Swapping Mauricio Pochettino for Jose Mourinho is just about the most extreme tactical and cultural shift imaginable in football management. Overnight, Tottenham will move from youth-oriented, high-pressing attacking to experienced stars playing deep-block, counter-attacking football.
By hiring Mourinho, Daniel Levy has taken an extraordinary gamble, emphatically shredding the Pochettino legacy to indulge in short-term trophy hunting. One can only assume the Spurs chairman has promised significant investment, because if not then he will soon bitterly clash with his confrontational new manager.
The next couple of years will be era-defining for Tottenham.
Widely regarded as a purely defensive manager, this opinion of Mourinho is skewed by the frequency of his televised games against fellow title challengers – he only parks the bus in big games – plus a dreary 18 months at Manchester United which, perhaps, reflects the club’s toxic culture more than the Portuguese manager’s tactical preferences. Prior to his time at Old Trafford, Mourinho coached fast-paced counter-attacks and creative freedom in the final third.
A solid defence was always the foundation – a deep defensive shape with minimal pressing and full-backs staying back – but his Porto, Chelsea, Inter, and Real Madrid side would burst forward at high speed. In all three seasons at Real his team topped 100 La Liga goals, and more recently, in 2014-15, his Chelsea played some exhilarating attacking football with Cesc Fabregas and Eden Hazard at the heart of things.
He usually plays either a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, although Spurs fans should get used to frequent formation changes because he is a reactive, rather than proactive, tactician. There could also be some unusual team selections with experimental new positions for players unable to adapt to his system. Mourinho’s is a bullish approach; non-negotiable and inflexible defensively, but surprisingly freeing in the final third – for those select few players given licence to move forward, at least.
The idea underpinning it all is to be direct and be risk-averse in possession. Don’t make mistakes, don’t give away the ball, and half the battle is won.
Mourinho wants a very specific type of player for each position. He prefers powerful centre-backs – Toby Alderweireld and Davinson Sanchez will play frequently – while the full-backs need to be good defenders first and foremost. Given Spurs are particularly weak and error-prone in this area, surely Serge Aurier won’t be trusted and Danny Rose will likely be rejuvenated on the left.
Tottenham have long lacked an out-and-out defensive midfielder, and indeed Mourinho will need to improvise to fill the Nemanja Matic role. Tanguy Ndombele might have his wings clipped until Spurs can make moves in January, although Eric Dier isn’t far off what’s required – and there’s always Victor Wanyama, frozen out by Poch for being too conservative on the ball. That’s just what the new man in charge wants at the base of midfield.
Either side of the Matic role, Mourinho usually plumps for one athletic box-to-box player and one disciplined creator, making Christian Eriksen and Moussa Sissoko perfect fits. Harry Winks might struggle to get into the side because of his slightness and risky passing choices, while Dele Alli’s tendency to drift through matches rather than follow strict positional instructions make him an early contender to be jettisoned from the midfield.
Hard-working but quick wingers are always in demand on the flanks, and for that reason Heung-min Son will be the first name on the team sheet. Mourinho often goes for am inverted, creative winger on the other side as well, but it seems likely that the right flank will be somewhere he’ll look to improve as Erik Lamela and Giovani Lo Celso appear to be his only options at present.
Up front, Harry Kane is the archetypal Mourinho forward: hard-working, selfless, powerful, and goalscoring.
The January transfer window will give crucial insight into the scale of the tactical shift at Tottenham. With the benefit of hindsight, Levy’s last-minute attempt to splash out on Paulo Dybala in August looks like a nod to a Pochettino-less future – and a shift away from signing young players with potential to established superstars. That is precisely what Mourinho will want.
Another bid for Dybala seems likely, while Spurs could look to spend big on Bruno Fernandes, a long-time target for both club and manager. Mourinho also needs a new centre-back and may chase Kalidou Koulibaly, plus £35 million ($45m)-rated reported Chelsea target Youcef Atal of Nice is a mooted option at right-back.
Levy will no doubt aim high in pursuit of a right-back, centre-back, defensive midfielder, and right winger but history tells us he won’t be willing to part with the money required in such an inflated market. Should cheaper alternatives come in instead, such as unwanted United pair Matic and Diogo Dalot, then optimism will quickly fade – and Mourinho’s tactics will look tedious.
In terms of sales, Mourinho has previously stated he would sell Eriksen but it is more likely the Denmark international will be given the chance to commit to a new project – as will Alderweireld and Rose. It is no coincidence these three, set to lose the club an awful lot of money if they leave on a free, have all previously appeared keen to join the Portuguese at Old Trafford. This is a brand new start for everyone; the beginning of big players arriving, and of trophy wins taking precedence over style.
The tactics might be negative, but the journey under Mourinho will be anything but dull.