It’s the 11th edition of the series, and it’s a special one. After Thursday’s turgid, woeful draw in Bournemouth, it’s finally time to pull the trigger, and ask the question on everyone’s lips.
José Mourinho: what’s going on, buddy?
When he returned to English football in November, back when ‘Corona’ was nothing more than a slightly-too-sweet Mexican beer and Steven Gerrard was still a Rangers hero, we were promised something different.
He had spent his year-long break from the game, we were told, devising a new footballing philosophy. Gone were the days of parking the bus, in was a new brand of Mourinho management, where the best elements of his motivational skills and tactical nous met a positive approach to football that would take Spurs to the next level.
That lasted about a week.
Starting with a 3-2 win over Bournemouth that hinted at a rejuvenated Mourinho and a revitalised Spurs, the north Londoners scored nine goals in their first three league matches under the Portuguese. In the 18 since, they’ve scored just 22; only eight teams in the league have managed fewer, and three of them are in the relegation zone.
That win over the Cherries in his first game in charge was the ultimate false dawn. Since then, they’ve dropped four league places, fading a season where merely qualifying for the Champions League was seen as a minor disappointment into one where making Europe at all would be a bonus.
At the heart of it all has been that tactical negativity that we were assured had dissipated.
In the return fixture with Bournemouth, Spurs failed to muster a single shot on target against a team who had previously ceded 173, at an average of five per game. Their heat map at the Vitality Stadium showed that only Giovanni Lo Celso spent more time outside of his own half than in it, and most of Harry Kane’s touches came inside his own box.
It was god-awful, the absolute worst of Mourinho-ball minus the caveat of effectiveness which has justified it in the past. There appeared to be no clear tactical plan, except to ‘keep it tight’ and frustrate their relegation-struggling hosts – the same strategy that has seen them score more than once in a game just twice in their last 12 matches.
We’ve only really seen that defensive approach work once in Mourinho’s 29 matches. A smash and grab victory over ten-man Manchester City in February gave off heirs of ‘vintage Mourinho’, but the familiar outlook he has turned to out of instinct – and what he may feel is necessity – has far more often blown up in their face.
The simple reason for this is that their defence is not of a high enough standard to sit off for 90 minutes and get away with it. Where Mourinho has previously been blessed with strong, resolute defensive units, he’s now working with Serge Aurier at right-back and a central partnership of Eric Dier and Davinson Sanchez.
Far removed from masterclassing wins over Barcelona in the Champions League, the current Spurs’ back line collapsed under the weight of Sheffield United a week ago.
Why Mourinho is so intent on building from the back when he boasts one of the best attacking rosters in Europe goes beyond explanation. Harry Kane has been reduced to dropping invariably into midfield, where his attributes as one of the world’s best number 9s are wasted entirely.
Steven Bergwijn, Heung-min Son, Lucas Moura and Dele Alli have been asked to take up starting positions in the depths of Mariana’s Trench, to such an extent that even their electric pace on the counter has been ineffective. Their midfield, meanwhile – whether it’s Lo Celso, Moussa Sissoko, Tanguy Ndombele or Harry Winks – has been unable to find its’ balance and rhythm within a system so foggily defined.
Two wins in their last 11 games mean we haven’t seen Mourinho’s Spurs at their best very often. On the rare occasion we’ve seen hints of it – 5-0 against Burnley right off the bat and 3-2 against Aston Villa in February – it’s been when they’ve thrown caution to the wind.
The idea of ‘going for it’ in order to utilise the depth of attacking talent at his disposal might be enough to give Mourinho a waking nightmare. It might also be a largely flawed, rudimentary ideology, resulting in their already shaky defensive record – third-worst in the top half – plunging further.
In order to get back to the promise we saw in his early days in North London, however, it may be the only option left.
Otherwise, that Amazon documentary, when it comes out this summer, may well have that little bit more colour.
For more from Robbie Copeland, follow him on Twitter!