Mourinho Digs Out His Undersized Blanket to Deal With Spurs Challenges
José Mourinho has problems at Tottenham. You may have heard of them but here is a precis. In the absence of Harry Kane he has no center-forward. The squad have imbalances. Son Heung-min is not a No 9 but he has had to play there. Lucas Moura is not really a central striker but has had to play there.
Ryan Sessegnon is not a left-back but he has had to play there. Tanguy Ndombele cannot last 90 minutes and, to put it bluntly, it is time he sorted it out. Players are in the red zone in terms of fitness and are succumbing to injury – they cannot cope with the schedule.
Mourinho used an old football proverb on Wednesday to describe the situation, one that is popular in Spain and was probably brought to British shores by John Toshack, who managed extensively in Spain and delighted in using it at any opportunity when he was in charge of Wales. It is the one about the undersized blanket.
“It’s like when you have to pull a blanket up and your feet are left out,” Mourinho said after the 3-2 FA Cup replay win at home to Southampton. “And then you cover your feet but half your body is out. That’s us. But [we have] amazing spirit and that is something I like.”
Mourinho also put it another way because why use one figure of speech when you can reinforce the message with at least another? “I had to manage this chess game without pieces,” he said. “No bishops, no kings, no queens.”
He is gloriously theatrical and holds his audience with those long pauses, the exaggerated facial expressions, the hypnotic intonation to his voice. Like many public speakers and writers Mourinho is obsessed by the Rule of Three, the principle that states ideas presented in threes are inherently more rhythmic and memorable.
“One game we have players A, B and C out and then the next game we are without D, E and F,” Mourinho said. “It’s been a very difficult season.”
Problems, problems, problems. Already without Kane, Ben Davies and Moussa Sissoko, Mourinho mentioned how he could not select Giovani Lo Celso, Érik Lamela and Steven Bergwijn against Southampton. The first two had muscle fatigue; Bergwijn was ineligible. Dele Alli was fit only to be a substitute.
“I couldn’t even play with three up [in a 4-3-3 as in the 2-0 home win over Manchester City on Sunday] – I had only two,” Mourinho exclaimed, even if this overlooked the fact Sessegnon can surely play on the left of a front three.
So Mourinho started with a 3-5-2 system, with Son and Lucas up top and Ndombele as one of the central attacking midfielders asked to connect the play. Except this was not ideal because Ndombele is short of peak condition.
“It’s very difficult to start a player who doesn’t have 90 minutes in him when there is a chance you could go to extra time,” Mourinho said. “You know with that player you already have one substitution. But without Dele Alli, Lamela and Lo Celso I need somebody to connect a little bit. So I have to start with Tanguy even though I know he couldn’t play. So after one hour they [the fans] don’t follow. Maybe they think this coach is an idiot for taking him off. I’m not an idiot.”
Mourinho has been at Spurs for 11 weeks but it is fair to say he has hit his stride, humbly doing his work while shining a harsh light on the shortcomings around him. Most managers try to put on a positive face in public while being critical behind the scenes but Mourinho wants the gallery for his tough love and ruthless gestures, which have included substituting Eric Dier after 29 minutes against Olympiakos.
Mourinho hooked Jan Vertonghen after 54 minutes of the Southampton replay and the center-half was visibly shattered, traipsing around the perimeter of the pitch before channeling Rodin’s The Thinker on the bench. It takes a specific type of player to thrive under Mourinho, one who can take the knocks and withstand the creative tension, which can be draining.
How must Ndombele feel at the moment? Or a clutch of others? In many respects Mourinho’s treatment of the club’s record signing echoes that which he meted out to Joe Cole during his first spell at Chelsea – another free-spirited player who, he felt, needed firmer foundations. What does the chairman, Daniel Levy, make of Mourinho’s implicit criticisms of what he has walked into? That is one of the developing dynamics at the club.
Thank goodness, then, for Mourinho’s genius, which he felt was in evidence against Southampton, when his team were second best for 75 minutes before rallying from 2-1 down. The turnaround was fired by Alli, who replaced Ndombele on the hour – a perfectly timed substitution within the various fitness constraints.
“The game may have looked like it was out of control but it wasn’t,” Mourinho said. “We knew the direction we wanted to work but they scored the second goal [on 72 minutes] and it was very important the way the team reacted.”
Mourinho and Spurs found a way, just as they had done against City, having been dominated for the opening hour. It is now four wins and two draws in six matches in all competitions and out of the stodge is coming steel.
“It’s very difficult to progress the way we want,” Mourinho said. “Basically it’s game to game, building a team with what we have. And the players are being magnificent.”