Before Jose Mourinho replaced Mauricio Pochettino, Tottenham Hotspur were 14th in the table, with 14 points from 12 matches. After his appointment, the club soared to sixth place in the table, clawing their way to Europa League football in the process. Now with some impressive new signings in Sergio Reguilon, Pierre-Emilie Hojbjerg and Gareth Bale, Tottenham look well on their way to better times in 2020-21. After their thumping 6-1 win over Manchester United, we take an updated look at Mourinho’s tactics with Spurs this season. Here is a Tactical Analysis of Jose Mourinho’s revamped and revitalized Tottenham Hotspur after the first nine Premier League matches.
Also be sure to check out our 2019-20 Jose Mourinho Tactical Analysis.
SYSTEM OF PLAY: 4-3-3 / 4-2-3-1
In 2020-21, Mourinho has expanded on what was already a side more than capable of challenging for the top four. The position that he was in the most desperate need of an updrade was in central midfield, and he did exactly that in signing former Bayern youth product Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg. The Danish international has acted as the regista, the Jorginho in the side, switching play from side to side and doing all the hard defensive work in behind Tottenham’s attack. Interestingly enough though, this signing, along with the resurgence of form and confidence of Tanguy Ndombele, has inspired the Portuguese manager to change shape on occasion to a 4-3-3, or operate the 4-2-3-1 in more of a defensive-minded manner.
Spurs operated primarily in a 4-2-3-1 last season, with Dele Alli and Harry Kane constantly interchanging positions in attack. Now, Spurs have a much more steady defensive base and sounding board for Moussa Sissoko to drive forward, as he has both Ndombele and Hojbjerg to cover in behind. Vice versa, Ndombele can also drive forward, which he has shown to be more than capable of at the start of this campaign. The resurgence of Ndombele at Spurs is something Mourinho deserves some degree of credit for, as the player’s motivation was often called into question in 2019-20. Ndombele’s presence higher up the field has been felt more and more in recent matches, such as his positioning in front of Sissoko and Hojbjerg against Manchester City, in more of a 4-2-3-1. This allows Tottenham to have a screen in front of the opposition’s number six, and another link for Harry Kane and Heung-Min-Son in attack. At times, even Harry Kane will drop deeper than Tanguy Ndombele, adopting a position at left central midfield and maintaining this odd 4-3-3 shape.Embed from Getty Images
At the back, Matt Doherty has come straight into the side after arriving from Wolverhampton Wanderers. But Serge Aurier’s time at the club is not done just yet. The Ivorian remains an underrated and useful option for Mourinho to have at his disposal, particularly when looking for more defensive stability in behind the rampaging Sissoko. Sergio Reguilon also looks likely to come straight into the side, just as he did against Manchester United, as Ben Davies could play more of a peripheral role this time around. Eric Dier continues to grow and develop as a centre-back, and looks set to partner Davinson Sanchez this season. Toby Alderweireld will be another useful option Mourinho can rely on. Hugo Lloris has also retained his place in between the posts, despite the new signing of Joe Hart.
In attack, Lucas Moura and Erik Lamela (in particular) may need to fight their way to stay relevant to Jose Mourinho, as Gareth Bale looks set to come in on the right wing once fit. Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son meanwhile, have formed the Premier League’s top partnership so far this season, contributing to 16 goals in 9 matches. Kane has developed into something of a playmaker this season, leading the league in assists (9), seven of which have been for Son, a Premier League high at this stage in the competition. Kane is well on his way to breaking the assist record this season, and Son and Kane may break a special record as a duo for most assists to a single goal-scorer. Whether or not the two of them will continue to gel to the same extent once Gareth Bale comes into the side and takes more of the attention remains to be seen. But for now, they are firing on all cylinders with a Robin-esque figure in Lucas Moura allowing the two Batmans to achieve all the glory.
SWITCHING PLAYEmbed from Getty Images
A major feature of Tottenham’s play so far this season has been their willingness to switch play from side to side, working the right angles to play forward. Pierre Emile Hojbjerg has been at the heart of this approach, acting as a key link between the central midfielders and fullbacks in particular. At the first time of writing this analysis, only three players had completed more passes per game in the league than Hojbjerg (86.8) and none had completed more passes total (347). He now sits seventh in passes per game (77.2) and second in total passes (695), behind only Michael Keane. The former Southampton skipper has been at the heart of everything Tottenham have put together this season, not just going backwards and playing it safe, but like Chelsea’s Jorginho, spreading the ball long and looking to create chances for his teammates higher up the pitch. When switching play, Tottenham often look for quick switches down the left, before working the ball centrally for Kane or Heung-Min Son. They attack down the left 38% of the time, as opposed to 28% down the middle and 34% down the right.Embed from Getty Images
This approach to switching play and getting Hojbjerg on the ball has two distinct methods. The first of which is Hojberg dropping in between or alongside the centre-backs, creating a back-three to use in the build-up. This allows the fullbacks in Reguilon/Davies or Doherty/Aurier to expand forward and the wingers to push inside. The shape then looks more like a 3-4-3 in these moments of possession, as Tanguy Ndombele and Moussa Sissoko remain options to dribble forward at speed through the middle. Simultaneously, they remain in position to react if the opposition recover the ball.
The other method of switching play is something noted in last season’s tactical analysis of Tottenham Hotspur. This involves one of the fullbacks (Ben Davies in particular) tucking in alongside the centre-backs, to create that same line of three at the back. This then allows the likes of Doherty or Aurier to gallop forward, where a masterful player like Hojbjerg can find them in space on a switch. This tactic will probably be less frequently used this season, as Sergio Reguilon already appears to be much more adventurous than Ben Davies, and we all know the threat that Aurier and Doherty can pose going forward. Tottenham will therefore more likely use both fullbacks higher up the pitch as wingbacks in an adapted 3-4-3 shape, as they did against Manchester United. In the 4-2-3-1, Hojbjerg’s role as the regista has diminished slightly, and he is more likely to adopt positions to the left of Eric Dier to pick up possession, before driving it forward/looking for an incisive pass.
verticality & counter attackingEmbed from Getty Images
It is also important to note here that although switching play has been a massively important method of attack for Tottenham Hotspur and the use of central players is a natural predecessor of the tactic, Spurs also attack down the middle far more frequently than most. In fact, 28% of attacks coming from the middle is quite high for a league so heavily dominated down the left. Only Manchester City and Burnley, who favour verticality and long-balls more than anyone, have attacked down the middle more often (30%). This is partially due to Jose Mourinho’s counter attacking approach and the verticality required after winning the ball and attempting to go on the attack right away. But there are a few other interesting functions of this level of verticality and what it means for Mourinho’s tactics. First, Sissoko and Ndombele have some degree of freedom to dribble the ball forward in central areas, knowing that Hojbjerg is in behind to cover and/or sweep up the mess should they lose it. Secondly, Harry Kane has been dropping deeper and deeper to pick up the ball, often in central areas, while Son has also shifted inside to take up the position vacated by Harry Kane. This means that even when Tottenham play a longer pass in behind an opposition’s high defensive line or when they are intentionally looking to do so after winning the ball and going on the counter attack, the pass often ends in the middle for the on-rushing Son. Finally, Lucas Moura and Erik Lamela also operate very much like inverted wingers who prefer to operate in central areas just as much as wide one’s. With Doherty or Aurier galloping forward on the right, Moura or Lamela have every reason to take up positions in central areas, furthering Tottenham’s verticality. Gareth Bale may easily adopt the same approach when he inevitably enters the frame, as did Steven Bergwijn against Manchester City.
For more on Tottenham’s counter attacking approach, see How to Counter Attack Like Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham.
So although switching play is so important to the way Tottenham play under Jose Mourinho, it is also important to note that it doesn’t mean they avoid attacks through the middle. In fact, they do the exact opposite, as Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son often rotate position. Which leads us to…
son & kane positional rotationEmbed from Getty Images
Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son have been two of the very best players in the Premier League this season, and both have flourished under the guidance of Jose Mourinho. At the start of Mourinho’s reign in charge last season, Kane and Alli engaged in a lot of positional rotation. This allowed Alli to get further forward and make dangerous runs into the box, while simultaneously allowing Kane to get on the ball deeper on the field. This season, Son and Kane have frequently switched roles to allow for the exact same trend to happen. But even more impressively, they’ve combined in a way where they seem to be just completely inseparable. Kane has assisted Son seven times this season, as he currently leads the league in assists. Son’s tally of nine goals meanwhile makes him the league’s second leading goal-scorer, behind only Dominic Calvert Lewin. Analyzing each individual goal, almost all of them have come from longer, more difficult passes as Harry Kane finds the on-rushing Son in space, rather than to his feet.
This kind of positional rotation that sees Son switch to the front and Harry Kane switch to the left of attacking midfield has become a prominent feature of Tottenham’s ability to disrupt the opposition defense. In the 4-3-3, it happened to an even greater extent, with Sergio Reguilon’s lung-bursting runs higher up the field. In Spurs’ 6-1 win over Manchester United, Reguilon was often found even higher on the left than Harry Kane, who would adopt a left central midfield role to pick up the ball and help Spurs drive it forward. With Reguilon’s willingness to get high and Son’s movement toward the middle, Kane was able to roam free wherever he liked to pick up the ball, knowing Tottenham still had balance on both the left and up front.
In the case that both fullbacks are high up the pitch, Harry Kane often adopts a more central position, as the two wide men form a front two. Now Tottenham have more than enough numbers in the box, with Lucas Moura and Son the highest of the front three and Harry Kane dropping in behind to create an additional option, whether it be for a cut-back or to get on the end of a loose ball. This approach is one of the many facets that has allowed Harry Kane to be the key creator for Tottenham, while allowing Son to get the best out of his abilities up front as a goal-scorer. It also makes sense why Tottenham have favoured the left this season, since this is also the area of the field in which Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son are more likely to operate in.
In the 4-2-3-1, this kind of positional rotation has continued, with England’s captain now slightly less likely to roam in central areas due to the presence of an attacking midfielder like Giovani Lo Celso or Tanguy Ndombele. Instead, he’s adopted positions even more to the left or in front of Hojberg, as Reguilon provides an overlap. But his role in the team as anything but a “fixed” number 9 allows the England striker to roam wherever he pleases from left to right, further creating chaos for the opposition. If Tottenham allow this approach with both Son and Gareth Bale, as Harry Kane rotates with the wingers at random moments, the level of balance they currently have could be lost. But at the same time, the level of chaos for the opposition could be heightened and Kane, Son, and Bale are all tactically intelligent enough to engage in this rotation to great effect. This level of both synchronicity and simultaneous randomness will make Tottenham nearly impossible to figure out.
defensive principlesEmbed from Getty Images
Despite all their excellent attacking additions, Jose Mourinho has still maintained much in the way of his defensive principles. First and foremost, Tottenham defend as a unit in a 4-5-1 or 4-4-1-1 shape, often attempting to get all eleven players behind the ball. The three central midfielders remain compact and composed, with Son tucking in alongside them far less than Lucas Moura. Son and Kane therefore remain Tottenham’s two best options for quick attacking transitions and counter attacking play, which we all know Jose Mourinho loves. With Son’s high position and the Premier League’s natural instinct to attack down the left, Tottenham are well set up to force their opposition to the team’s right.
In theory, Tottenham may have more defensive stability in a midfield three than they might have in the 4-2-3-1. But given the fact that Tanguy Ndombele’s been the player to play in both formations and still remains relatively defensively minded, the balance has not been lost. With Hojbjerg already holding his position, either midfielder has the chance to roam forward, knowing that enough defensive cover will remain in behind. Ndombele appears to be the man that Jose Mourinho has entrusted to get forward more often, as the side can continue to create a 4-2-3-1 shape in attack should they choose. The only major worry for Tottenham in defense will be if they abandon their mid-block to adopt a high-pressing approach. They did so against Manchester United on goal kicks to much success. However, the press required one of either Ndombele and Sissoko to push forward and complete the diamond shape. The defenders likely won’t be able to follow in the press and push forward themselves, as most Premier League clubs will stretch them high and Jose Mourinho won’t be naïve enough to play a high line. This will mean that a massive gap could be created in between the midfield three and the back four, that Hojbjerg can’t have enough legs to cover. So if Tottenham adopt a high pressing approach for future matches, they will need to be careful about what will happen if the press gets broken and the defensive cover in between midfield and defense. For now, their defensive stability has been one of their keys to success, conceding just 9 goals in 9 matches.
CONCLUSIONEmbed from Getty Images
With sound defensive principles, the positional rotation and connection of Kane and Son, and Hojbjerg’s ball possession allowing for switches of play, Tottenham have created an interesting set-up to achieve much success in 2020-21. Whether or not they can go the distance and win some silverware remains to be seen, but Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham are certainly an improvement from where the club were this time last season.
So there it is! A tactical analysis of Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur so far in 2020-21. As the season goes along, be sure to check back to see if anything has changed in this analysis as Tottenham progress with the likes of Gareth Bale added to the mix. Be sure to share your thoughts on Twitter @mastermindsite or in the comments below. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
Be sure to check out more from this series below…
-> Carlo Ancelotti – Everton – Tactical Analysis
-> Marcelo Bielsa – Leeds United – Tactical Analysis
-> Pep Guardiola – Manchester City – Tactical Analysis
-> Brendan Rodgers – Leicester City – Tactical Analysis