“I look up, I don’t look down. If Arsenal was seven points ahead of us, I would look to them,” Tottenham head coach Jose Mourinho said, two days prior to Spurs’ humbling 2-1 defeat at the Emirates Stadium.
“But because we have seven points more than them, I don’t look down.”
Once again, the master tactician had given the opposition the only team talk they needed. Even Arsenal’s captain arriving late for the big occasion and being dropped wouldn’t be enough to derail the 10th-placed Gunners. But at least he provided a nice soundbite.
It was brave of Mourinho to insist that Spurs are looking up considering they have now failed to beat the last eight sides in the top half of the Premier League they have faced; their season just about being kept afloat with big wins against teams way below.
Tottenham have had a colourful history of streakiness since Mourinho took charge in November 2019. The complete history is: new manager bounce, regression, Harry Kane injury, Son Heung-min carrying the load, Son injury, rustiness after the restart, ending 2019/20 on a high, starting 2020/21 on a low, the form of champions, the form of relegation candidates, Gareth Bale’s resurgence, Gareth Bale replaced by Moussa Sissoko.
At this point in Mourinho’s glorious managerial career, he finds himself in seventh place with prospects looking bleaker by the day to break Spurs’ trophy duck. A Manchester City side aiming to win an unprecedented quadruple stand between themselves and the most pointless League Cup in history (an impressive feat itself, to be fair) and half the continent between themselves and the Europa League.
Spurs looked like they had turned a corner with big wins against *checks notes* Wolfsberger, Burnley and Crystal Palace, sides that you would expect a team like Tottenham to batter into oblivion regardless of how their domestic rivals have done against them (trying to dunk on Everton and Arsenal for not beating them was very weird, by the way). It provided a blueprint of promise that Spurs could salvage the season, but as it turns out, a 58-year-old leopard won’t change its spots.
After looking like one of the most formidable attacking teams in the country again for about a month, Mourinho’s Tottenham reverted to type at Arsenal, sitting off so much that not even Mikel Arteta’s calamitous cohort would be able to shoot themselves in the foot.
Spurs have been at their best when playing on the front foot, utilising their impressive attack and taking games to usually weaker opposition. Lucas Moura recently gushed over the talent that’s in Tottenham’s squad.
“I think the main thing was the mentality because we just needed to have the belief in ourselves,” Moura said, as quoted by Football.London.
“We needed to know how good we are because we have terrific players, a very good squad and the quality in the Premier League to win games.
“Yes of course [Spurs are better when playing on the front foot]. For me, we have unbelievable players, we have creative players and we need to keep the ball to dictate games.
“The most important thing is we make use of these players in every game.
“We have so much quality and if we keep the ball and attack we lessen the risk of teams coming at us and they can win the game for us.”
For the last half-decade, Mourinho has been caricatured as a brooding, gothic villain who encompasses everything about his team. When he’s sad, his team are sad, like Spurs were in the winter. When he’s happy, his team are happy, like when they suddenly flicked a switch against Wolfsberger.
Mourinho either realises the power he has as the head coach and is not utilising it to the best of his abilities, or he doesn’t and it’s a glaring blindspot. His constant shouts from the touchline to press suggest it’s the former. Either way, the buck starts and stops with him. He’s a problem solver who has failed to solve the majority of his problems when it mattered most at Tottenham.
Some players had bad games at the Emirates, but it’s notable that every Spurs player on the pitch is either playing really well or really poorly at the same time. That screams more of a tactical problem than a personnel one.
Spurs will continue to be streaky under Mourinho’s ruling. They have become football’s version of Schrodinger’s cat – they are both alive and dead (the best and worst team in the Premier League) until the box is opened (somebody else takes charge).