Four years ago, Pep Guardiola vs Jose Mourinho was the ultimate box office. A rivalry through the years as the latter’s late peaks coincided with the former’s rise.
The Premier League awaited for their rivalry to extend to England, Manchester in particular. Yet, despite all the hype, it never reached the heights of their rivalry in Spain.
Mourinho’s Real Madrid embodied Mourinho, they were a visualization of his thoughts extended to the pitch. Something that didn’t materialize at Manchester United. Mourinho’s package is well known and season after season a divorce between him and Manchester United was expected more than ever.
By that time, the rivalry’s aura had faded. Guardiola had found another competitor in Juergen Klopp and his electrical Liverpool side. No longer was Mourinho in the photo booth alongside Guardiola.
The resurgence of Mourinho came at Tottenham after that. An exciting start using a hybrid system plateaued as the season commenced. It wasn’t until Project Restart in June that his side kicked off again. The rest Harry Kane got and the narrow passing combinations Spurs made in attack made them a side to keep note of again.
2020/21’s first game was abysmal. Outplayed by an impressive Everton side, Tottenham fans were fearing the worst. But that all changed as the games have flown by. Kane’s combinations with Heung-min Son racked up the points as the arrival of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg solidified the midfield.
Striking on the counter isn’t unfamiliar with Mourinho, but how his side has impressed in possession as well is a sign that his words regarding learning more about the game during his time-off might be true.
His bread and butter though is neutralizing opponents, sucking the life out of their options while managing to score unexpectedly. The opponent this time were Manchester City and no one else than his long-time rival Pep Guardiola.
“If you try to play the way they do, they are better than you. So, to beat them you have to play….in a different way.” Mourinho’s post match comments to Spurs TV resembled his ideas going into the game.
City’s 4–3–3 on paper was more of a 3–2–5 in possession with Joao Cancelo going inside next to Rodri, probably to guard against counter attacks —that didn’t work out well. Further ahead, the front five meant that City were able to attack the five channels. Riyad Mahrez and Ferran Torres positioned wide by the touchline to stretch Spurs’ defensive line, trying to create space for Bernardo Silva and De Bruyne to attack the channels.
This is where Mourinho gained an edge over City. He used Moussa Sissoko and Hojbjerg to protect the channels. Allowing Serge Aurier and Sergio Reguilon to elastically stretch with City’s wide players while still protecting the channels. Something that Spurs missed dearly in the same fixture last year at the Etihad
On the right side Sissoko dropped to protect the right channel, neutralizing Bernardo Silva’s runs and allowing Aurier and Toby Alderweireld to keep an eye on their markers.
Meanwhile on the other side, Hojbjerg dropped to protect the left channel against De Bruyne’s runs. Nullifying the Belgian’s threatening crosses from that area of the pitch.
The logical observation is that with one or both of Sissoko and Hojbjerg dropping into the channel, a space should vacate in the central area of the pitch. As seen here Cancelo is trying to attack that space with an open passing lane available towards him.
This is where Tanguy Ndombele’s role comes. Dropping deeper in that central space created due to Sissoko and Hojbjerg’s roles. His movement here to track Cancelo’s run forces City in more unproductive circulation rather than vertical progression of the ball.
Another example which shows the midfield’s alertness and execution of the plan is midway through the first half when Ndombele is thinking of moving out to press Ruben Dias. Hojbjerg signals to him to keep his place because he knows that himself and Sissoko have to defend the channels.
Ndombele abides and the probability of City having a player in that free central space becomes zero.
The problems for Spurs — though not utilized by City — arose when Ndombele’s focus dropped or when he switched positions with Steven Bergwijn. The switch provided a better threat for Spurs on the counter, but Bergwijn didn’t protect the center space as well as Ndombele. Gabriel Jesus here is preparing to drop into that space…
…before combining with Mahrez and Cancelo to play Ferran Torres behind Sissoko who wasn’t able to move out due to Ferran Torres’ presence. The attack ended with Jesus’ shot going wide, but this presented a pattern in the second half.
Again the central space is vacant and this time Ndombele is focusing on the ball rather than dropping to the protect the space. Jesus, who was City’s best player on the day, dropped to present a passing option.
But when he did, there were no passing options for him. City lacked the runners to complement Jesus’ movements, forcing the Brazilian to reset the attack which ended with a tame cross.
City should have used this window of opportunity in the beginning of the second half better. There was a slight disfunction from Ndombele and Bergwijn, but City’s lack of solutions was still present. Once Jesus received the ball in the center space…
…there were no options to reach any City player making a run inside the box. Only Spurs players smothering the Brazilian.
Even worse, at times City choose to go wide rather than going for the free central option. Rodri here could have been pounced on by Sissoko or Hojbjerg had he received the ball, but that would have freed De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva in the channels.
Mourinho saw this and introduced Giovani Lo Celso in place of Ndombele. Fixating the Argentine behind Kane which allowed him to drop and defend the central space just like Ndombele in the first half.
Lo Celso scored within seconds of his introduction, but more importantly he tracked the City player trying to move into the central space. That is all while Sissoko and Hojbjerg were protecting the space between Spurs’ center backs and full backs.
Here, Lo Celso’s presence denies a pass into De Bruyne. Meanwhile, Sissoko and Hojbjerg are set in their positions…
…which allows Hojbjerg to win the aerial ball played into the channel towards Phil Foden.
Mourinho’s plan was perfect in terms of stopping City’s threat in the channels while denying space centrally. A slight malfunction was then corrected by the introduction of Lo Celso.
On the City side their best two chances came from set pieces, one after the game was a dead rubber. This performance despite Spurs’ defensive excellence should ring the alarm bells for Guardiola and his players. Their attacking patterns and execution in the final third has been meek this season. Games like this one, the West Ham game and Leicester should worry City.
Spurs currently sit top of the league and for them to keep battling for this position, they could need more variety in possession other than the 4–2–2–2 which they are perfecting with Kane dropping next to Ndombele or Lo Celso.
As for the other side of the game, sucking the life out of teams trying to break them down, Mourinho showed that he still remains el puto jefe.