Go back a year and, briefly, the Ole Gunnar Solskjær table became a thing. It showed Manchester United rubbing shoulders with Liverpool and Manchester City in the standings since he assumed the reins. If it doubled up as an indictment of his sacked predecessor, now the José Mourinho table can make for pleasant reading. Only Liverpool have more points during his time in charge of Tottenham.
The figures alone speak of a transformative impact: 26 points later, 14th position has become fifth which now fifth could carry the carrot of Champions League football. The performances paint a murkier picture. Spurs rode their luck so often when beating City it could scarcely be called a Mourinho masterclass. This was anything but classic Mourinho; yet a game of 41 shots provided the fourth 3-2 of his embryonic reign. Strange as it sounds, it is the most common scoreline of his tenure. Lacking the spine of a traditional Mourinho side, Spurs were altogether different.
There was chaos, not control; chances, not clean sheets. This was anarchic. At times it looked like Mourinho hated it. The Premier League’s resident prince of darkness slouched back in his seat sullenly, as though frustrated by the lack of tedium. It may be too soon to leave his imprint on Spurs, but these clubs have both been managed in recent years by “Tactics Tim” Sherwood; his influence appeared to have rubbed off, his gung-ho instincts more apparent than Mourinho’s innate caution.
In a sense, it was defined as much by Aston Villa as by Mourinho or the match-winner Son Heung-min. Villa have scored and conceded in every game in 2020 and are making a valiant effort to extend that sequence as far into the year as possible. Their last three matches at Villa Park have contained injury‑time winners. This came coated in cruelty.
It was delivered by Son, the willing frontrunner who is scarcely Mourinho’s idea of a striker. If every quintessential Mourinho team includes a target man, Harry Kane’s injury has stripped him of a focal point in attack. Instead, the high‑speed channel-running of three wingers – in Lucas Moura, Steven Bergwijn and Son – made Spurs look more like a throwback to Mauricio Pochettino. “In the middle of the difficulties, we are finding a different way to play football,” Mourinho said. Join the dots, perhaps, because he also said: “I think it is the match since I arrive when we created the most chances.”
But they conceded plenty as Villa had 18 attempts. If a high‑class defensive midfielder tends to be a cornerstone of a Mourinho side, he instead had a low-class one. Eric Dier’s recall prompted suggestions he was primed to man-mark Jack Grealish, just as he used to detail Ander Herrera to be Eden Hazard’s constant companion. Mourinho has rarely been afraid to act the underdog, to concentrate on stopping even an inferior side and to strip a game of its drama.
Perhaps he should have borrowed a tactic from his past. Or maybe he simply concluded he had no one capable of silencing the irrepressible Grealish, of taking Villa’s best player out of the game and reducing the contest to 10 against 10. Serge Aurier kept fouling him – “three whacks on Jack,” as the Villa manager Dean Smith phrased it – while Toby Alderweireld could not get close enough to halt him. Dier, meanwhile, spent much of his time pointing, some of it shouting and not enough actually doing. At 26, he already looks an ex-footballer.
The commanding centre-back has been a staple of a Mourinho side but, if Jan Vertonghen has been Spurs’ struggling Belgian defender of late, Alderweireld assumed that role. He played a part in three goals but could only savour his involvement in one. Having become a father on Saturday, his tiredness could be excused. “Funny game,” mused Mourinho. “It is time to celebrate the goal he scores and forget the goal he scores in our goal.”
Meanwhile, his definitive central defender was in the Villa dugout. Either side could have benefited from John Terry in his Chelsea prime, in a team that only conceded 15 league goals in a season. Spurs have already let in 17 under Mourinho. But if he has not been Mourinho enough, an insufficiently pragmatic pragmatist, the table suggests the unlikely entertainer is upwardly mobile.