liverpool’s best playmakers. Whether exchanging raking diagonals that stretch the opposition from side to side, crossing from out wide to create chances, or dipping into midfield to run the show should that space open up, the Liverpool full-backs are ludicrously creative.
They are helped significantly by the fact Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah play so narrowly, occupying the opposition full-backs to in turn create room for Robertson and Alexander-Arnold. It is, of course, a serious issue that Serge Aurier and Ryan Sessegnon are simply not good enough to properly defend either flank.
Whether they are tucked inside to cope with Mane and Salah or caught too far ahead of the ball (Liverpool will play long diagonals into the channel on the counter, as Chelsea did so successfully at Spurs) this is the game’s most serious mismatch.
Spurs should go 3-5-2 and sit deep
Clubs are increasingly playing with five at the back against Liverpool in the hope of neutralising the forwards, leaving three on three centrally so the wing-backs can get tight to Robertson and Alexander-Arnold, and indeed it is a system Mourinho is familiar with. Spurs lined up with a back three/five against Norwich, albeit abandoning it at half-time with Daniel Farke’s side a goal up.
Spurs will probably go for a 3-5-2, then, sitting deeper than usual through fear of being hit with long balls over the top. After all, Virgil van Dijk’s direct distribution is a potent weapon – as proved in the 2-0 victory over Sheffield United, who were caught out by the hosts’ verticality. Mourinho is too savvy to allow his players to be so bold early on, meaning Spurs will back off from the start and be happy to absorb pressure.
Most likely this will be Spurs’ fans first chance to see Mourinho park the bus. Given some are already turning against his methods, defeat with these tactics would be damaging – but the Tottenham manager really has little choice. Liverpool are just that good, with too many different methods of creating chances.
Kane-less attack could benefit Spurs
Aside from their defensive concerns, Spurs fans will be worried by Harry Kane’s absence, although they may in fact benefit from their captain being out with a hamstring injury. Kane hasn’t been at the top of his game for a while now, and assuming Liverpool will dominate possession he isn’t necessarily suited for a game in which the hosts will attack largely on the break.
Instead, a more fluid and pacey front line of Heung-Min Son (returning from suspension this weekend) and Lucas Moura may trouble Van Dijk. Certainly with Liverpool’s full-backs streaming forward there is the chance of succeeding with rapid transitions down the flanks, and so Son and Lucas running the channels offers a route to escape that Kane, dropping deep, could not.
Midfield battle gives Liverpool clear advantage
What’s more, focusing on counter-attacks should mean Tottenham’s stuttering possession football takes a back seat this weekend. Against Southampton in particular things looked stale, with Christian Eriksen failing to show for the ball and Dele Alli going missing – which left the defensive, midfield, and attacking lines all hopelessly disconnected from each other. Longer passing from the centre-backs to quick forwards will bypass a midfield that needs a lot of work.
But Spurs will first need to win the ball to transition like that, which seems unlikely. In fact, despite Liverpool being palpably better on the flanks and despite their front three being more than capable of outfoxing an out-of-sorts centre-back partnership, it is in midfield that Liverpool will feel most confident.
Mourinho is constantly changing who he plays in his double pivot, betraying his inability to solve a serious problem; the team looks too static in this area, unable to gain control of a game or win the second balls. By contrast, Liverpool’s trio is magnificent, and should easily dictate the tempo by winning the 50-50s and by outmanoeuvring their opposite numbers from open play.
There is no shame in losing to this Liverpool team, which is fast becoming one of the best in the history of world football. Nevertheless, Tottenham surely will, being in the midst of a clumsy transition from Pochettino’s high-pressing football to a more conservative vision under Mourinho. The hosts are weaker in all areas. Even if they sit back and absorb pressure, they are highly unlikely to hold out for a full 90 minutes.
Defeat itself is far from disastrous. What will be more telling is how the fans choose to interpret a bad result on Saturday. This isn’t yet Mourinho’s team, but to sit deep and still lose? That would conform to supporters’ worst fears about the direction they are heading under the Portuguese.