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How 1-1 has become the new classic Jose Mourinho scoreline at Tottenham

Tottenham Harry Kane
(Image credit: PA)

81, 90, 86, 74. Not, as some might assume, the squad numbers of some youngsters parachuted into FA Cup games in these Covid times, but the minutes in the last five weeks in which Tottenham have conceded costly goals.

Add those seven points, depriving them of wins against Crystal Palace, Wolves and Fulham and a draw with Liverpool, and Tottenham would be top. Their most spectacular collapse, when a 3-0 lead against West Ham evaporated in nine minutes plus stoppage time in October, and their most unfortunate loss of a lead, when Newcastle were awarded one of the more contentious handball penalties in September, would look like aberrations. Instead, they now feel a sign of things to come.

“This is the same story basically since the beginning of the season,” lamented Jose Mourinho on Wednesday. The Portuguese, the ultimate footballing assassin, lamented an inability to “kill the game.” One of the paradoxes of Spurs is that they have two of the country’s best finishers, in Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, but collectively have not been as cold and clinical as the stereotype of Mourinho would suggest. 

Opportunities have been squandered. Son scuffed a shot against the woodwork versus Fulham and Steven Bergwijn struck the post as he spurned two golden chances at Anfield. Yet they have also been relative rarities. Spurs have only mustered 12 shots on target in their last nine second halves in the Premier League. They have tried to kill games with too few bullets.

Tottenham conform to cliches. If the table does not lie, Spurs are top of the first-half standings and 11th in the second-half table. Theirs are games of two halves. 

They also conform to perceptions of Mourinho; he may argue his reputation for negativity is unfounded and has denied he tells his team to retreat into defensiveness – at Molineux, for instance, he said it was not a plan to sit on a lead – but not everyone is convinced. 

His pragmatism has felt unpragmatic, his defence not the best form of defence. Certainly Spurs have conceded in similar ways: set-pieces and headers are common denominators. While Mourinho has a trademark ploy of getting his central midfielders to drop in to complete a back six, that weakness against the aerial ball reflects the absence of a genuinely commanding centre-back. 

And Tottenham invite pressure. Against both West Ham and Wolves, Mourinho has erred by substituting the influential Tanguy Ndombele. At Liverpool, he removed Bergwijn to bring on full-back Sergio Reguilon (albeit a left-back who has more goals and assists than the winger). 

Even Mourinho’s initial selections appear slanted towards the negative. Kane and Son’s spectacular double act has deflected attention from the impotence of their colleagues. Bergwijn has become the first choice on the right, seemingly for his willingness to track back. Moussa Sissoko, another infrequent scorer, has taken that role against Leicester and Fulham. Spurs have delegated all responsibility to scoring to two men and, in 10 of the last 11 league games when they have found the net, either Son or Kane has got their first goal.

Yet getting multiple goals is harder when they have fewer alternative scorers. In their last 12 league games, Spurs have only scored at least twice four times, all at home, and three times once, against Marcelo Bielsa’s generous Leeds.

More often, they end up with a solitary strike, trapped in the dilemma of whether to stick or twist, but with a Mourinho-esque mindset of looking to protect what they have. They fear losing a lead and do; it seems a self-fulfilling prophecy.

They have been ahead for 192 minutes against Palace, Wolves and Fulham, bottom-half teams all, and drawn with each. It suggests Mourinho has evolved, but for the worse. His finest teams may have had a similar mindset, but they could protect the clean sheet and were efficient enough to take their chances, adding the insurance policy of a second goal for the off-chance they might concede. If 2-0 used to be the classic Mourinho scoreline, now it feels like 1-1 is the more symbolic outcome.

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Richard Jolly also writes for the National, the Guardian, the Observer, the Straits Times, the Independent, Sporting Life, Football 365 and the Blizzard. He has written for the FourFourTwo website since 2018 and for the magazine in the 1990s and the 2020s, but not in between. He has covered 1500+ games and remembers a disturbing number of the 0-0 draws.