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José Mourinho Has Tottenham At The Top Of The Table. But Are Spurs For Real?

Leading a team to an English Football League Cup title, a Europa League title, a second-place finish in the Premier League (and therefore Champions League qualification) and an FA Cup final in a matter of 15 months would be the greatest stretch of their careers for most managers in the history of English soccer. But José Mourinho isn’t most managers, and this run of success from February 2017 to May 2018 wasn’t enough to keep him in a job at Manchester United.

A poor start to the 2018-19 season1 precipitated the end of the Mourinho era in Manchester, but it was an overall perception of failure — and a perception that United wasn’t playing the way United should play under the Portuguese maestro — that was the Special One’s ultimate undoing. United doesn’t react to the tactics of other teams, and United doesn’t do second place; United imposes its will on matches, and United wins Premier League titles. Or at least that’s how the story goes.

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It’s been nearly two years since Mourinho’s sacking. In that time, United has done precious little to convince anyone it’s on the precipice of domestic greatness, finishing more than 30 points behind the Premier League champions in each of the last two seasons.2 On the other hand, Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur currently sits atop the Premier League table, level on points with defending champion Liverpool but ahead on goal differential.


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When Mourinho took over for Mauricio Pochettino in November 2019, Spurs sat in 14th position on the table, having won just three of their first 12 matches of the season. Through Matchweek 19, Spurs had climbed to sixth position and appeared to be legitimate contenders for Champions League qualification.

There’s a moment in Amazon’s recent fly-on-the-wall documentary series about Tottenham’s 2019-20 season when Mourinho tells his players to stop being “nice” on the pitch and start being something we absolutely cannot print here. The Lilywhites’ excellent form over the first six weeks of his tenure suggested Mourinho’s, um, direct approach was effective, but that early success was short-lived. Spurs sputtered around the holidays, going winless in four matches between Dec. 28 and Jan. 18 and dropping to eighth position on the table, 8 points adrift of the last Champion League. Another four-match winless streak from Feb. 22 to June 19 — spread across four months because of the pandemic — all but torpedoed Tottenham’s Champions League dreams.

Spurs went 13-6-7 under Mourinho’s stewardship during the 2019-20 season. Not great, but not terrible. Enough for Europa League qualification, but not enough for a spot in club soccer’s elite competition. Inconsistency, injuries to key players — both Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, Tottenham’s two best players, missed time after Mourinho took the helm — and a nearly four-month break in play dictated that no one quite knew what to make of Mourinho’s Spurs.

They were winning with more regularity than Pochettino’s iteration had before he was canned — Spurs picked up 1.73 points per game after Mourinho took over, versus just 1.17 before he arrived — but they didn’t have anything to show for it. When a club hires Mourinho, it does so with the expectation that he will fill its trophy case with shiny metal objects, just as he had done at Porto, Chelsea (during two separate stints with the club), Internazionale, Real Madrid and, yes, even Manchester United. But early exits in the Champions League and the FA Cup3 meant Spurs would have to wait at least another season for silverware.

Flash forward to the present, and Mourinho’s Tottenham is pacing the league heading into the same busy holiday period it stumbled through a season ago. Spurs are on a nine-game unbeaten streak in the Premier League that includes wins over Manchester United and Manchester City and a hard-fought (if terribly boring) away draw with cross-city rivals Chelsea. Kane has been dropping deeper and functioning more as a playmaker than an out-and-out striker, and he and Son look like the most dangerous duo in England, if not all of Europe. Each ranks in the top 12 in the Premier League in non-penalty expected goals per 90 minutes and the top 30 in shot-creating actions per 90 minutes, and each has scored at least seven goals already, placing them both firmly in the race for the Golden Boot.

Tottenham’s strikers are having huge seasons

Premier League players with at least seven goals scored, with ranks in non-penalty expected goals (npxG) and shot-creating actions (SCA)

Rank per 90 min.
Player Team Goals Asst npxG SCA
Dominic Calvert-Lewin Everton 10 0 3 120
Son Heung-min Tottenham 9 2 12 28
Mohamed Salah Liverpool 8 1 22 5
Jamie Vardy Leicester City 8 2 15 106
Patrick Bamford Leeds Utd 7 1 1 168
Bruno Fernandes Manchester Utd 7 3 47 9
Harry Kane Tottenham 7 9 11 21
Callum Wilson Newcastle Utd 7 2 14 98

Source: FBRef.com

Moussa Sissoko and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, who is one of the best ball winners in England, have formed a potent partnership at the heart of the midfield, providing cover to a back four that at times still feels makeshift. Meanwhile, Tanguy Ndombele has finally been given license to do what he does best: negate the opposition’s press with his elite dribbling ability and progressive passing. Ndombele rarely wastes the ball, but when he does, his tackling ability means he’s as big an asset pressing to win the ball back as he is with the ball at his feet going forward.

Tidiness at the back, a good balance of solidity and creativity in the midfield — critically, a midfield unit that works together — and a pair of virtuosos at the front make for a classic Mourinho-style counter-attacking team (not unlike the Porto team he made his name with after winning the 2004 Champions League crown, though the shape is a bit different now). But is Tottenham for real, or is its early lead an aberration, illustrative of this deeply weird season?

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In terms of expected goals (xG), according to StatsBomb’s model on FBref.com, Tottenham looks pretty good, if not exactly like the best team in the division. Through Matchweek 10, Spurs are tied for fourth with Chelsea and Leicester City in expected goals scored (15.8) and rank fourth in expected goals allowed (11.1) and third in expected goal differential (+4.7). But Tottenham is also outperforming both its expected goals and expected goals allowed: It has scored 21 goals and allowed just nine. Because xG is the best predictor of future performance, Tottenham’s occupation of the top spot may not be long-lasting.

Tottenham might be overachieving so far this season

Premier League teams by difference between expected goals (xG) and goals scored, plus differential in goals and xG for and against

Goals Expected goals
Squad For against Diff. For Against Diff. G vs. xG
Southampton 19 16 +3 10.6 12.7 -2.1 +8.4
Chelsea 22 10 +12 15.8 9.8 +6.0 +6.2
Tottenham 21 9 +12 15.8 11.1 +4.7 +5.2
Aston Villa 20 13 +7 15.9 11.5 +4.4 +4.1
West Ham 17 11 +6 13.2 12.8 +0.4 +3.8
Everton 19 17 +2 15.3 14.1 +1.2 +3.7
Leicester City 19 14 +5 15.8 13.6 +2.2 +3.2
Manchester Utd 16 16 0 13.3 11.2 +2.1 +2.7
Crystal Palace 12 15 -3 10.2 14.2 -4.0 +1.8
Manchester City 15 11 +4 14.1 9.6 +4.5 +0.9
Newcastle Utd 12 15 -3 11.1 13.9 -2.8 +0.9
Wolves 11 11 0 10.3 11.9 -1.6 +0.7
Brighton 14 16 -2 13.5 9.9 +3.6 +0.5
West Brom 7 18 -11 6.7 19.1 -12.4 +0.3
Liverpool 22 17 +5 22.7 14.9 +7.8 -0.7
Arsenal 10 12 -2 11.3 13.9 -2.6 -1.3
Fulham 11 19 -8 12.4 14.7 -2.3 -1.4
Leeds United 15 17 -2 17.8 16.8 +1.0 -2.8
Burnley 4 17 -13 7.4 12.6 -5.2 -3.4
Sheffield Utd 4 16 -12 10.7 16.0 -5.3 -6.7

Source: FBRef.com

Some other underlying stats aren’t much kinder to Spurs, especially in their ability to move the ball forward, create chances and score goals. They rank eighth in shot-creating actions, 14th in touches in the attacking penalty area, 12th in touches in the attacking third, eighth in progressive passes completed and ninth in shots attempted.4 That said, they still rank first in goal-creating actions per 90 minutes, which helps to explain why they are where they are on the table at the moment.

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Tottenham has been clinical to this point, but it has also outperformed expectations, if only slightly. As a result, FiveThirtyEight’s club soccer prediction model thinks that Spurs are a good team, but certainly not the best team in England. As it stands, it gives Tottenham just a 8 percent chance of winning the Premier League. (It still really loves Man City’s chances, despite its unimpressive start to the season.) It’s a puncher’s chance, and that might be all Mourinho needs this time around.

Check out our latest soccer predictions.

Footnotes

  1. United won just seven of its first 17 matches.

  2. It might not have been pretty or the way United fans wanted their team to play, but Mourinho’s United had a relatively well-defined tactical identity, contrary to popular belief.

  3. Spurs were knocked out of the EFL Cup by minnows Colchester United before Mourinho arrived.

  4. All stats per 90 minutes.

Terrence Doyle is a writer based in Boston, where he obsesses over pizza and hockey.

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