The Premier League has brought early-season chaos, with both Man City and Liverpool losing heavily, meaning a tight defence might be enough to win it
Chaos reigns in the Premier League right now.
On a club-by-club basis we can begin to decipher why – Liverpool have stopped pressing, Manchester City’s midfield lacks bite – but on a macro level there is an absurdity that stretches beyond tactical analysis.
It could be that empty stadiums have lifted too much pressure off players’ shoulders, creating training-ground scenarios that favour clinical finishing and switched-off defending. But that doesn’t explain why the same glut of 5-2s and 4-3s hasn’t happened anywhere else in Europe.
No wonder there are predictions this will be another Leicester City season, another chance for something bonkers to happen over the course of an entire campaign.
It’s unlikely we will ever again get a 5000/1 come in, much to the disappointment of Leicester’s natural successors Aston Villa, but there is a compelling case to be made for an outsider. If the tactical bedlam of the first four rounds is anything to go by, that team will be Tottenham Hotspur.
Football tactics are supposed to progress linearly, but the Covid-19 pandemic’s interruption might be about to break a century of forward momentum in that regard.
For the last 15 years we have been on a path of possession dominance and high pressing, of increasing expansiveness and verticality as the Spanish tiki-taka and German gegenpressing models fused, melted and reformed.
Jose Mourinho began his career aligned with the defensive tactics of the time (such as Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool and Greece at Euro 2004) and then enjoyed the back end of his peak years as a welcome antidote to the possession style that emerged through Pep Guardiola and Vicente del Bosque. Then things started to turn sour in 2015.
Mourinho’s slow fade into tactical irrelevance happened because of the ever-widening financial inequality in football, which made dominating possession a necessity, rather than a choice, as poorer clubs learnt to sit back and absorb pressure.
At a certain point his midblock, conservatism, and counter-attacking preference stopped working in the majority of Premier League games. But perhaps, out of nowhere, he is becoming relevant again.
The ultra-aggressive high lines and the ultra-hard pressing are seemingly unsustainable in this eerie new age of Covid football, whether for fitness reasons or otherwise.
Liverpool and Man City lead the way in that regard, but high-scoring matches across the division suggest the approach requires too much fine-tuning to be successful when delirium is the primary emotion.
Mourinho, then, may be falling back into fashion; may benefit from tactical history becoming cyclical for the very first time.
Tottenham’s string of good performances, culminating in the 6-1 win at Manchester United, have been classic Mourinho, relying on a tightly compressed and safe midblock when not in possession and rapid counter-attacks when the ball is won back.
Harry Kane, dropping into the No.10 zone, and Son Heung-min, making runs in behind, epitomise the very best of Mourinho.
His summer signings have also helped improve Tottenham’s ability to absorb his methods and cast aside the Mauricio Pochettino era for good. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg in particular adds the Matic-like bite sorely needed in midfield, while Matt Doherty has the intelligence to add greater defensive resolve from right-back.
How Gareth Bale fits into the system is less clear, although he at least offers the option of something entirely different from Son or Lucas. Add to that the attacking dynamism of Sergio Reguilon and Spurs now have strength in depth and a squad packed with players willing to listen diligently to the manager’s instructions.
Suddenly, as games stretch out and goals fly in at both ends, that risk-averse and hyper-reactive approach feels extremely logical.
Through Jose’s defensive coaching Tottenham are arguably the only ‘Big Six’ club that aren’t alarmingly porous, vulnerable to shock defeats, and easy to lure forward. Their games don’t descend into chaos because every fibre of Mourinho’s being seeks order.
His infamous edict about how to win big games – the match is won by the team who commits fewer errors; whoever has the ball is more likely to make a mistake – has never felt more rational, more soothing to hear, than during a season that’s so messy we are still struggling find a coherent narrative.
But the problems that have plagued Mourinho over the last few years haven’t exactly gone away. The 1-1 draw with Newcastle United at the end of September showed Spurs still look stodgy when attempting to break down a deep-lying defence, which is why Sunday’s game against West Ham United is a litmus test for the true extent of their progress in 2020-21. If they win – if they crack how to beat the most defensive teams in the division – then Tottenham really could cause a huge shock and challenge for the title.
Football always seems to imitate life. In this most unpredictable of times to be alive, it would be a fitting twist if the tactical foundations of the last decade were turned on their head – and if the most divisive of figures, Jose Mourinho, was to enjoy a baffling renaissance.