How to counter attack like Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham

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Jose Mourinho has long been a proponent of counter attacking football. We featured Mourinho prominently in our 2019 article all about how Jose Mourinho killed tiki taka football with his counter attacking approach to big games, such as the UEFA Champions League final with Inter Milan in 2010. But now with his counter attacking approach to this Tottenham Hotspur team, while leading them toward a surprising title charge, we take a closer look at how to counter attack like Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham. Spoiler alert – it’s not all about Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son. This article aims to help coaches, analysts and players understand how to do better in attacking transitions.

when to pass vs. when to run w/ the ball

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In attacking transitions, the decision of whether to pass or run with the ball is a crucial decision that can either make or break an attack. This decision first occurs when the team first regain possession, but each decision from then on out and each player who touches the ball in the attack is also responsible for the same decision, either aiding or hindering in the speed at which the team is able to attack based on which route they choose.

Both actions generally need to take a vertical approach, particularly a player running with the ball into space. Horizontal or backwards moves will only slow the attack down and allow the team that lost possession a better chance at regaining the ball.

Generally, players should look to run with the ball when they have space, when the opposition are backing off or appear more concerned about the ball carrier’s teammates, and when they have no players in advantageous positions. On the flip side, players should look to pass when pressure is being applied or they do not have space to advance into, when they can eliminate all or several defenders with the pass, or when they have a player in a more advantageous position. Players like Lo Celso and Kane have proven to be masters of the art this season. We now turn our attention to some of the classic examples of this decision making process this season.

In Spurs’ goal against Liverpool to make the score 1-1, Lo Celso times his pass to perfection. After receiving the ball from his goalkeeper, Lo Celso turns into space and sees that he has a gap to exploit. He also sees that none of his teammates are in advantageous positions. He cannot play Bergwijn or Sissoko, as Henderson + 1 other Liverpool player remain in place to cut both options off. He could play long to Kane or Son, but this type of pass is more difficult to pull off and would likely be cut off by Fabinho or Rhys Williams.

So instead of passing, he carries the ball forward at speed, until he reaches Henderson. Just before Henderson is able to tackle him, he finds Heung-Min Son in space. Meanwhile, Rhys Williams becomes occupied by Steven Bergwijn’s smart, vertical run in field, allowing Son to achieve greater width and distance away from any Liverpool player.

As we can see from the first image and the one above, Trent Alexander-Arnold, who might normally be on that side, was simply unable to catch up due to his eagerness to pressure the initial situation with Lo Celso on the ball. Crucially, Steven Bergwijn leaps over the ball, recognizing the advantageous position of Son, but also causing further disruption to Williams’ decision making. Son is sent through on goal 1v1 and doesn’t miss from there. Son will get all the plaudits, but Lo Celso’s excellent decision making within a matter of seconds on exactly when to pass the ball and how far to carry it forward, allowed the goal to be scored.

In short the crucial steps to the scoring of this goal were…

  1. Lo Celso’s excellent recognition of space and decision to take that space until he no longer couldn’t.
  2. Son and Bergwijn’s vertical runs in field, both remaining on-side and complicating Rhys Williams’ decision on who to track.
  3. Lo Celso’s timing of the pass to match the exact moment at which he was not only getting closed down, but finally had a player in an advantageous position, because of Bergwijn now occupying Williams, freeing up Heung-Min Son.


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Verticality is another crucial element to quick attacking transitions, and one of the primary elements to Jose Mourinho’s stellar counter attacking play. Horizontal or backward passes can be useful in transitional moments if they are the best option, but they will slow the attack down much quicker than vertical passes. Diagonal (but forward) passes should also be kept to shorter distances, as longer diagonal passes will also slow the attack down.

With these tenets in mind, after winning the ball, Tottenham look for short, progressive passes through central channels, springing their speedy attackers forward. This can be through a dribble or through a pass, but both are done through vertical moves. Tottenham have a great variety of players who can offer the team different things. But what they all have in common is the speed at which they can do three key things: carry the ball, run off the ball, and pass accurately while on the move. This sounds simple, but it takes a much higher level of quality than most teams would be able to achieve.

The quickness in decision making and use of a vertical pass rather than a backwards one was absolutely essential to Tottenham’s first goal in their 2-0 win against Arsenal. Tottenham won the ball around the halfway line and instantly looked to attack, taking advantage of Arsenal’s poor shape and Hector Bellerin’s high position.

Instead of playing a backwards pass to Lo Celso, Harry Kane took a touch with his back to Thomas Partey, turned left, and played a long vertical/diagonal pass to Heung-Min Son. If Kane had played Lo Celso instead, the attack might have slowed down, Hector Bellerin would have had more time to recover, and Rob Holding might have had more time to anticipate what was about to happen with the on-rushing Son. But the correct decision was made, and Son was through on goal.

After receiving, Son carried on with a vertical run on the ball, aiding in the speed at which he was able to attack. Four seconds later, just before Son is about to strike, this is the image we see.

We can see here that Arsenal have actually done well to recover in the transition. Lo Celso and Kane have barely followed their runs forward, and Bergwijn is occupied by several players. But we can see two problems. First, Holding has been forced to take Bellerin’s position and vice versa, due to Bellerin’s starting position when the attack first broke. But more crucially, Sergio Reguilon makes an overlapping run, occupying Rob Holding (and for some reason Bellerin?) for a split second, and opening the door for Heung-Min Son to cut inside, exploit the gap between Bellerin and Holding and thunderbolt the ball into the back of the net. When Son strikes the ball, it’s an absolute wondergoal. But what will go understated is just how quickly Tottenham attacked after winning the ball, and how effective they were at making correct, split-second decisions based on their reading of the game in transition. The effectiveness at which they were able to pull this goal off was rooted in a vertical pass by Kane, a vertical run on the ball by Son, and two key vertical runs off the ball from Reguilon and Bergwijn. If any of those players had chosen to go backwards or sideways, the goal might not have happened.

In short, the crucial steps (beyond Son’s sweet strike) to this goal were…

  1. Harry Kane’s quick turn away from pressure and long, vertical/diagonal pass into space almost immediately after Spurs won the ball.
  2. Heung Min Son’s vertical run after receiving the ball, to aid in the speed of the transition
  3. Sergio Reguilon’s vertical run off the ball to create an overlapping option and distract Arsenal’s defenders.

dispersal in forward movements

In Tottenham’s second goal against Arsenal, Serge Aurier won the ball in his own penalty area and quickly played a vertical pass forward for Giovani Lo Celso, before being closed down by three players, completely unaware of Lo Celso’s position. This pass from Aurier eliminated all three players instantly, as Lo Celso dribbled the ball forward in a vertical direction from there. This created a 4v2 situation in the blink of an eye, with Holding and Gabriel occupied by three pacey forwards. The retreating Granit Xhaka and injured Thomas Partey could do nothing to help the situation and this is the image we see just before Lo Celso’s incisive pass to Heung-Min Son. Lo Celso could have carried the ball even further if he wanted to, but he made the decision to play it in at the exact moment that he felt Rob Holding was more concerned about him than Son.

In this image, we can also see that Steven Bergwijn made a lung-bursting run to the right, while Kane offered support in a central position, knowing Son was going to burst forward on the left. This created balance for the team and further chaos for Gabriel and Holding. If they had for example, all decided to run to the left, it would have been much easier for Gabriel and Holding to track their movement. But because they dispersed in this manner, and Bergwijn distracted Gabriel far away from Son, Lo Celso was able to play the perfect pass at the perfect time to Tottenham’s danger man. Once in the box, Son slowed the attack down for a split second to take Holding on, allowing Kane to make an overlapping run. This could have slowed down the attack to detrimental effect if Arsenal had started with more numbers in the play. But because it was a 4v2 situation (that Lo Celso’s pass had basically turned into a 2v1 situation), this slight slow of play actually allowed Tottenham to create a better shooting opportunity, with Kane creating acres of space for himself to shoot.

In short, the crucial steps to this goal (beyond Arsenal’s poor defending) were…

  1. Serge Aurier’s decision to pass to Lo Celso and eliminate three defenders in the process, rather than making an incorrect decision to continue carrying the ball, where he would have been closed down.
  2. Giovani Lo Celso’s vertical run up the pitch at speed
  3. The dispersal of the Tottenham trio in attack, making runs of varying angles and speeds to cause chaos for Gabriel and Holding.
  4. Heung Min Son’s quick recognition of the numbers advantage to actually slow the attack by half a second, allowing Kane to create a better shooting opportunity on the overlap.

eliminating defenders with a one-touch pass

In this example against Southampton, Tanguy Ndombele does brilliantly well to beat both Romeu and Ward-Prowse with a piece of skill, setting himself free. But recognizing that he’s still being chased by the two midfield men and aware of Walker-Peters’ poor positioning, Ndombele chooses to play the pass rather than carrying the ball further (Walker-Peters was running the wrong way so there was space to advance into). This pass eliminates all of the midfield players from the picture, and Walker-Peters. But there is still work to do from there.

When the pass is made into Harry Kane, Jack Stephens is forced to track the run of Kane, allowing Son to now be 1v1 with Bednarek. Son gets on the blindside of Bednarek where he can’t be seen, and Kane plays the perfect pass into his path. The pass is so good that it not only beats Bednarek, but gives McCarthy the false sense of hope that he can get there, even though he can’t.

Son composes himself and then finishes with ease. The decision by Kane to play a one touch pass is crucial here. If he had chosen to take more touches, Walker Peters could have closed the gap, and the back-four could have had more time to organize themselves. Kane would have then been forced to slow the attack. But because he plays the pass on a one-touch, he eliminates all of the defenders out of the picture. This is an example of why attacking transitions need to be done at speed. When done at speed and done correctly with passes as good as Kane’s and runs as good as Son’s, the opposition simply have no time to react and set up shop.

In short, the following elements were crucial to Tottenham’s counter attacking goal…

  1. Ndombele’s decision to dribble and take the midfield players on when he didn’t have any passing options, setting himself free for the right passing option after beating them.
  2. Son’s electric run vertically up the field, while getting on the blindside of the defender.
  3. Kane’s recognition of the situation to play a one-touch pass into space, eliminating all defenders from the picture before they could react.


Although Tottenham score a variety of different goals, which are not just exclusive to counter attacking situations, the manner and speed at which they can score goals on the break makes them one of the most dangerous teams in the league. Son and Kane have received all the plaudits this season, but their goal-scoring from counter attacks extends far beyond just their two star men. Instead, their counter attacking approach is a team effort, centered around verticality, speed, and intelligent decisions on when to carry the ball vs. release it to a teammate. With this method of scoring goals, Tottenham are set for a top four finish at the very least, if not higher.

So there it is! How to counter attack like Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham. Be sure to share your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter @mastermindsite and see more of our counter attacking related articles. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

You might also enjoy…

-> Jose Mourinho – Tottenham Hotspur – Tactical Analysis
-> Counter Attacking and the Death of Tiki-Taka Football
-> Overlapping Centre-Backs – Tactical Analysis


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