ByAlasdair Gold: Football.London
One thing that was always difficult to level against Tottenham Hotspur was that they were boring.
That is no longer the case though with a boring predictability when it comes to how matches will unfold for the north London side.
The team’s performances will mostly start brightly, with the players creating a couple of chances and often scoring a goal or two before sitting back, wobbling in defence and then losing control of the game and therefore needing to react and create chances without success as they strive for a way back.
These performances are now expected, often whatever the opposition, and they shouldn’t be.
Some statistics released by Sky on Sunday after the defeat to Manchester United were as damning as they are ridiculous.
Spurs rank second in the Premier League for scoring first in matches, doing so 19 times – although they have actually led 22 times in all in their 31 league games.
Jose Mourinho‘s side have been ahead 16 times at half-time in those matches, again the second highest number in the Premier League.
Then the stats go from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Tottenham have failed to win when ahead at half-time on seven occasions – the worst record in the Premier League.
They have dropped 18 points from winning positions – joint 19th in the league – and have conceded nine goals in the last 10 minutes of matches and dropped 11 points from goals conceded in those final 10 minutes – both stats the worst in the Premier League.
How does Mourinho fix such a glaring problem within the club? Well we’d love to know the answer to that but he won’t tell anyone.
As predictable as the performances is the Portuguese’s unwillingness to explain how he plans to fix the issues within his team.
The longer he continues to say he won’t answer the question publicly and the longer the issues continue to seep throughout the season, the more people will wonder if he does actually have the answer or if he does, it doesn’t simply involve spending copious amount of money.
Mourinho hit out at the media this week on Friday for writing about the Toby Alderweireld situation and his criticism of players and then on Sunday further chastised journalists for not asking him a question he wanted to answer – about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s comments on TV on Son Heung-min, something most press inside the stadium would not have seen.
Mourinho believes that he often gets criticised for saying or doing things when other managers will not even get a mention for doing the same. That’s certainly a fair comment as his personality, words and previous successes throw the glare and scrutiny on him more than others.
However, the problem for Mourinho right now with the media is that if he’s not willing or able to answer the questions asked, then not only will the media have to get the answers elsewhere but they will also be less inclined to ask the questions he is hoping for.
Mourinho’s logic in swerving certain questions – last weekend it was about how to fix the late goals being conceded, on Friday it was to clarify the Toby Alderweireld situation and on Sunday it was why Spurs have a tag as being a soft touch – appears to be that he’s trying to protect his players.
However, he’s also been criticizing his players anyway in previous weeks and his unwillingness to answer, even to defend them, suggest an answer without words.
“I can’t say what I think. You know that. You know that. You sometimes want to bring me to deep questions, to deep analysis, but then when I go, I realise that I cannot go,” he said on Sunday when asked whether Spurs have always and continue to be a soft touch.
“So this is the kind of debate for pundits, journalists to have. Is much more difficult for me to go into that. I would say: that one thing is opinions, another thing is facts.
“Opinions can be discussed, but facts, they cannot be discussed. If you go to certain numbers, to certain stats, you arrive to conclusions, facts, and then of course pundits, people with experience, with vision, with knowledge, they can have the opinions they want. Many, many times I would agree, other times I would disagree, but I don’t want to go into that debate.”
The previous weekend when asked how Tottenham can fix their huge and ongoing problem of conceding those late goals he simply said: “I cannot tell you, I don’t want to tell you. I think it’s for me and not for you. It’s for me.”
It might be for him and not anyone else, but nothing is changing and the answer doesn’t seem forthcoming.
Some might even suggest that with those frequent thrown away leads that Tottenham are more ‘Spursy’ now under Mourinho than they were before his arrival.
Few sights exemplify the mood at Tottenham more than the uncomfortable interview with Son Heung-min, conducted by the club’s own in-house media after Sunday’s game.
The 28-year-old, who scored Spurs’ only goal on the day, is one of the happiest, most popular men at the club, his smile and joking infectious among the squad.
Sunday’s interview showed a broken Son, appearing to be bordering on the edge of tears at points and so thoroughly worn down by yet another faltering performance by the team. It was not too dissimilar to Joe Rodon’s interview just moments before.
Even the experienced interviewer admitted to Son that he had never seen him like this in his six years at the club.
“I’m really disappointed this afternoon. I really don’t know what to say. I’m really sorry about it and I feel bad,” said Son.
“There’s always been passion from outside, from this stadium, and those who support us I know are really, really disappointed. I think they’re even more disappointed than us so feel really bad and sorry about it. A really sad afternoon.”
He added: “It’s a really sad afternoon because…(stops and rubs face) I really don’t know what to say. I know it sounds really crazy and it sounds really not normal that I’m down but it’s about the results.
“If we win I’m really happy and if we lose I’m really down for two or three days. So yeah, what can I say, we have to bounce back next Friday.”
Son knows that Spurs’ chances of playing Champions League football next season have in a fortnight leapt from being almost within their own control to being a distant hope.
If you’ve broken the normally ever positive Son then you know things are not going well.
He was also involved in the game’s controversial moment, as Scott McTominay’s flicked out hand caught him in the face in the build-up to Edinson Cavani scoring in the first half and the ‘goal’ was ruled out after referee Christopher Kavanagh was advised to check his pitch-side monitor.
It was an unnatural flicking out of McTominay’s hand rather than a straight arm shielding the ball and while pundits will dispute the strength of the contact made, as soon as the referee was advised to take a proper look he took little time in deciding that it was a foul.
Solskjaer’s comments about Son afterwards were bizarre and strikingly similar to those he made about Erik Lamela at Old Trafford earlier in the season after Anthony Martial’s red card.
“If that was my son and he stays down and he needs his mates to help him up, he doesn’t get food because that’s embarrassing,” Solskjaer told the television cameras. “The game’s absolutely gone.”
Solskjaer had said about Lamela back in October: “If that was my son he’d be living on water and bread for two weeks. That’s not how I want my players to act.”
The Norwegian’s odd predilection with talking about starving his children enraged Mourinho, who had been told about the comments after fulfilling his own TV and radio commitments.
He confronted Solskjaer after the United manager’s press conference and it came after one fiery encounter between the two in the first half that had already been patched up in the tunnel at half-time.
This time there was a long delay between the United and Tottenham press conferences after the game and that was due to their disagreement.
“I told Ole already this because I met him just a few minutes ago – if it’s me, telling that player A B or C from another club, if it was my son I wouldn’t give him dinner tonight, what would be the reaction of that? It’s very very sad,” he said.
“I think it’s really sad that you don’t ask me about that. It’s sad you don’t have the moral honesty to treat me the same way as you treat others.
“In relation to that, I just want to say that Sonny is very lucky that his father is a better person than Ole. I am a father. I think as a father you have always to feed your kids.
“Doesn’t matter what they do. If you have to steal to feed your kids, you steal. I’m very very disappointed. As we say in Portugal, bread is bread and cheese and is cheese. I told Ole already what I think about his comments and I’m very disappointed that in five, six seven questions you ignore the dimensions of that comment.”
It wasn’t just Solskjaer’s comments that Son had to deal with after the game as he was racially abused on social media, coming in the wake of Davinson Sanchez’s racist abuse the previous weekend.
Screenshots show some Manchester United fans, as well as some from other clubs, posting numerous racially abusive tweets about Son in the replies to Spurs’ official account’s posts on Sunday afternoon.
“Another matchday and more abhorrent racial abuse suffered by one of our players,” the club said in a tweeted statement
“This has again been reported to the platforms and we shall now undertake a full review alongside the Premier League to determine the most effective action moving forward. We stand with you, Sonny.”
Social media combined with angry criticism of players provides a vehicle for those who are desperate to use racist abuse, regardless of the context, to get themselves seen and heard. They seem to take a perverse pleasure in the actions of doing so.
The problem is holding them accountable for those as they often hide behind faceless profiles, or images of other players, safe in the knowledge that they are likely to get away with any real consequences.
While most of the posts, if not all, will have been deleted and accounts suspended, it does not take much effort for those involved to simply start another account.
The increasingly disgusted voice of powerful football clubs and the overwhelming majority of fans at all clubs who find such behaviour abhorrent is going to start putting real pressure on social media companies like Twitter and Facebook.
They will begin to lose those huge accounts that provoke the most interaction on their platforms and others will step into the breach to create new social media outlets with tougher controls. Something has to change.
Once again all eyes will turn to Tottenham’s defence and the ease at which Manchester United swept through three times.
Mourinho had made a rod for his own back before the game by once again leaving Toby Alderweireld out in the cold – he was on the bench at least this time – while Davinson Sanchez found himself the man left out entirely.
Every centre-back at the club has found himself out of the team for long periods this season, but Alderweireld’s absence when Spurs are desperately crying out for some composure is the most perplexing of all.
It seemed like the perfect time to bring the Belgian back into the fold after the confusing circumstances of his exclusion last week but instead Eric Dier got the nod.
Dier brought what he often does – some fantastic moments of defending mixed with some poor moments of positioning and decision-making.
The 27-year-old pulled off a top drawer sliding tackle to deny Marcus Rashford in the first half and then blocked a Paul Pogba backheel right in front of goal in the second period.
However, he was beaten far too easily for Cavani’s ruled out effort, then combined with Serge Aurier to completely lose the Uruguayan for his game-changing diving header before being left clutching at shadows in the build-up to United’s third, finished by Mason Greenwood.
Alongside him Joe Rodon again showed promise and is clearly a talent Spurs can work with for the future, but he needs stability alongside him.
Mourinho’s displeasure with his defence is clear, even if he expresses it by not talking about them other than the odd barbed comment about the things that turn his hair grey.
What does not make sense though is that if he does not trust the backline to sit on a lead then do the opposite – attack.
The old cliché is that attack is the best form of defence because it keeps the ball at the other end of the pitch and Spurs’ defence is set up for getting the ball forward rather than stopping it.
Serge Aurier and Sergio Reguilon love to attack down the flanks and at times on Sunday their instructions were clearly giving them issues.
Reguilon in particular looked hampered and there were plenty of occasions when he got to the halfway line and looked to pass or stopped a run short to leave Son or Ndombele in the United half without any overlapping run to look to. Instead they had to turn inside and the momentum was gone.
For Aurier, either his instructions were slightly different or he just ignores them more often but the Ivorian was all too often going to the other extreme, finding himself far out of position up the pitch and leaving the eventually knackered Ndombele or Lo Celso to run back and uncomfortably act as a full-back.
If the full-backs are to attack then two anchor men are required in front of the defence to cover or a midfielder who can sit back to split the defence as a three, as Dier used to do between Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen.
Spurs’ attacking quality lies far more in the attack than in their defence, so use that. Make the most of the talent with in the team.
Mourinho’s reputation proceeds him when it comes to defensive football but he’s also no fool.
If the balance of the squad does concern him then that is a problem to be addressed in the next transfer window but for now he must just play to the strengths of the team.
The most jarring thing right now for Tottenham is that they have no identity as a football team or club – or at least not a good one.
In Mauricio Pochettino‘s prime years in N17, Spurs had pace, power and a snarling aggression in their pressing that would unsettle opponents and then they would use their attacking qualities to tear teams apart.
While the Argentine ultimately could not fix the mental fragility in the biggest of games he did solve the week in, week out problems late in matches and Spurs would often strike in the final moments or keep clean sheets under pressure during those three years they finished in the top three. They were not brittle.
This current Tottenham Hotspur side has no identity.
It’s not the team it was and it’s not a trademark Mourinho team. It’s something in the centre, awkward and it’s fallen between the cracks.
The players can certainly bear some of the responsibility, particularly those who went a similar way in their performances towards the end of the Pochettino era.
Mourinho has played his part with his confrontational management style, pulling down some of the tightknit foundations built by the Argentine.
The chairman Daniel Levy also has to take his share of the blame for appointing a manager who would need to make wholesale changes to make his methods work and then not being able to provide him with those changes.
Another major issue for Mourinho is that Spurs were once one of the fittest teams in Europe, as evidenced by their late goals, most famously seen on that night in Amsterdam near the end of a gruelling campaign.
Pochettino’s pre-seasons were infamous – Tanguy Ndombele admitted to football.london that he wanted to leave the club after his first one – but they meant Tottenham had few peers when it came to their fitness.
Spurs have certainly played a lot of matches in a compacted season this time around but they had all week to prepare for this game against Manchester United and they ended up looking out on their feet in the final 10 minutes against a side that had only flown back from their game in Granada on Friday.
United looked like they could have kept on playing for another 90 minutes while Spurs were chasing shadows for the third goal.
That lack of fitness will have played its part in not only their ability to drive on late in games but also tiredness mentally with their decision-making and that must have contributed to some of the late goals conceded.
Mourinho will also have been concerned that Solskjaer needed just to show his players some video analysis of Spurs on the morning of the game in order to outthink his opposite number and figure out their hosts.
Despite all of that, any suggestion that the players have downed tools is not true at this point and many do have good relationships with the head coach, even if there is that fear factor of not knowing whether they will be next to lose their place. Many will want to play in a rare cup final for the club.
They appear to still be playing for Mourinho and the sight of Tanguy Ndombele sprinting 40 yards to press and win the ball back in the United half towards the end of the first half, among other similar moments from other players, showed that he still has them working for him.
One problem for him will be maintaining the balance within the squad of those he has on his side and those he hasn’t, particularly once the cup final has come and gone.
Dele Alli and Harry Winks have become benchwarmers while the use of Gareth Bale has been baffling.
The Welshman was certainly flat for months as the psychological scars of previous injuries affected him, but he roared back with a month’s worth of fine displays and gave Spurs something exciting about their play during that time.
However, one poor display in the north London derby – he was not alone in that regard – and Bale looks to have paid the price for that day.
Levy is paying the price for bringing in the 31-year-old as the club’s top earner – in terms of basic salary – and yet seeing him given the odd minute here or there.
There is a dose of irony to the winger’s use under Mourinho in recent weeks. The Spurs boss appears to have no real desire to use the player but acknowledges with his actions in the final minutes that he needs him to try to save the day. The two don’t really marry up and that pretty much sums up the pairing of Mourinho and Bale.
This season will be defined for Tottenham in the next three matches.
The Premier League encounters against Everton away and Southampton at home will go a long way to deciding if Spurs have anything left to fight for in the league. Mourinho admitted on Sunday that even finishing in the top six will be difficult.
Then there is the cup final and right now Tottenham fans are more concerned about not being embarrassed at Wembley on April 25 than realistically thinking their team can win the showpiece game.
That says it all right now about not only the team’s identity but the supporters’ growing disconnect with them.
How do you sell Tottenham as they are right now to stars like Harry Kane who may be looking at England team-mates’ glittering CVs with envious eyes or to new signings the club will try to attract in the summer?
Spurs were heading somewhere and were threatening to upset the established order in football, but a combination of factors from the very top down mean they’re now stuttering badly and they need to find their feet again.