Tottenham may have been spoken about as a ‘pony’ in the title race by Jose Mourinho, but they are quickly developing into a very good team. The focus has been on the form of Son Heung-min and Harry Kane for good reason. The pair are set for their best individual seasons. However, the defence has been quietly improving in the background. At his peak, Mourinho was known as a coach that organised a defence well and made his teams difficult to beat. Some believed he could no longer do that at the highest level, but he is proving that he can in North London.
To begin with, Mourinho’s Spurs struggled defensively. That carried into this season, with the team failing to keep a clean sheet in their first nine matches across all competitions. Since this, they have managed to keep six in the following nine matches. This includes three successive away Premier League clean sheets. Tottenham haven’t managed this feat since Andre Villas-Boas was at the helm in 2013.
For all of Mauricio Pochettino’s excellent work in North London, his team could be accused of struggling without the ball in big matches. This is no longer the case under Jose Mourinho. In the previous two matches against Manchester City and Chelsea, Tottenham averaged below under 40% possession. Despite this, they managed to have some control of the matches and emerged with four points.
The two clean sheets do suggest that they kept the opposing attacks quiet and they certainly showed a level of concentration that Spurs had lacked in previous seasons. However, it might be too soon to suggest they are the finished article at the back. During the two matches, they had an xG (expected goals) conceded of 2.63. The large majority of this (1.66) came in the Manchester City game and is likely a consequence of defending a two-goal lead. The visitors started to press forward and managed to take 22 shots in the match.
Mourinho will not worry about that too much, as Manchester City have been the best attacking unit in the league for a few years now. They will always create chances, but Tottenham managed to restrict clear-cut ones. Spurs made 25 tackles and 30 clearances against Pep Guardiola’s team. Their two centre-backs, Eric Dier and Toby Alderweireld, both made three blocks, showing a desire to put their body on the line.
Against Chelsea, they conceded only 0.97 xG. Although they didn’t create much themselves, failing to have a single shot in the second half, they left Stamford Bridge with a credible point to return to the top of the table. It was a classic Mourinho team performance. Spurs set up with a deep block, forcing Chelsea wide and defending the resulting crosses into the box. Tammy Abraham had a couple of chances, but he couldn’t take them. If Olivier Giroud had been brought on earlier, the strategy may not have worked.
In addition to their recent run of clean sheets, Tottenham have conceded the fewest goals to date. They have conceded nine in ten matches. Despite Mourinho’s attempts to play down their title credentials, they have to be looked at as a potential winner. They have the best defence at the time of writing and two of the most in-form attackers in Europe. At some point, they will have a fully-fit Gareth Bale to add to the team, which is scary for the rest of the top six.
It remains early in the season, but there has been a clear improvement at the back at Tottenham. Mourinho is back.