In recent times, the trajectories of England and Tottenham have, at least in part, seen some degree of parallel. After season upon season and tournament upon tournament, both the Premier League side and national team saw underwhelming results marred with inconsistency and abject performances against lesser sides.
The appointment of Martin Jol began to herald a degree of change for Tottenham, only enhanced through the subsequent appointments of Harry Redknapp and Mauricio Pochettino. The latter’s time at the helm of Tottenham Hotspur yielded both a highest Premier League finish as well as a first Champions League final appearance.
By comparison, England jettisoned Roy Hodgson following the notoriously awful display against Iceland in Euro 2016 and Gareth Southgate’s reign began. Southgate has seen a similar rise for the national side, guiding England to the semi-finals of the World Cup in 2018, for the first time since Italia ‘90. In both tournaments, England finished 4th, their highest placings since success in the 1966 World Cup. For Southgate, he also oversaw a highest placing in any tournament when England finished 3rd in the Nations League. No national result has come close (apart from the 2018 World Cup) since Terry Venables guided England to a 3rd place finish in Euro ’96. The upturn in fortunes a credit to the new England boss.
At Tottenham, things with Pochettino eventually went stale and he was replaced by Jose Mourinho. Despite an unexpected global pandemic to deal with, some inconsistency in results and performances aside, the current Spurs manager has implemented his style and personnel to reinvigorate a Tottenham team which had been dwindling through the prior campaign. This season, Tottenham have looked a reasonably well-oiled machine. Defeat to Everton on the opening day and draws (which never should have been anything other than victories) to Newcastle and West Ham, the only blemishes in an otherwise impressive start to the season.
The much-lauded key to Mourinho’s improvement this season has been the combination of Son Heung-Min and Harry Kane. Both have been in imperious form at times, and it is a basic tactical shift which Mourinho has effected, bringing this to the fore. In a nutshell, Son has bags of pace; Kane does not. As such, it should be Kane looking for Son to run in behind, not the other way around. Factor in the passing ability of Kane, and the combination has proved to be lethal.
While this seems like a straightforward tactical adjustment, it is actually a change which hallmarks this current Tottenham side as a Mourinho team. The crux of a Mourinho team is the presence of two creative attacking midfield players facilitating attacks- one attacking midfielder and one attacking playmaker, and two more defensive-minded midfield players retaining control of the middle of the park, one defensive holding midfielder and one deep-lying playmaker.
After Eriksen’s departure, Tottenham experienced impotence going forward generated through a lack of creativity in attack. There was not enough link up between the midfield and forwards to create incisive play in the final third. With only one creative player in the midfield (at the time, either Giovani Lo Celso or Tanguy Ndombele), it fell to Dele Alli to form the creative linkup with the forwards in an attacking playmaker role. This is the role we traditionally identify with players such as Christian Eriksen, David Silva, Juan Mata, Mesut Ozil, and Bruno Fernandes. However, as I have discussed in previous articles, Dele Alli does not have the ability to perform such a role. The result bred a blunted attack, distinguishable through its lack of pace and sideways / backwards passing.
Mourinho’s tactical adjustment resolves this issue. With Kane dropping deeper, fulfilling many of the functions of this attacking playmaker role, the connection between midfield creativity and attacking creativity is resolved. Kane can see the key pass, and has the ability to complete that pass. Suddenly, Tottenham had two players to assist in carving teams open- Harry Kane in the attacking playmaker role, as well as an attacking midfielder in the middle of the park (still either Lo Celso or Ndombele). The tactical shift is then completed through the presence of two pacey attacking wing-players / inside forwards. For Tottenham, these have been Son, and one of Lucas Moura, Steven Bergwijn or Erik Lamela. The result has been swift and free-flowing counter-attacking football, built on (some semblance of) defensive solidity.
For anyone who watched England get beaten by Belgium on Sunday night, a number of the issues which plagued Tottenham after Eriksen’s departure were replicated. A lack of pace and incisive forward play were on show, and despite the fact the Englishmen kept the world’s No.1 side on the backfoot for much of the match, a Harry Kane header cleared off the line from a set-piece was as close as England got to a goal.
It is the approach of England though, which raises eyebrows. In a game against a team with such class in midfield, who play possession football, and who have such strength going forward, it felt like a counter-attacking approach was ready made. Add in the fact that two of their defenders are current and former Tottenham stalwarts Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, both of whom are in their thirties, and neither of whom are well-known for their pace, the decision to keep Jaden Sancho on the bench until the 70th minute seems very strange. Another speedster, Bukayo Saka was introduced before half-time, but only in a wing-back role where his pace could not be utilised in attack to its full extent.
It is true that a number of players were missing for Southgate against Belgium. In particular, the lack or Stirling and Rashford may have impacted the England manager’s chosen formation. The template for how to approach such a game was there for Southgate, though. It was there in the form of Mourinho’s Tottenham team. A flat back four with pace at full-back in the shape of Kyle Walker and Ben Chilwell, alongside Eric Dier and Tyrone Mings. A defensive midfielder- either Jordan Henderson or Declan Rice, alongside a deep-lying playmaker- either Harry Winks or Mason Mount. In-form Jack Grealish an undeniable inclusion for the attacking playmaker role in midfield. Harry Kane dropping deep as the creative forward link up with the midfield, and Sancho and Saka the pacey runners dropping in behind the Belgian defence. The parallels with Mourinho’s set up are clear, and that set-up is working.
The context is also a parallel. At Tottenham, in the Premier League, in performances against those sides where a win is expected and the opponents are less adventurous, a more stunted Spurs performance invariably ensues. Recent wins against Burnley and West Brom came late on and will not be remembered in the same light as the wins against Manchester United and Southampton. But the difference in class between opponents is clear. Manchester United are superior to Burnley. Southampton are superior to West Brom. The counter-attacking approach which reaped dividends against the superior sides is less effective against those opponents Tottenham are expected to dominate.
For England, something similar is true. The international scene tends to be dominated by two types of sides: those we are expected to beat with ease, and those we know will be a challenge. While a counter-attacking approach might not be the correct strategy against a San Marino or an Andorra, against a Belgium or a Spain it could be the difference between a result and a loss.
For England then, there might be two leaves Gareth Southgate could take out of the Mourinho playbook. The first is a tactical shift to get the best out of Harry Kane. The second is to learn how and when a more tactical approach to these games against superior sides would be beneficial. England may have been on the front foot against Belgium for large portions of the game, but they left with nothing. A Mourinho approach might not have been as forward-thinking, but with an effective counter-attacking approach, maybe it would be a triumphant England going forward on another Nations League semi-finals charge.
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