Tottenham failed to record a single shot on target against Bournemouth on Thursday. They have created only one big chance in their last three matches, and scored five goals in five matches since the restart.
But what is most damning isn’t the statistics or the lack of ideas in the final third. It’s that the Tottenham players can be seen consistently throwing their arms out wide in desperation and confusion, frustrated by the lack of options when the ball is at their feet.
Jose Mourinho doesn’t construct attacks, instead inviting his forwards to improvise their movements. That tends to work when allowed to play on the counterattack as the Portuguese prefers because the best counters are always free-form problem solving.
It also tends to work when the team possess self-belief; witness the quick start and intelligent movement, for all of 30 minutes, against Sheffield United in early July. But if confidence dips, limbs freeze up and the mind becomes cloudy.
When faced with a deep-lying defence, modern footballers need carefully pre-structured attacking moves to pull their opponent out of shape. The one-touch football at Liverpool, Manchester City, and increasingly at Arsenal might look ‘creative’, but those moves were constructed long ago on the training field and committed to muscle memory.
This is the essential issue facing Tottenham under Mourinho; it is the fundamental reason why he cannot move with the times.
It had started so well. Those early wins in November and December saw Spurs play in a complex, possession-based 2-3-5, suggesting Mourinho had finally adapted alongside new assistant manager Joao Sacramento.
Perhaps Tottenham were simply running on the afterglow of Mauricio Pochettino’s attacking tactics, because since the restart Spurs are classic Mourinho. For an attacking shape built on improvisation rather than collective patterns, flaws are localised to individuals, not systems.
Serge Aurier, high on the right wing, repeatedly turns back or hits a low cross into the first man. Harry Kane is too slow on the turn to link with the quick wingers around him, either permanently made sluggish by injury or suffering the consequences of playing every single minute of the restart. Giovani Lo Celso is well off the pace.
The 0-0 draw with Bournemouth was the new low point for Mourinho at Spurs. The midfield was so flat that Erik Lamela came short, leaving a lost Steven Bergwijn alongside Kane in a lacklustre attack. The half-spaces were emptied, ensuring Spurs had few forward passing options through that passive and under-stocked Bournemouth midfield.
If there is a tactical lesson to be learnt, aside from working on specific attacking lines in training, it is that assertive players are needed to raise the tempo, like Bruno Fernandes at Manchester United. Tanguy Ndombele shifted momentum when he came on with his attempts at breaking the lines, and the Frenchman ought to start the final four matches.
In modern football, the defensive detail in opponents’ off-the-ball shape means ‘Big Six’ coaches simply have to be constructing their attacks. Mourinho cannot, and yet that does not mean he should go.
Daniel Levy has invested too much in the Portuguese to throw him out before he gets a summer transfer window and a full pre-season, the time of year in which Mourinho’s genius has always been most apparent. He thrives not as a great artist but a masterful editor.
Then again, Mourinho’s reputation may already be damaged beyond repair. We groan and roll our eyes when once his methods inspired awe. If the players’ perception of him follows that of the fans and the media, then the project – so heavily reliant on psychological warfare - will never get off the ground.
Maddison’s absence exposes issues with Leicester’s new formation
Brendan Rodgers’ temporary exploration of a 3-4-1-2 has probably run its course after a poor performance against Arsenal, saved only by Eddie Nketiah’s red card. The back three looked worryingly disorganised, with left-sided centre-back Caglar Soyuncu repeatedly dragged out of position by Bukayo Saka.
Unable to shuffle the ball into the final third, pumping it long far too often, and generally leaving huge spaces in a clumsily decompressed formation, Leicester’s system was second best by a long distance. Rodgers will be hoping his 4-3-3, after a two-game absence, will feel fresh again when it is presumably reinstated at Bournemouth this weekend.
James Maddison’s injury was the main reason for the formation switch and he should be back for Sunday’s game. Without him, Leicester lack a midfield player capable of dropping between the opposition lines and receiving the ball on the half-turn, which is the most important part of Rodgers’ tactics: dry possession football followed by sudden vertical passages of play through the centre.
His importance to the team has never been clearer than during these last two games, in which Ayoze Perez has struggled to assert himself in the number 10 role.
Chelsea need Jorginho – and a 4-2-3-1 - to stop opposition counterattacks
Frank Lampard has been experimenting with N’Golo Kante as the deepest midfielder in recent matches, but it has done little to stop Chelsea from being easily counter-attacked. Their shape is far too decompressed when on the ball, and as long as Lampard plays two creative midfielders ahead of a number six this issue will remain.
The solution is to accept the need for two holding players, at least against good counterattacking sides like Crystal Palace.
Victory never looked secure against Palace, but things did improve once Jorginho came onto the pitch with 10 minutes remaining. The Italy international has a keen eye for spotting danger before it happens, picking up loose balls or covering behind his fellow midfielders to sweep up possession and maintain Chelsea’s pressure before the likes of Wilfried Zaha have the chance to break.
But he can’t do it alone, and neither can Kante. With so much invention in the final third next season, particularly if Kai Havertz replaces Tammy Abraham in attack, Lampard can afford a double axis at the base of midfield to prevent matches like Tuesday’s becoming stretched.