The term ‘Mourinho masterclass’ is often misused – and tiresome – but Spurs’ display in north London merited the tag, especially as it came against the Portuguese’s old rival, Pep Guardiola.
Guardiola is the antithesis of Mourinho and predictably his side dominated the ball from the outset, finishing with nearly 70 percent of possession and 20 shots to Tottenham’s four.
But Spurs led from the fifth-minute when Heung-min Son scored his 11th goal of the season and doubled their lead shortly after the hour, when Giovani Lo Celso scored his first Premier League goal 35 seconds after his introduction.
There has been discussion about whether Mourinho has changed in a year at Tottenham, perhaps prompted by the early-season demolitions of Southampton and Manchester United.
This was the archetypal Mourinho vs Guardiola experience, with City dominating the ball from the off while Spurs looked for opportunities to counter-attack.
The host embodied the characteristics most associated with Mourinho sides: fierce warrior-like commitment, personified by Toby Alderweireld and Pierre-Emile Hojbjgerg; the backs-to-the-wall, body-on-the-line defending; the relentless high pressing, led by Tanguy Ndombele; and the rapid transitions, often involving Harry Kane, Steven Bergwijn and Sergio Reguilon.
The issue is not whether Mourinho is a changed man; it is whether his approach still works in a landscape which was revolutionised by his opponent at Barcelona from 2008 and then again, more recently, by Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp.
On this evidence, it does.
With players as talented as Kane and Ndombele and as committed as Eric Dier and Hojbjerg, and with the landscaped warped by pandemic, Mourinho-ball is working for Spurs – against a variety of opponents.
City were aggrieved when Aymeric Laporte’s equaliser midway through the first half was ruled out for a handball by Gabriel Jesus in the build-up – it looked the right decision – but Spurs did not rely solely on luck, as they did in the corresponding fixture last season, when their 2-0 win felt far more random and less calculated.
Spurs ground out wins against Burnley, Brighton and West Brom in the preceding three League matches and it was frustrating to witness a side with so much attacking talent seemingly play within themselves.
Here, however, Mourinho’s approach simply felt like a smart way to approach City, who, for all their quality, have struggled to win back the ball quickly and stop fast transitions this season.
It has been difficult to know exactly what to make of Mourinho’s side this season. Until this afternoon, it felt like they had not been presented with a serious test, while veering between explosive and functional, without fully convincing.
This victory felt like a landmark for Mourinho, perhaps the biggest win of his year in charge and an emphatic reminder that his way still works.
City powerless to prevent Son scoring trademark goal
There was nothing surprising about Son’s early goal, except for the fact that Ndombele – rather than Kane – supplied the pass.
The Frenchman worked some space and played a gorgeous floated pass behind City’s defence, where Son burst onto the ball and rolled under Ederson, who made the decision easy by rushing off his line. Kane played his part, superbly dragging two defenders out of position as Ndombele passed.
It was similar to at least six other goals Son has scored this season – the four at Southampton and against Manchester United and West Ham – and it speaks to the South Korean’s pace and movement that teams keep allowing him to do the same thing.
Surely Guardiola would have prepared his side for the possibility of Son running in behind from the channels but City’s expensively-assembled defence looked powerless to stop him without simply defending deeper, which would go against one of the core principles of Guardiola’s philosophy.
While teams continue to play high defensive lines, they will have to be prepared for the possibility of Son scoring this type of goal.
Ndombele proves he can play Mourinho’s way
It feels unfair to pick a standout player for Spurs, such was their overall commitment, focus and discipline faced with City’s waves of attacks.
Alderweireld, who limped off 10 minutes from the end, clutching his groin was superb.
So too were Reguilon, Serge Aurier, Hojbjerg and Kane.
But Ndombele merits a special mention.
Not so long ago, it was impossible to imagine the midfielder being involved in this type of battling performance – he simply did not look up to it – and yet he was crucial to Spurs again.
Playing almost up-front with Kane at times, the Frenchman led the press, harrying City’s defenders and running himself into the ground without the ball.
With it, he was predictably decisive, creating Son’s goal was a squirm away from two opponents and a perfectly-weighted pass.
It was no surprise when he was replaced by Lo Celso after 65 minutes and the Argentine finished a slick move on the counter from Kane’s pass – his ninth assist in the Premier League this season – with his second touch.
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