What do Tottenham need to show this evening, and then through the remainder of the season?
Ideas. Some sense that between manager Jose Mourinho and this group of players, there exists a shared belief in a way forward. That sense doesn’t even need to manifest itself in goals or results. Both would be nice, but neither are actually essential. What matters for now are the fragments of their football and whether it can appear logical from the outside.
Because it didn’t before. Injuries definitely created a context before the lockdown and it’s not really fair to judge Mourinho on much that happened in February and March. Nevertheless, it would be disingenuous to pretend that Spurs weren’t a muddle before then or that, even with Kane, Son and Sissoko available, their aims up until now have been less than clear.
So, that’s it: this is about communicating aims. It’s about showing the little ideas which have been developed in lockdown.
Mauricio Pochettino’s team had plenty of automatisms within their game – their switches of play, for instance, which would pivot around a deep-dropping Kane. Or the way in which the full-backs would splay out to the touchline to facilitate the defensive exits, and how a holding midfielder would sit between the centre-halves.
Those traits weren’t unique to Spurs, but they were characteristic of a Pochettino team. Now, there’s no such identity – there are no tells or familiarities, nothing other than a reactive, random pragmatism, aimed at nothing grander than damage control. And that’s what needs to change; Tottenham need to show some foundations.
Mourinho is a funny character. No matter where he’s been in his career and what circumstances he’s been operating under, he has always inspired faith. Even at Manchester United, towards the end of his tenure when every room in the building was ablaze, there were still those willing to defend him. Even when he was stalking the corridors, wreaking of petrol, with a jerry can in hand.
It’s always been like that. It hasn’t already relied on such wilful denial as it did in that instance, but it’s been a theme. What it also suggests is that it would not take much for that same loyalty to flare up around him at Spurs. And he would want that. Mourinho encourages that dark, cultish faith and he’s always been able to monetise it into sporting currency. Furthermore, there are many who sit in the stands at White Hart Lane who just want an excuse to believe in this project and a chance to feel something other than apathy towards this Spurs.
Perhaps apathy isn’t quite the right word. Most presumably still care very deeply about what they’re watching, but even prior to the pandemic there was a sense that it might just be better to tune this team out for a while – to put it on mute.
Leipzig confirmed that. Not the tie as a whole, but the experience of being out there and watching that team stumble around in pursuit of a very good, but certainly not outstanding opponent. It was so hapless. Yes Kane, yes Son, yes Sissoko, but it was the kind of shapeless, witless performance which suggested there that this side had absolutely no future.
It was so bad, in fact, that even the better elements within it felt beside the point. As at Burnley, watching Giovani Lo Celso’s touches and his technique and his slaloming runs was enjoyable, but in a very disconnected way. So what if he was obviously an excellent player and could beat four defenders every time he touched the ball? Whatever good he was able to do would just disappear down one of the many structural chasms around him. The circumstances which would allow those contributions to matter didn’t seem likely to exist any time soon.
And that captures what has to be defeated – that pervasive sense of futility.
Strange as it is, the season will return will all the usual imperatives, whether they feel important or not. There is still Champions League qualification to fight for. The binary, bitter relationship with Arsenal also promises some solace, with the prospect of north London supremacy offering a slither of comfort.
The real list of objectives is much simpler, though. These remaining nine games are a live opportunity to problem solve. They’ll form a marketing pitch of sorts, comprising a manifesto on this team’s future.
In a previous article, the case was made that such a situation could be of great use to Mourinho himself – that the limits on Tottenham’s present would allow him to focus on the kind of finer detail with which he’s no longer associated. That’s possibly true, but of more pressing relevance is the atmosphere around his work; will there be enough substance shown over these next six weeks to convince people that this is something other than a marriage of convenience?
Because that’s the perception, isn’t it? That Mourinho and Tottenham have been forced together by circumstance and they’ll remain in this awkward embrace until they each find something better to do. He didn’t have the reputational capital to be a credible option for Real Madrid; they weren’t in a position to appoint Julian Nagelsmann.
But this is the moment to challenge those assumptions. It doesn’t really matter whether the team plays well, whether it scores goals or even if it wins games. What’s important is the suggestion that those privileges are in its future and that Mourinho has some strategy in place to deliver them. That’s where the enthusiasm will come from and, in its absence, nothing seems of greater value to Tottenham.
Seb Stafford-Bloor – follow him on Twitter