In 2018, Didier Deschamps arguably had the most terrifying depth on the left wing that any manager has ever boasted going into a World Cup.
His France side could boast the crochets of the two-footed Ousmane Dembélé, the creativity of Thomas Lemar and the frightening pace of Kingsley Coman, while the main man Antoine Griezmann was no stranger to playing on the left.
Faced with this embarrassment of riches, who did Deschamps end up starting there for the vast majority of the tournament? None other than unfashionable holding midfielder Blaise Matuidi.
It looked like a classic bit of unnecessary conservatism, a needless note of caution which would stop France from playing at their best. France had the forwards to blow anyone out of the water, why bother with a water-carrier in Deschamps’ own mould on the wing?
The answer was pretty simple: Kylian Mbappé. Matuidi’s defensive responsibility and tactical intelligence meant that the wonderkid could attack on the right with joyful abandon, knowing full well that the Juventus midfielder would remain tucked in on the other flank, and in choosing balance over the best possible eleven players, France found a way to win and to maximise their attacking potential.
The secrets behind France’s route towards the greatest prize in world sport may seem a long, long way away from Tottenham Hotspurs’ increasingly vain attempts to finish above Sheffield United in this season’s Premier League, but there’s a lesson there about the difference between starting lineup the fans want to see, and the starting lineup that the manager eventually goes with.
If you’re not in the habit of regularly watching Spurs games, you will understandably be curious as to why fans of the Lilywhites find Lucas Moura such a frustrating figure.
How can the man responsible for one of the greatest moments in Spurs’ European history, that impossible hat-trick against Ajax, be regarded as little more than a rotation player by so many? And didn’t he score that last-gasp equaliser at Camp Nou to take Spurs through to the knockout stages in the first place?
Watch a Spurs game for more than five minutes, and you’ll very quickly understand why – the guy just cannot keep the ball, and on the rare occasions when he does, what he does next is often worse.
In the same way every fanbase thinks their club uniquely bad at corners, supporters have a tendency to believe that their own winger is uniquely bad at holding onto the ball, but the raw data shows that Moura’s problem truly is unique – though 88 more players have carried the ball further in the Premier League this season, Moura ranks 16th in the league for the amount of times he is dispossesed, a disappointing ratio which stands out amongst his peers.
Teams can also allow Moura to drift out wide knowing that he poses very little threat from the byline for an attacking midfielder – of the 17 crosses that he has attempted, just two have been completed this season, suggesting that despite his obvious speed and trickery he is not particularly useful away from central areas.
Yet there is one statistical category in which Moura stands head and shoulders above his Spurs teammates, and luckily it is one that makes him a near-priceless commodity in the era of Mourinho ball.
The Brazilian is 24th in tackles made in the attacking third, a statistic that seems middling until you consider that the nearest N17-based contender is Dele Alli in 70th place.
Sustained pressure in the opponents’ half is something that usually comes from a coherent, aggressive managerial strategy (hence the presence of four Liverpool players in the top 20 for the same statistic).
Given the fact that Moura was around for both the lethargic decline of Pochettino’s press and the uneasy transition to a wholly different style under José Mourinho, it is something of a miracle that he is keeping pace with the Roberto Firminos and Kevin De Bruynes in terms of winning the ball back in dangerous positions.
It is this quality which has endeared him so much to Mourinho, and which earned him some begrudging kudos from Spurs fans, many of whom were looking to see Steven Bergwijn in the starting lineup in Spurs’ recent north London Derby victory over Arsenal.
Bergwijn looks to be by far the more complete player since arriving from PSV Eindhoven, far more adept at progressing the ball efficiently and finding himself in good positions in the box. But in this case Mourinho knew that, as with Deschamps, Matuidi and Dembele, his best player was not necessarily his most useful one.
In his press conference after the north London Derby, the defeated Mikel Arteta’s tone was one of annoyance, of frustration that his Arsenal side weren’t allowed to build on their fluency throughout the match – he spoke with regret about how Arsenal ‘were gaining more momentum and getting closer to winning the game, [and then] we conceded the goal [Toby Alderweireld’s winner]’.
Moura, who made an astounding ten tackles in the game (for context, that’s almost a third of his colleague Son Heung-min’s total for the entire season), personified that disruptive force, winning fouls, harrying and winning the ball off Arsenal players when they tried to establish a settled routine in possession, and even finding Harry Kane with some nice passes to boot.
It’s rare for an attacking midfielder to possess Moura’s energy and work rate without having it hammered into them by repetitive training, and in his unique profile Mourinho has the perfect answer to a team that likes having a lot of the ball – a winger who is effective both in and out of possession.
The question is, is this sustainable? Most likely not, for one rather pointed reason.
Tottenham will not be playing Arsenal, who had 76% of the ball in the second half of the Derby, every week. Sometimes, they will have to play teams like Bournemouth, who were happy to let Spurs have 65% of the ball. As anyone who watched all 114 miserable minutes of Spurs’ game at the Vitality Stadium will know, in the latter scenario Spurs, and Moura, are in trouble.
With Moura unable to disrupt smaller teams, who are happy to play it long at the first sign of trouble, in possession, his creativity becomes his most valuable asset.
And yet it’s clear that, though Moura was certainly unlocking Kane in the final third against Arsenal, this isn’t a long-term solution – his two key passes in that game vastly outstripped his regular average of 1.24 per game, suggesting at best that he can only really muster creativity against more expansive sides, and at worst that he won’t be able to keep up this kind of incisive passing for the remainder of the season.
Unless Mourinho takes risks with his team selection against Spurs’ humbler opponents, he is placing an enormous burden on Moura to create chances at a level that he is simply not capable of.
It’s early on in Bergwijn’s Spurs career, but his comparatively superior 1.74 key passes per game suggest that he needs to be permanently integrated into the first team sooner rather than later if Spurs are to rediscover a goalscoring touch, and with Moussa Sissoko looking like he could balance out the Dutchman’s enthusiastic forays forward with a more reserved role in right midfield, it seems obvious that Moura should make way.
Whether Mourinho will ever be truly comfortable attacking without inhibition by replacing Moura is another question. For now, it feels as if Spurs supporters have to get used to the endless, whirring carrousel ride of watching the Brazilian losing the ball, winning it back, losing it again, and winning it back again – forever and ever and ever.