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Jose Mourinho's first year at Tottenham

Mourinho’s first year

Jose Mourinho was appointed Spurs manager on November 20th last year (2019). The appointment swiftly followed the departure of Mauricio Pochettino on the preceding day. I was truly taken by surprise by both events, as indicated in this article having only a few days previously published an article about Mauricio’s five year tenure. (That was five and a half years to be precise) I said of Jose’s name being linked with the club, "We all know that Jose Mourinho is in the wings, and has been linked with the club, but I don’t think there’s too many Spurs fans who would be particularly happy to see him take over. His style is much too defensive for our liking."

Chairman Daniel Levy said of Jose’s appointment:- "In José we have one of the most successful managers in football. He has a wealth of experience, can inspire teams and is a great tactician. He has won honours at every club he has coached. We believe he will bring energy and belief to the dressing room."

It is appropriate to review Jose’s first year in charge. We conceded two goals in each of his first four games, somewhat against my expectations of defensive football, winning the first three games. I said of our first win – away to West Ham –" …in Jose Mourinho’s first game, Spurs dominated the first 60-70 minutes and had gained a more than justified 3-0 lead……Let there be no doubt that the Spurs side had been re-invigorated by their new leader. He chose to start Lucas Moura on the right, and we had an attacking front four who sought to take the "Hammers"' defence by the throat at every opportunity." This was our first away league win since January.

That “attacking front four” consisted of Lucas Moura, Dele Alli, and Son playing behind Harry Kane. It wouldn’t be too long before Mourinho’s initial preference would be hampered by injuries to two (Kane and Son) and loss of form in another of his chosen four (Dele). Moussa Sissoko was not Jose’s first choice selection, but he soon learned of the talisman-like impact this player had upon the squad, although he too would miss a substantial portion of the season due to injury. The same front four played in a 4-2 home win over Olympiacos. The formation was switched for Bournemouth (another 3-2 win), but Dele scored in that and three of Mourinho’s first four games. Dele managed only three more goals last season.

Mourinho’s first Spurs defeat came in his fourth game, at his previous club where those former players were inspired to win. Dele scored our goal in a 2-1 defeat.

Burnley followed on Saturday December 7th, and Mourinho started with the same front four that had played the first two games. Heung-min Son scored what turned out to be the Premier League’s goal of the season when he ran virtually from box to box to score. Harry Kane scored two of our five goals and had started with a cracker that Son’s effort did well to beat for quality. Jose had inherited a team in 14th place, and this win took us up to sixth, firing talk of possibly achieving a Champions League place which had seemed impossible. That was the reason for Daniel Levy’s decisive action in November.

We lost a dead rubber Champions League game in Munich, before beating Wolves 2-1 at Molineux thanks to a last minute goal by "Super" Jan Vertonghen. We would only win two more away games last season. Results became more difficult again including a home defeat to Chelsea; a tight win over Brighton (thanks to a quality goal by Dele), and a disappointing draw at Norwich who were destined for the drop. Harry Kane scored his last goal for Spurs until the post-lockdown period in the summer. Christian Eriksen scored his very last Tottenham goal. I think that Mourinho and Levy wanted Eriksen to stay, but to Inter he went, where he has not been getting much game time. There have even been rumours of Eriksen being offered back to Tottenham. I was personally disappointed with Christian’s attitude from the start of last season and would say a resounding "No" to any proposed return.

We had our poorest Christmas period in terms of results for years. This culminated in a defeat at Southampton on New Year’s Day made disastrous by the enforced withdrawal of Harry Kane with a hamstring injury after he had put the ball in the net but suffered the injury as the goal was disallowed for offside. Had it not been for Covid-19 and the enforced lockdown, we probably would not have seen Harry play again last season, but he played a full and very successful role in our run-in which at least gave us European football. Kane missed 15 games in all after his New Year’s Day injury.

Sissoko had worked his way back into Mourinho’s reckoning, but he too would miss 15 games after the Southampton game. No doubt Jose had a very good look at Southampton’s captain Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg during this game and the two FA Cup matches we played against the “Saints” in the Fourth Round. By the end of the season, Hojbjerg had declared his disinterest in a new Southampton contract and he became the first of our close season signings.

January’s results were not much better, and I wrote in my January review that fans’ expectations were not being met, although Jose was achieving better grades than Pochettino regarding team selection, strategy, and substitutions. Jose had not been able to field a strong defence. Ben Davies had been injured in Jose’s first game at West Ham and missed 18 games (more than Kane and Sissoko) before returning in mid-February. Danny Rose soon became (and remains) out of favour. After the Olympiacos game, Danny played three more games for Mourinho and went on loan to Newcastle. He is not even in our squad list this season.

Japhet Tanganga made his Premier League debut against Liverpool (in December) and although we lost, he had a very good game and made several decent appearances, before he too was struck down by injury. On his arrival at the club, Jose took an immediate liking to Eric Dier. The two of them were seen on camera conversing in Portuguese in the Amazon “All or Nothing” series. Initially, Jose played Dier as one of the defensive midfielders, but it wasn’t long before he was being utilised as part of the central defence. Eric is currently also being deployed by England in this role. Just before Christmas came the welcome announcement that Toby Alderweireld had signed a new contract, taking him to June 2023. There was no such announcement regarding Jan Vertonghen, and whilst he did sign an extension to keep him at the club till the end of the extended season (as did Michel Vorm), we had to say goodbye. Jan served us exceedingly well and deserved a rousing send-off, denied by no crowd Covid rules.

Eriksen left and Steven Bergwijn was signed from PSV, taking the number 23. Bergwijn had a sensational scoring debut in a 2-0 home win over Man City, and we climbed to fifth place. Bergwijn went on to score in his first three home league games, thus emulating Rafa van der Vaart in such a feat. The third such goal came after lockdown in June against Manchester United.

After City, we won our next two games 3-2. The first was an FA Cup replay against Southampton. The second was at Villa Park when Son scored two. His goals came in added time at the end of each half, but it turned out that early in the game he had suffered an arm fracture and now we would not see him until June. "Sonny" had scored in five consecutive games before this enforced absence. Jose was severely hamstrung, missing his two top strikers, who scored 42 goals between them by the end of the season. No other player reached double figures.

Spurs started to attract the wrong type of publicity with Dele ultimately getting into trouble over an ill-judged Covid-19 Tweet which had been posted before the virus had truly hit Europe. Tanguy Ndombele had struggled to settle into the team, and in truth to find full match fitness. He would be one of the players to get extra attention from Jose during lockdown. That wasn’t within the lockdown rules either. On the plus side, Giovani Lo Celso, who had spent some of the early season injured, but had his loan status upgraded in January, became more and more impactive and important to weakened Spurs’ chances of achieving 2019-20 success at any level.

March arrived with barely a sniff in this country of the full scale of the devastating effect of the virus. We didn’t win one of the four games we managed to play before lockdown was confirmed. It is hard to believe now that we travelled to Germany for the Leipzig game, which remains the last time I saw Spurs play in person. Other games in Europe were being played behind closed doors. Our Champions League exit was confirmed after we had already suffered an embarrassing penalty shoot-out FA Cup defeat to Norwich. Our team had been decimated by injury. Dier ultimately got in trouble for climbing the lower west stand to confront a so-called fan abusing his family. For some reason Jose chose to use all three of our first team goalkeepers in the four games we played. Hugo suffered a niggly injury, so Paulo Gazzaniga got the gig against Wolves, but why emergency third keeper Michel Vorm played the Norwich game remains something of a mystery. Vorm did not cover himself with glory. Gazzaniga’s last game was the home defeat by Wolves and whilst he remains at the club, he has not made the Europa League squad for our group games.

Even Bergwijn had suffered injury just before the lockdown, but there was silver lining for Spurs. The three-month hiatus meant that injured players such as Harry Kane, Heung-min Son, Moussa Sissoko, Steven Bergwijn and Ben Davies would be available. Why, "Sonny" was able to go home to South Korea to fulfil a five-week National Service requirement (which he passed with flying colours) once his broken arm had healed.

The fact that Harry Kane, Sissoko and Davies started every one of our nine post-lockdown games, with Son and Steven Bergwijn taking part in every game indicates how debilitating those injuries had been, and how crucial these players were to our chances of success. Hugo Lloris and Serge Aurier also started every one of the 9 games, with Giovani Lo Celso starting 8 and coming off the bench in one game.

The football was rarely pretty, but statistically Spurs were one of the top four sides in this end of season spell. Harry Kane scored 7 goals in these games, passing yet another landmark (200 club goals including those scored when on loan). Harry was returning after a nearly six-month absence, and like all the players, his fitness and sharpness improved as the post-lockdown period progressed.

By the time we played (and beat) Arsenal in game number six Jose had his team well drilled and versed as to his requirements. That was to sit back and defend stoutly with both wing-men (Lucas Moura and Son, or Lamela and Bergwijn) having responsibility to work up and down the line, assisting the defence and attack equally. Lucas Moura in particular, whilst not scoring in this spell, showed very good form and worked his socks off. Beating Arsenal was crucial and ultimately, we finished above them for the fourth consecutive season, although the fact they won the FA Cup (for a record 14th time) meant we had to start our Europa League campaign in the second qualifying round.

In summarising last season and referring to both our managers I described 2019-20 as "Not so magic. Not so special."

The new season started late in mid-September and the transfer window didn’t close until 5th October. By any standards Spurs had a sensational window and Mourinho’s powers of persuasion over his Chairman (who did appear enthralled with his manager in the Amazon series) must have been great. Joe Hart (out of contract with Burnley) soon followed Hojbjerg. Hart has shown very good form in the games he has played and is clearly Jose’s number two keeper. Matt Doherty arrived from Wolves, but the real sensation was reserved for the re-signing (on loan) of Gareth Bale and the acquisition of his Real Madrid clubmate Sergio Reguilon.

Pundits and fans alike have salivated over a front three of Bale, Kane, and Son but with Bale still gaining full fitness we have yet to see that trio at full power. We even signed a back-up for Kane in the shape of Carlos Vinicius, and a young Welsh International centre-back – Joe Rodon. We suddenly had a strong squad and with those Premier League and Europa league games (and a busy early League Cup programme) burdening us with at least two games a week (4 games in one 8-day spell), Jose tried fielding almost two different teams in the different competitions. That strategy failed in Antwerp in our second Group game and I think Jose now recognises his best team and will make more subtle alterations and rotations as the season progresses.

Clean sheets remain at a premium, but we have even managed three of those in our last six games. The influence of Hojbjerg in front of the defence aids that process. We’ve had a mixture of mundane and sensational results. The mundane started with a rare defeat (and at home) to Everton on the opening day. Such results include the draw at home to Newcastle, when we were robbed by a harsh VAR award of handball against Eric Dier, and a struggle to beat Lokomotiv Plovdiv away in our first Europa League qualifier. A major disappointment was to surrender a 3-0 lead against West Ham when our scoring was done in the first 16 minutes and theirs came in the last 12 including added time. This time Covid offered the mercy of no "Hammers" fans crowing over their come-back.

The sensational results include a humbling of Manchester United at Old Trafford (6-1), which followed a 7-2 home win over Maccabi Haifa on the anniversary of a defeat by that score under the previous manager. This trend of high scoring had begun with a brilliant 5-2 away win at Southampton when “Sonny” scored four and Harry Kane scored one, also getting the assists for Son’s goals. Jose had come up with the master-troke to play Kane behind a runner such as Son, and the plan worked a treat. Not that Kane (who wears the number 10 for this reason) is unfamiliar to a playmaker role since his academy days.

Son and Kane were officially recognised as the second most lethal Premier League partnership and between them they’ve scored 23 of our 38 goals to date in the 15 games we have played. We were the league’s top scorers after 7 games. After our narrow win at West Brom in our last game, we were briefly top of the league for the first time in 6 years.

Last season was difficult for Tanguy Ndombele, who remains our record signing. He was recovering from injury when signed and struggled with personal fitness over his first season, although we did see glimpses of his obvious skill and strength on the ball. Jose spent some (unauthorised) time with him during the Spring lockdown and this season most fans have been persuaded that he will be an asset to the team. He’s already scored a couple of goals and memorably had a part in our first goal at St. Mary’s which gave us a crucial foot in the game at half-time. We have reached a position where it appears Jose’s first choice midfield three is Sissoko, Hojbjerg and Ndombele, with the latter playing a more advanced role behind the front three. Giovani Lo Celso is a strong challenger for this position.

Having said "His style is much too defensive for our liking" when he was appointed last year the evidence this season does not point to a defensive style per se, although we have been capable of grinding out results or "winning ugly" plenty of times. I have certainly warmed to the manager, who seems to have mellowed somewhat since the arrogance displayed I previous positions. There will always be occasions when he is irritated of course, but on the whole Jose seems more relaxed with the media.

Perhaps Jose feels less pressure than in his previous UK jobs with Chelsea and Man Utd. Whilst I don’t think we could go as far to say as there is an expectation of a trophy this season, that is certainly the desire and clear aim of the club. Securing top four will be as challenging as ever. Winning a penalty shoot-out against Chelsea gives us a Carabao Cup quarter-final (away to Stoke) to look forward to next month. The Europa League is being targeted as a path to next year’s Champions’ league.

We all know the history of Jose’s past "Third season syndrome". For the moment we should look forward to the rest of the second season. The next few weeks, in which we face Man City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Leicester will answer most of our questions about our chances in the league.

Maybe with vaccines on the horizon to tackle the pandemic we can even look forward to “being there” again.

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