Mourinho could *still* have the last laugh in this stupid season

Dave Tickner
Tottenham manager Jose Mourinho

Up to sixth in the table after a fourth win in the last five Premier League games. Three points off the top four and two points clear of the defending champions with nine games to go. Star player top of the goal charts and also top of the assist charts.

They also have a pretty decent-looking run-in, a cup final to look forward to and the concerns about mad fixture pile-up in the closing weeks of the season have this week melted away. Yes, everything is pretty rosy right now at normal, sensible football club Tottenham Hotspur.

This was, inevitably, a strange game of football. For most teams, a 2-0 win might suggest words like “routine” or “comfortable” or even “impressive”. This is Spurs, though, for whom 2-0 is a scoreline that catches the eye. How have they pulled that off, then? Two nil? Must have been a really weird game.

There’s no doubt that the identity of today’s opponents helped out. For all that Aston Villa did smart work in the summer, there is still no getting away from the fact that taking Jack Grealish out of this Villa team affects them more deeply, more fundamentally, than removing any other single player from any other club in the division.

The first 30 minutes of this game were a perfect illustration of this. A Tottenham defence completely rejigged via a combination of Jose Mourinho point-making and the sickness that ruled out Serge Aurier and Toby Alderweireld was, for once understandably, a disorganised shambles of a thing. It wasn’t that any of its four individual members was particularly bad, it was just that they were clearly four individual members. It never really resembled a back four in any meaningful sense. That Japhet Tanganga and Joe Rodon, by far its two least experienced members, emerged with most credit was interesting and probably good news for Spurs in the long term. Rodon in particular definitely looks to have that vaguely indescribable ‘it’.

But the fact Villa failed to muster a single shot on goal – not a shot on target, a shot of any kind at all – until the 58th minute against such a defence feels like it might just be something unprecedentedly bad for a team at home against an opponent only just above them in the table. This should have been a meeting of equals, yet even in Spurs’ current funk and with a back four apparently introduced to each other for the first time 17 minutes before kick-off, the gulf between the teams was vast.

By the time Villa did have that shot, they were already behind having been given a lesson in how to grab an opportunity. Carlos Vinicius, handed a rare start in a move that shunted Harry Kane officially back into the number 10 role he spends half his time in anyway, chased a seemingly lost cause and forced a weak clearance out of Emi Martinez. Lucas Moura – Spurs’ man of the match today and in the middle of by far his most consistent run of displays for the club, played a one-two with Kane before squaring for Vinicius to tap home his first Premier League goal and his 10th of the season in all.

Until then, Kane’s more permanent No. 10 role hadn’t quite worked. But gradually, he became more influential and Spurs looked more and more comfortable. Villa’s anaemic threat certainly helped.

Harry Kane scores for Tottenham at Aston Villa

Kane himself got the second having won a penalty with more than a shade of the one Spurs conceded in the NLD a week earlier, his own miskick distracting from the fact the defending was clumsy and foolish. There was never any doubt he’d take advantage of the spot-kick once it was awarded, though, helping himself to his 160th Premier League goal and one that takes him level with Mo Salah on 17 for the season.

With Villa offering so little and the rare comfort of a 2-0 lead rather than Spurs’ more traditional nerve-shredding, error-prompting one-goal advantages, the last 20 minutes saw Spurs playing with something approaching confidence. Even arrogance at points. They really are capable of being quite a good side, at some point in the future. –

And that’s the thing. The times when this performance got a bit dicey were the relatively rare occasions when Villa forced or Spurs decided to retreat to their self-defeating happy place sitting behind the ball. It doesn’t work, it won’t work, it has been consistently proven not to work. It is still unlikely that Spurs can overhaul Chelsea, based on what we’ve seen from both teams in recent weeks, and even holding off the teams below them – Liverpool most obviously – will be a challenge. You still feel that if this Spurs team actually did get close to achieving anything they’d find a way of making a big old mess of it. But they might not. And the exception to all of this is the Carabao final. Manchester City are the one team where Jose’s preferred tactics not only might work but already have this very season. And the other reason Spurs will win that game is because banter dictates it.

Back in November, everyone in football had to start preparing themselves for the possibility that Jose Mourinho and Spurs might actually win the league. That is no longer a concern, but given everything that’s happened it’s just possible that Mourinho winning a trophy and finishing in the top four this season with this team after… everything might just make him even more unbearable than winning the league. And with just a couple of months to go, that remains dangerously possible.