Tottenham's big mistake: Bale only exposing Mourinho's main weakness

Gareth Bale Jose Mourinho Tottenham GFX
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Spurs have only scored one Premier League goal with the Wales star on the pitch this season, with the 31-year-old struggling on his return to London

The problem with the unusually compressed Premier League table is that it does not take much for clubs to get caught up in a spiralling crisis or a surging renaissance.

Manchester United have died and been reborn multiple times already. Everton have surged, collapsed, and surged again despite the season being just a third complete.

And now Tottenham, tipped by many (including this writer) to challenge for the Premier League title are suddenly has-beens, out of the running thanks to a sequence of five points from five games.

It is, of course, too early to say their chances are over; too early to fall back on old tropes about Jose Mourinho being outdated so soon after eagerly celebrating his return to the top.

Case in point, had Harry Kane not missed a sitter against Liverpool then Spurs would have won that game and the table would look very different.

Nevertheless, there are legitimate concerns regarding Spurs' attacking deficiencies, and reliance on a counterattacking Plan A, which present a potential barrier to sustaining form over a 38-game season.

These faults are represented most neatly in the curiously small impact Gareth Bale has had since his return to north London.

Bale’s performance as a second-half substitute in Sunday's 2-0 defeat to Leicester City was bafflingly poor. He was not just ineffective, he was seemingly playing without intent, direction, or even interest.

Gareth Bale Jose Mourinho Tottenham GFX

Over and over again the Wales international would receive the ball on the right, look up, see two defenders in front of him, and pass it back inside. There was no attempt to take on his man, no attempt to play an incisive forward pass, and no attempt to make off-the-ball runs to escape that overcrowded area.

It was a cameo in keeping with his performances since arriving back at Tottenham.

Bale has started just one Premier League game this season. He has featured in 161 of 900 available minutes of league football. He has scored one goal in that time - the winner in a 2-1 victory over Brighton - that right now is the only league goal Tottenham have scored this season with Bale on the pitch.

Most damning of all, despite featuring in all six Europa League matches, Bale has only scored once and averages 0.3 key passes per game – the lowest of any Spurs player.

Perhaps he simply needs more time to adjust, having been without regular first-team football for so long under Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid, but more likely his poor form reflects Mourinho’s limitations.

The Tottenham manager does not coach his forwards like Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola do; he does not provide the structure for their moves or dictate their attacking lines.

In direct contrast to the world’s best up-and-coming managers, Mourinho expects his forwards to freely improvise, rather than coach ‘automatisms’: highly structured tactical set-plays.

Earlier in the season it seemed as though Mourinho’s coaching style – he focuses on the defensive foundations, and expects his players to counterattack instinctively – looked like an asset during pandemic football, in which a congested fixture list has led to fatigued players and severely limited coaching time in the week.

Son Heung-min Harry Kane Tottenham GFX

High pressing has dropped off and tactical strategies have lost detail, and, since Mourinho never relied on either of these, his Spurs team flew out of the blocks. This may still be the case, of course, and the current run of form a mere blip on the way to a successful title challenge.

And yet Tottenham fans are understandably worried.

The problem with not prescribing attacking patterns, with using a conservative midblock, and with relying on counters, is that the team becomes reliant on a few individuals to perform consistently.

Harry Kane and Son Heung-min carry a huge burden of responsibility because, unlike the possession-dominant styles at the other ‘Big Six’ clubs, Tottenham do not create many chances.

What Mourinho views as a low-risk strategy is in fact high risk: the margins are small, and if chance conversion drops the points slip away. The 1-1 draw with Crystal Palace, in which Spurs invited pressure after settling down at 1-0, is a perfect example.

The other issue with relying on a small number of counterattackers is that opponents quickly learn how to suffocate them. Defenders are stepping up and doubling up on Kane. Right-backs are staying back to negate Son.

Most significantly of all, managers are starting to hold a deeper line, with Leicester having provided the clearest blueprint yet of how to deal with Mourinho’s approach.

Brendan Rodgers sat his team back, happily conceding the majority of possession in the knowledge that Tottenham are not coached for attacking moves - and therefore cannot play with the speed, fluency, or foresight to pull apart a defensive shell.

That is why Mourinho does not appear to have a Plan B – and why Bale cannot make an impact off the bench. The 31-year-old needs direction; needs to be able to slip into a tactical groove of multiple movements and interactions.

Instead, in a Mourinho team built on individualism, Bale is expected to conjure from a standing start. If Bale looks like he does not have a plan, that is because nobody has given him one.

Some pundits believe reintroducing Dele Alli might help shake things up in claustrophobic matches, but that seems unlikely. Lucas Moura, a frequently used substitute, is yet to score off the bench under Mourinho.

Dele Alli Tottenham GFX

The problem is systemic, and without a top-down restructuring of how Mourinho coaches, Spurs are unlikely to improve their in-game reactivity.

Then again, Tottenham are only six points off the top. A run of poor form was inevitable, particularly in this exhausting season.

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There is a danger of reading too much into Tottenham’s bad week. But the problems emerging do form part of a wider pattern of Mourinho’s tactical flaws over the last few years, and are worth keeping an eye on.

Wolves this coming Sunday will no doubt use Leicester’s model. Many more will follow suit.

Perhaps Bale will ultimately become the Plan B Tottenham need to overcome hurdles like these. For now though, he looks like an expensive mistake whose main function is to highlight Mourinho’s biggest weakness.