Tottenham face a daunting run of fixtures over the next month, playing league matches against Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool, during a period in which Jose Mourinho’s tactical prowess will once again face real scrutiny.
Since his appointment as Spurs manager, Mourinho’s team have taken 10 points from a possible 24 points against other members of the Big Six and (until this season’s match against Manchester United) employed a relatively cautious approach during those games.
Whilst it’s not quite accurate to say that Mourinho, in his own words, ‘parked the bus’ in pivotal fixtures over the course of last season, his favoured setup was generally characterised by the presence of a low block (with the team sitting deep and ceding possession) for 60-70 minutes.
In the final 20-30 minutes, this caution gave way to a more aggressive press, with players seemingly given licence to push higher up the pitch and focus on retaining the ball.
During Tottenham’s 6-1 win at Old Trafford earlier this season, Mourinho seemed to pivot away from this ‘rest then press’ approach, but Anthony Martial’s early dismissal made it difficult to definitively conclude that Spurs will pursue a more progressive style in headline matches this season.
So, with the time for talking almost over, is it fair to say that the ‘rest then press’ plan is overly cautious, given the talent at Mourinho’s disposal? And will the Spurs boss stick with this setup or turn to the tactics he seemed to be moving towards in the victory against United, placing his trust in the attacking instincts of Sergio Reguilon, Tanguy Ndombele, Heung-min Son and Harry Kane?
‘Rest then press’: pragmatism or self-defeating caution?
A section of the Spurs fanbase was critical of Mourinho’s setup in last season’s matches against other members of the Big Six, but the Tottenham manager’s supporters would argue that a ‘rest then press’ approach was both justifiable (at least in the games in which Kane didn’t feature) and a sound base for the ruthless counter-attacking the team have been praised for in the early part of this campaign.
The image below, taken from February’s home game against Liverpool, provides a perfect illustration of the strong foundation Mourinho’s proponents would point to, with Tottenham’s ten outfield players behind the ball (or ‘camped in their own half’, if you’re less taken with the setup).
Trent Alexander-Arnold plays a square pass to Jordan Henderson, who attracts the attention of Dele Alli, playing in a relatively fluid front three alongside Lucas Moura and Son (this was one of the games Kane missed due to injury).
Henderson’s first touch is poor, allowing Alli, who is pressing with intent (even from within his own half), to tackle the Liverpool captain and win possession.
Alli plays a pass to Moura, who dribbles towards goal and tees up Christian Eriksen for a (rather tame) shot.
This passage of play bears all the hallmarks of a trademark transition from a low block. It’s also exactly the kind of situation Mourinho hoped to profit from in games against strong opponents, whilst retaining the defensive shape shown in the first of the four above images.
Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that if Ndombele (rather than Alli) and Kane (rather than Eriksen) feature in a similar move in the team’s upcoming fixtures, the result might be very different. It’s a hypothetical situation that becomes even more relevant in the ‘press’ part of Mourinho’s ‘rest then press’ plan.
Generally employed for the last 20-30 minutes of last season’s high profile matches, the ‘press’ provided evidence that Mourinho is willing to take the handbrake off his Spurs side, if only for a period of time.
In the below example, a front four of Son, Alli, Moura and Giovani Lo Celso are stationed within the Liverpool half, whilst Japhet Tanganga (now playing left back) can be seen in top left hand corner of the screen, showing how advanced the defensive line is in comparison to earlier in the game.
Lo Celso, who could feature prominently (even if only from the bench) over the next month, pounces on a conservative touch from Gini Wijnaldum, applying pressure that also encourages Alli to start moving forward.
The Argentine tracks Wijnaldum relentlessly across the pitch, before sliding in to pinch the ball in a very dangerous position, at least 20 yards further forward from the area in which Alli won possession from Henderson during the ‘rest’ phase of Spurs’ performance.
The ball breaks to Moura, who immediately advances towards goal, with Alli and Son making intelligent runs on either side of Liverpool’s centre backs.
Moura plays a pass to Son, which (even though slightly under hit), provides the South Korean with an opportunity he should score from.
Again, this is a Mourinho tactical instruction carried out to the letter by his players, and one which really should have seen his side draw level against last season’s champions.
This is where the dividing line between fans and critics of the ‘rest then press’ approach becomes even starker, with the obvious question: why can’t the team play like that from the start of matches?
Mourinho has previously pointed to fitness and there is some evidence (in the form of last season’s 7-2 loss against Bayern Munich, for example, in which Spurs pressed brilliantly for 30 minutes and took the lead, before they ran out of steam and were brutally exposed) to back this up.
The point is potentially even more pronounced given the fatigue all teams will inevitably suffer from during this season: is a pressing approach really sustainable, particularly given the lack of training time coaches will have to execute finely tuned high press strategies?
On the flip side, of course, is both Tottenham’s display against Manchester United in October (of which more later) and the weaknesses of the ‘low block’ approach, which was evident in last season’s aforementioned match against Liverpool.
Played without the discipline shown by previous Mourinho teams, Tottenham’s low block in the passage of play below is exactly the kind of passive, ineffectual resistance which rightly draws criticism from fans.
Initially, Spurs seem solidly setup, with little space between the midfield and defensive lines, both of which are well-stocked in terms of numbers. Henderson has little option but to pass to Andy Robertson, positioned to the left of Serge Aurier.
It’s at this stage that Spurs’ shape falls to pieces in worryingly simple fashion. Both Eriksen and Harry Winks, the team’s ostensible central midfield pairing in the game, are drawn towards the ball, leaving a space for Mo Salah to drift into. Robertson has the fairly simple task of finding Salah with a square ball.
The Egyptian’s first time pass to Roberto Firmino is delightful (and the standard of Liverpool’s overall attacking play in this move should not be underestimated), but the lay off exposes Winks’ ball watching and Eriksen’s lack of defensive nous (the Dane is barely in shot by the end of the sequence).
Firmino crosses to Wijnaldum, who sends a difficult volley wide, but the opportunity was one of a number which Liverpool were able to create fairly easily against what appeared to be a ‘packed’ Spurs defence.
Pressing United: a change in tactics?
If the ease with which Liverpool (and other top teams) punctured Tottenham’s low block last season was a worry for some supporters, October’s match against United offered hope.
Even before Martial’s dismissal, Spurs pressed higher and were less prone to the kind of passive resistance displayed in February’s match against Liverpool, although their defensive work in the build-up to United’s opening goal wasn’t too far removed from the sequence of play analysed above.
After United were reduced to ten men, the departure from the ‘rest then press’ style was even more pronounced, with the apparent change in style leading directly to Tottenham’s fourth goal.
In the image below, Ndombele is tasked with applying intense pressure to Eric Bailly, who is just about to receive a pass from David de Gea. Ndombele’s starting position, perched on the edge of the penalty area, is notable: last season, it was rare to see a Spurs midfielder pressing from such an advanced area of the pitch.
The Frenchman intelligently blocks off Bailly’s passing lane to Paul Pogba, forcing the defender to play a risky pass to Nemanja Matic, who is attracting the attention of both Kane and (presumably based on Ndombele’s ‘trigger’ movement) Moussa Sissoko.
Matic is tackled by Kane, with Sissoko in close attendance, leaving United’s defence exposed.
Sissoko plays a pass to Ndombele, whose adroit touch eventually leads to Son crossing for Kane to put the ball past De Gea.
The future: ‘rest then press’ or onwards from Old Trafford?
So, how will Mourinho prepare for the matches against City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool? Will he stick with the more progressive approach he employed against United or will he revert to ‘rest then press’?
Spurs’ strength certainly seems to lie in playing counter attacking football, at least until Mourinho decides Lo Celso and Ndombele (a double act that really would provide Tottenham with the ammunition to control possession and unlock packed defences) can be selected alongside each other.
Not only have Kane and Son proved ruthless in dispatching opponents who play with high lines, but Spurs’ low block has been strengthened by the additions of Matt Doherty (who, despite a slow start to his Spurs career, is simply less prone to the lapses in concentration that afflict Serge Aurier) and, in particular, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg.
Aside from the Dane’s impressive passing and tackling statistics, his positional nous provides the team with the shield it’s been lacking since Victor Wanyama’s unfortunate, injury-led decline. It’s hard to imagine Højbjerg being lured out of position in the way Winks was in the aforementioned example against Liverpool.
Mourinho’s hand could well be forced by injury and illness. Doherty, at the time of writing, is isolating after testing positive for COVID-19 and the international break has also seen Son, a vital part of ensuring Spurs’ ‘rest then press’ approach proves effective, quarantined in Austria.
That said, it would be a surprise to see Mourinho adopt the blueprint he devised for the visit to Old Trafford, if we consider that a marked departure from last season’s setup in Tottenham’s headline fixtures.
The more conservative tactics which have emerged post-West Ham, involving a centre back pairing which (aided by Hugo Lloris’ reluctance to sweep) is inclined to drop deep, together with Mourinho’s caution in turning to a Højbjerg-Lo Celso-Ndombele axis in midfield, suggest that ‘rest then press’ – perhaps dialled down slightly from last season’s display against Liverpool – might once again be Spurs’ default setup over the next month.
If it is, Spurs supporters will be hoping that the likes of Højbjerg, Sergio Reguilon and a reintegrated Ndombele continue their good start to the season and enable the low block to become a counter attacking weapon. Fail to do so and the question marks which surrounded Mourinho at the start of the season could quickly return.
Statistics and images in this article have been sourced via Wyscout