Mourinho’s first year at Spurs: How was it for Levy, the players, and the fans?

Mourinho’s first year at Spurs: How was it for Levy, the players, and the fans?

By Charlie Eccleshare and Tom Worville 6h ago 14

An Amazon Prime documentary series, a global pandemic, and weeks spent self-isolating in a house with his coaches.

Jose Mourinho’s first year as Tottenham Hotspur head coach has been predictably action-packed, just often in entirely unpredictable ways.

Today marks Mourinho’s first anniversary at Spurs, a year that has marked a curious, transitional phase in the club’s history. There have been some highs, there have been some lows, and overall it’s still far too early to make definitive judgments. As a TV series, it would definitely be getting a second season, but we don’t yet know if it will kick on to award-winning status or ultimately prove fairly forgettable.

The signs at the moment are promising, with Tottenham second in the Premier League, a point off top spot, as the season resumes after the final international break of 2020. And their recent improvement means it’s easier to not really think about the lows like the limp Champions League last-16 exit to RB Leipzig, that miserable Sheffield United defeat, and the 0-0 draw away to Bournemouth that must never, ever, be spoken of again.

Looking at the 12 months as a whole, only Liverpool (82) and Manchester City (68) have picked up more Premier League points than the 62 earned by Mourinho’s Spurs.

On-pitch performance is one of the areas we will evaluate here, alongside other factors such as relationships with the players, recruitment and the results of our fan survey, as voted for by you.

We won’t dwell on that extraordinary day 12 months ago when fresh from sacking the beloved Mauricio Pochettino, Mourinho’s appointment was confirmed less than 11 hours later. Instead, this is Mourinho at Tottenham, a year on.

Settling in and changing the mentality

Mourinho is said to feel very settled at Spurs, and has a lot of affection for the club and the squad. There was inevitably a period of readjustment after more than five years of Pochettino, but the new head coach and his players now have a good understanding of what each other are about.

One of Mourinho’s main aims when he took over was to add some character and toughness that he, and many others, felt the squad was lacking. Based on recent performances, Mourinho feels Spurs are moving in the right direction in this regard: The gritty 1-0 win at Burnley, the way new signing Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg stood up for himself and his team-mates against Manchester United at Old Trafford, the digging out of a late victory at West Bromwich Albion despite a quick turnaround from playing in Bulgaria 64 hours earlier.

And as anyone who watched the Amazon Prime All Or Nothing documentary series will know, Mourinho has repeatedly preached the idea of knowing when to win ugly, of how to be, in his words, “intelligent c***s”. This is, to a large extent unquantifiable, but looking at the proportion of opposition sequences of possession ending in a Spurs foul is encouraging for those who want to see them being less compliant and committing more tactical fouls. The metric shows that this season only Southampton (11.1 per cent) have ended a higher proportion of their opposition turnovers than Tottenham (10.8 per cent). It’s a big uptick from Mourinho’s period in charge last season, when Spurs were eighth in the league at 7.8 per cent.

Mourinho is far from satisfied because he desperately wants to win a trophy, but the signs are that he is developing more of a winning mentality.

With a presentable-looking Carabao Cup quarter-final at Championship side Stoke City on the horizon in just over a month, Spurs could have a shot at winning their first bit of silverware since 2008 as early as February 28.

Relationship with the players

Given the way Mourinho was so revered by his players at Porto, Chelsea and Inter Milan, but then reviled by some at Real Madrid, Chelsea (in his second spell) and Manchester United, this has been an area that’s been closely watched at Spurs. Some wondered if, at 57, he could still connect with young players.

Probably the biggest tick in this particular box then is how he has ultimately found common ground with Tanguy Ndombele. In June, it appeared the pair’s relationship was broken beyond repair after Mourinho had repeatedly criticised the midfielder in public. Though reports in France of a training-ground row were wide of the mark, The Athletic reported at the time that, according to well-placed observers, the two men simply did not understand one another.

Since then though, Ndombele has responded a lot better to Mourinho’s urgings and has started to show why Tottenham broke their transfer record to sign him 16 months ago. This season, sources report that Ndombele is feeling “better than ever” and, having started all of Spurs’ last five Premier League games, he is firmly in Mourinho’s thinking.

On the other end of the spectrum currently is Dele Alli, whom it is hoped will enjoy a similar renaissance. At the moment though he is roughly where Ndombele was in June. Again, there has been no specific falling-out, and Mourinho and Dele are understood to get on well, but he is not part of the coach’s immediate plans. Mourinho would have been happy for Dele to leave on loan in the just-closed transfer window, and the England midfielder was one of the players he appeared to be targeting when saying after the 1-0 loss to Royal Antwerp in late October that: “My future choices are going to be very easy”. Dele had been restored to the side for that game for his first start in a month but was then substituted at half-time.

Dele’s priority before the January window is trying to win back his place, but there were some in the squad who bristled at Mourinho’s comments after that Europa League defeat in Belgium.

Mourinho has started Dele just three times this season, and two of those were in the Europa League (Photo: Getty)

Mourinho had brought in several fringe players against Royal Antwerp game and added afterwards: “Before matches, you always ask me why this player is not playing, why this player is not playing, why this player is not selected. Maybe now for a few weeks you don’t ask me that, because you have the answer.”

There was also frustration among some members of the dressing room back in December and January, when Mourinho first started criticising Ndombele.

Broadly though, the Portuguese and his methods are popular with the players. Especially after the efforts he made to keep spirits up during the spring lockdown period, and now that results have picked up. Harry Kane and Son Heung-min have made big strides under him, while Eric Dier looks rejuvenated and the likes of Moussa Sissoko and Serge Aurier have improved.

Mourinho has also made an effort with the club’s youngsters, blooding Japhet Tanganga, 21, last season and giving minutes to Oliver Skipp. Mourinho hailed Skipp as a future Spurs captain when he signed a new contract in July, and has kept in touch with the 20-year-old midfielder while he’s been impressing on loan at Norwich City this season. He would have happily held onto Skipp for this season but respected his desire to play more regularly in the Championship.

Mourinho also singled out 18-year-old left-back Dennis Cirkin for praise in one of his first press conferences, and has since integrated the youngster into the first-team group. He was harder on Troy Parrott, whom he felt had to show more focus, but that will hopefully benefit the Irish striker, who is now on a season’s loan in the Championship with Millwall.

Having been criticised during his career for not trusting youngsters enough — something he disputes — Mourinho’s record with Tottenham’s academy graduates will be closely scrutinised. Especially given the club’s pride at developing young talent.

How the team have performed

The raw numbers are encouraging for Mourinho. He took over a team that appeared broken and exhausted down in 14th position and now has them in second.

Over the course of his year in charge, Spurs sit third in an imagined table with 62 points from 34 games (though Manchester United have 60 points having played a game fewer). Mourinho’s points per game return is a respectable 1.82 and is the equivalent of picking up 69 points over a 38-game season. That would have been enough to finish third in 2019-20 — not bad given Kane and Son have both missed decent chunks of Mourinho’s time in charge.

For a bit of context, in the 34 games before Mourinho’s appointment, Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs picked up just 49 points — only the ninth-best in the division over that time. In Pochettino’s reign as a whole, Spurs picked up the fourth-most points at an average of 1.89 points per game — a little above what Mourinho has averaged in his first year.

Bringing in expected goals to get a sense of the underlying trends of Mourinho’s Tottenham, the numbers are reasonable overall and very encouraging of late.

Spurs have the fifth-highest xG for non-penalty goals of Premier League teams during his period in charge, which is the same spot they occupied for Pochettino’s time at the club. Although in Pochettino’s final 34 games, Spurs were down in 12th, below the likes of now-relegated Bournemouth, Burnley and Everton.

Weighing up expected goals minus expected goals against (xGA), Spurs are seventh during Mourinho’s tenure, with plus 0.22. In Pochettino’s final 34 games, Spurs sat 10th for this metric at exactly zero, while for his whole five and a half years in charge they were fifth with plus 0.36.

Looking at just this season, however, Spurs are top of the league for expected goals minus expected goals against, with 0.92. This bodes well for the rest of their 2020-21 campaign and suggests their points tally has been merited and the results are sustainable.

The below graphic illustrates this nicely, showing shows how Tottenham’s attack and defence have changed over the last three seasons, by looking at fluctuations in xG and xGA.

When the blue line is above the red line, the team are creating better chances than they’re allowing the opposition, and vice versa. So when Pochettino was sacked last November, Spurs was in terrible form. Mourinho then stabilised things, but the defence fell apart in the period before the March lockdown before improving again after the June restart.

This season, the defence is as good as it’s been under Mourinho and the attack is currently at pretty much peak-Pochettino levels.

That fluency going forward contributed to the 6-1 away thrashing of Manchester United last month which, alongside February’s 2-0 home win over Manchester City, ranks as one of the highlights of Mourinho’s 12 months in charge. The Old Trafford victory, in particular, was a real statement of intent, and as The Athletic discussed at the time signalled that a clear identity for Mourinho’s Spurs was emerging.

A side that, led by Hojbjerg in central midfield, wouldn’t let their opponents breathe, would stand up for themselves, and would include players picked only on merit not reputation.

Style of play

The stereotyped view of Mourinho is of negative, reactive football, which was deemed to be a big departure from Pochettino’s style of front-foot, aggressive pressing.

Yet, as the defeat of Manchester United showed, Mourinho’s Spurs are also starting to become more aggressive when out of possession. Certainly more so than in their opening game of this season, a 1-0 home loss to Everton, when Mourinho complained of his side’s “lazy pressure”.

More broadly, it’s interesting delving into some of the more advanced metrics to get a sense of how differently they have played in the last year compared to when Pochettino was in charge.

Certainly, the numbers bear out that Tottenham were much more of a pressing team under Pochettino.

Starting with high turnovers, which measures possessions started in the attacking third, Spurs sit 13th when looking at Premier League matches in the period under Mourinho (Liverpool and Manchester City are the top two). With Pochettino in charge from the start of the 2014-15 season, they recorded the fifth most in the league.

Looking at PPDA — passes allowed per defensive action — Spurs under Pochettino let opponents play only 9.54, which made them the second-most aggressive team in the Premier League when out of possession (the lower the number of passes allowed, the more aggressively you are defending). Mourinho’s version, by contrast, have been the ninth-most aggressive, allowing a far higher 12.16 passes on average before making a defensive action such as a tackle or foul.

It’s a similar story with opponent progress per possession — the distance a team moves upfield on average against you each time they have the ball, measured in metres. Under Pochettino, Spurs were the joint-most effective team for this in the Premier League at 20.8m, whereas now they are down in 15th on 21.8m (the higher the number, the more progress upfield the opponent is making).

Likewise with opponents’ time per possession, which measures in seconds the average length of possession the other team are allowed. Spurs were third on 17.8 seconds in matches under Pochettino, whereas they have been 12th with 23.2 seconds during Mourinho’s reign.

High turnovers 2.62 (13th) 2.97 (5th)
PPDA 12.16 (9th) 9.54 (2nd)
Opponent progress per possession 21.8m (15th) 20.8m (=1st)
Opponent time per possession 23.2 seconds (12th) 17.8 seconds (3rd)

Switching our focus towards the attacking side, Mourinho’s Spurs have averaged the equal 10th most possession per game, 51.3 per cent. In Pochettino’s matches, they were third with 58.8 per cent.

More revealingly on whether a side has been dominant in matches, we can look at the FldTilt metric. Short for field tilt, this measures the share of final-third passes that a team makes in all of their games. So, if my team make a total of 80 final third passes, and all of my opponents attempt just 20, my lot have a field tilt of 80 per cent. The better teams usually dominate here, showing they have more possession in the areas that matter.

Pochettino’s Spurs had a figure of 57.9 per cent (fifth-best in the Premier League over his period in charge), compared with 48.6 per cent in their year under Mourinho (11th). Though as with most of these figures, that Mourinho figure is higher when looking at just this season — up to 51.6 per cent, it is still only around mid-table for the division as a whole.

Generally, Spurs are a little bit less direct now than they were with Pochettino. Of their passes over the last year, 11.7 per cent have been long compared to 12.0 when the Argentinian was in charge. They now move up the field slightly slower, at a rate of 1.28 metres per second when attacking compared to Pochettino’s 1.47. The current side average fewer sequences with 10 or more passes in them — 11.79, compared with 12.33 under Pochettino — and also put in a lot fewer crosses than they used to with their previous gaffer at 10.12 per game, down from 13.69.

Crucially though, Spurs have rediscovered their attacking edge under Mourinho this season (as shown by the xG graphic above). He has largely built his attack around Kane and Son, and been very effective in doing so. Kane has started dropping deeper and with Son running in behind, Tottenham are the second-highest scorers in the league so far this season, averaging more than two goals a game.

The other big tactical innovation we’ve seen under Mourinho has been the use of lop-sided full-backs. No longer so necessary since Matt Doherty and Sergio Reguilon have been brought in during the last transfer window, it was a system used last season to allow the ultra-attacking right-back Serge Aurier to play almost as a winger when Tottenham were in possession. Over on the other side, more cautious left-back Ben Davies would drop into a back three. Having greater license to get forward helped Aurier perform at by far his most consistent level since joining from Paris Saint-Germain in the summer of 2017.

In general, Mourinho has worked a lot on the team’s shape since taking over and their results this season back up the idea that Spurs look a lot more organised than they did a year ago, when things were falling apart under Pochettino. Despite the late collapse against West Ham United last month, Spurs have the joint-best defence in the Premier League this season.

Recruitment and Levy dynamic

The absolute trust that Daniel Levy has in Mourinho helped convince the chairman, typically characterised as parsimonious, to loosen the club’s purse-strings in the summer despite the ongoing pandemic. Some around the club feel Levy is even in awe of Mourinho, just as executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward was believed to be at Manchester United.

Whichever way you look at it, Levy certainly backed his head coach in the last window — bringing in seven players (albeit, two on loan deals) for combined transfer fees of around £60 million and also signing exactly the kind of recruits Mourinho was after, at problem positions he had identified. It was the squad overhaul that, for various reasons, never took place while Pochettino was at the club.

That said, talk to anyone with knowledge of how Spurs are run, and they will reiterate that Levy is still very much the man in charge. Bringing back Gareth Bale, for instance, was his decision rather than Mourinho’s, as was opting to hold onto Dele. Granted, recent arrivals Gedson Fernandes, Doherty and Carlos Vinicius are clients of Jorge Mendes — also Mourinho’s long-time representative — but the superagent is not understood to have a great deal of influence within the club.

Thus far, their summer recruitment looks very promising. Hojbjerg has been outstanding, Reguilon has slotted in well, while Bale’s return on loan after seven years at Real Madrid lifted the mood of everyone at the club. Doherty and Joe Hart have proven Premier League pedigree, Joe Rodon looks a good prospect for the future, and Vinicius is, in profile at least, what Spurs have been looking for as cover for Kane. We don’t yet know how he will perform at this elevated level.

Midfielder Fernandes has made next to no impression since arriving from Benfica in January, but as a loan deal will not prove to be an especially costly mistake.

The fans’ view

With no fans at grounds, it’s harder than usual to gauge how a manager is being received by a club’s supporters. We are mainly forced to rely on social media, which although helpful to some degree is designed to promote extreme views, and can often be about as reliable as pre-election opinion polls.

So last week, we invited our Spurs-supporting subscribers to have their say on Mourinho’s first year and the direction they think the team are heading under him.

The results, especially given how sceptical many were when he arrived, are extremely positive. A huge 86 per cent of respondents think hiring Mourinho was the right call. Similarly, 74.2 per cent think sacking Pochettino was ultimately the correct decision. As many as 82.4 per cent of respondents believe Spurs are more likely to win a trophy now than they were under Pochettino, while 62.4 per cent think Mourinho is doing a good job, and 31.9 per cent think he’s doing a very good job.

Reflecting on Tottenham’s transfer business, 95.5 per cent rate Mourinho’s recruitment as good or very good. As for Mourinho himself, 92.5 per cent of supporters find him more likeable now than when he took the job 12 months ago.

Read the full results of our Spurs fans survey here

Public profile

Broadening this likeability point out a touch, Mourinho has tended to be relatively reserved when speaking publicly during his year at Tottenham. There have been some outbursts, such as calling out Ndombele, but generally he has been less abrasive than he has often been portrayed. Certainly, he has been far less confrontational than those late periods at Manchester United and Chelsea when his press conferences could be excruciatingly tense.

Mourinho briefly wandered into outright self-aggrandizement territory in July, after a win away at Newcastle United (his first in the Premier League, at the eighth attempt). He boasted of Spurs’ improvement since he took over, prompting a tabloid headline of “Arrogant, selfish and quoting stats about himself — looks like the old Mourinho is back”, but on the whole he has been pretty measured.

On the occasions when Mourinho has let rip, such as in response to Manchester City’s UEFA Financial Fair Play sanctions being lifted or criticism of Kane for alleged diving, he has largely been supported by the club’s fanbase. And his endearingly off-beat Instagram posts, understood to be all his own work, have been another public relations win.

Broadly then, his debut year at Tottenham can be seen as positive for Mourinho. He has stabilised and then strengthened the squad, and there is a feeling a title challenge is a possibility over the next six months.

We should have a better idea of that after Saturday’s match at home to Manchester City. A familiar foe in Pep Guardiola awaits, suggesting that even in amongst all the changes he has overseen at Spurs, many of Mourinho’s challenges remain the same.

The last year suggests his appetite remains as strong as ever to try to overcome them.

【穆里尼奥执教热刺一周年,The Athletic热刺球迷问卷调查结果】

穆里尼奥做的… 62.4%出色,31.9%非常出色
穆里尼奥的足球… 82.9%好坏都有,13.5%好看
穆里尼奥的引援… 63.9%非常好,31.6%好