One year ago, the football world was gripped by the news that Tottenham Hotspur had sacked cult-hero Mauricio Pochettino, just months after he guided them to a Champions League final.
Before the news even had time to sink in, Jose Mourinho – like the Undertaker rising from the dead – was announced as the new manager.
Many Spurs fans were initially hostile, bruised by the sacking of Pochettino and resenting a man so synonymous with their loathed cross-London rivals Chelsea.
Others welcomed such a prolific winner of trophies and backed Mourinho to be the man to end a trophy drought which stretched, and still stretches, back to February 2008.
It’s important to state that you don’t have to dislike Mourinho, in order to like Pochettino. Or likewise, if you like Mourinho, you don’t have to dig out faults regarding Pochettino.
You can appreciate what one manager did at the club, while enjoying the ride that one manager is taking you on.
But what is incredibly interesting to analyse the difference in how the different managers have set their sides up.
Pochettino arrived in North London in 2014 and immediately set about changing the culture of the club, as well as implementing a vibrant and exciting style of football.
For his first two campaigns Spurs would line-up in a 4–2–3–1 system that he would rarely deviate from, with the overall strategy to press ferociously and play fast build-up possession.
Their pressing was remarkable in the first three seasons of his tenure. Poch did not press in a very traditional way, where every player is required to mark a man up and down the field. Nor does he use the “gegenpressing” system of Jurgen Klopp. Rather, Spurs used a system that relies on pressing triggers.
For example, when an opposing player receives the ball in his own defensive third with his feet facing his own goal, Dele Alli or another midfielder will quickly pounce upon that player, and pressure him to make a risky pass in order to simply get the ball away from him.
This often resulted in Spurs winning possession in their own attacking third, leaving them just 20-30 yards to create a goal, which is far easier than having to build up from the back.
Spurs also used a zonal pressing system, so each player was assigned a zone when the other team has the ball.
It worked with great effect. Especially in the peak of 2016/2017, the team he created was so balanced. The press was well-coordinated, and not many teams could bypass it.
The defence was sound, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen were at their peak – while Danny Rose and Kyle Walker were devasting down the wings on the overlap.
The two midfielders, usually Moussa Dembele and Victor Wanyama, were excellent in their role as the destroyers. They equally gave excellent protection to the defence, while being very proactive in the press.
The front four were excellent at that point. Dele and Son Heung-Min acted as the inside forwards, getting in behind and playing off the lethal Harry Kane.
Christian Eriksen had a free role in possession, acting as a classic playmaker. He unlocked defences on the regular, while also chipping in with his fair share of important goals.
This side was a fantastic outfit. It just fell short of trophies, somehow.
After this peak, the system started to find flaws. The Argentine then attempted to tweak the it, and it did have some success.
Pochettino was then willing to move away from the press and possess style. This was shown when they adapted to the opposition and beat Borussia Dortmund, Liverpool and Real Madrid at Wembley in the 2017/18 season.
In these games Spurs sat back, ceded more possession than usual and played on the counterattack.
This demonstrated that the Argentine was sensing that in order to move Tottenham into the very elite category, they would need to be adaptable. He defiantly wasn’t wrong, but they lost their identity a tad.
Oh yeah, and how do you fix the problem of losing Mousa Dembele?
The Belgian central midfielder gave Spurs almost total control in the Spurs midfield, resistant to the most aggressive of press, as well as hoovering up opposition attacks with ease.
Dembele was almost two players in one. Pochettino’s solution was to cram the midfield with as many of the qualities that Dembele brought with extra players, into a 4–4–2 diamond.
Despite the awful league form and just crawling to fourth place, the adjusted system worked well in Europe – with the incredible Champions League run coming in the 2018/2019 season.
The composition of the diamond varied, Pochettino has tried to balance it with ball-winning (Eric Dier), managing transitions both ways with ball progression (Moussa Sissoko) and tempo (Harry Winks), playmaking (Christian Eriksen) & creating (Dele).
It would have been easy for Pochettino to trust in the systems that had served him so well previously, but he identified that Dembele was a player in relative decline even before he left and had a plan to compensate for his departure with the diamond shape.
Faults were forming around the squad. The Champions League run was paper over the cracks, but still an incredible achievement non the less.
The pressing was disorganised, but individual player brilliance did prevail them from time to time. They just were not the same outfit though.
Their defensive issues worsened. Vertonghen and Alderweireld had aged, while Walker was off winning the Premier League at Manchester City. Rose was a shadow of his former self.
They tried to plug the gaps, but only in midfield, with Giovanni Lo Celso and Tanguy Ndombele coming in. None of them embedded themselves quickly enough to fix the system in the 2019/2020 season, and Pochettino was ultimately relieved of his duties.
Pochettino’s peak Spurs team: Exciting, relentless, positive and fun to watch.
However, whether you want to point the blame at the lack of backing or maybe just pure bad luck, there is no denying that Spurs’ system wasn’t working towards the end of his six-year-tenure.
The big doubters when Mourinho took the helm had many a reason for their discontent – but one of them, for sure, was negative football.
For six years, Spurs fans had witnessed their side take the initiative in games, press like mad and try and play in an aesthetically pleasing way.
Despite outstanding success at the start of his managerial career, Mourinho’s strategic and cautious football drove himself into the ground at Manchester United specifically.
“Park the bus, park the bus, Man Utd”
So, has this narrative also played out at Spurs? Or has he got rid of his old philosophies, and just attempted to tweak the system that Pochettino had already implemented?
Spurs had a small spike in form, and Mourinho did in fact change the system. On paper, it was a 4-2-3-1, but it was very fluid. Serge Aurier, the usual right-back, pushed up into advanced positions.
Ben Davies, the usual left-back, tucked in to make a back-three.
But this was more than simply one going and one staying – it was a deliberate change of system within possession. Spurs’ right-winger – Lucas Moura or Erik Lamela –would tuck inside to become an inside-right, allowing Aurier to hold the width.
On the other flank, Son would remain wide left. Dele floated around to the left of Kane.
Dele really befitted from this, scoring five goals in seven matches. But soon come, Mourinho encountered some of the issues that Pochettino found. And Spurs lost their identity again.
A mid-season injury crisis – including their two best forward players Son and Kane – meant that they stagnated down the middle of the table heading into project restart.
The style of play was painfully unbalanced. Their press was non-existent, but that was clearly a decision made by Mourinho.
As opposed to expanding in their search of the ball, Spurs often turtled up in their own half and moved as a compact unit, hunting for loose balls in their own backyard.
With this more pragmatic approach, they have to be solid and compact in defence. This was their downfall, as this sort of system requires a central defensive midfielder to protect the defence and offer a template for the more creative players to flourish on counter-attack transitions.
They had plenty of central midfielders, but none that could pull off this role.
Mourinho was trying to build a solid defensive system, but this was always going to fail in the main with the lack of defensive protection in midfield.
The back four was fragile and he couldn’t find a settled four.
Going forward, Spurs used to try and find long-ball routines when being pressed to try and find runners in behind. It didn’t have the desired effect as the cohesion between the runner defender or midfielder kicking long was poor.
Often the long-ball would be fairly meaningless and result in possession loss.
When trying to keep the ball, Kane started to drop deep more to help the build-up play. He created overloads in the pockets and tried to search for a clever ball in behind the defence
But without him and Son in the side, the side really lacked attacking creation.
Dele and Lucas took turns at being the focal point, but they both didn’t deliver. When a side contained and forced Spurs out of their shell – they struggled to break down a low-block with the lack of creativity and movement.
Project Restart hit Spurs at the perfect time. They needed Kane and Son back desperately. Spurs, in that moment, had crashed out of the Champions League and top four was becoming a mountain to climb.
Their identity was unknown, they had the look of a team confused from trying to transition from the expressive Pochettino system to the cautious Mourinho one.
They were a team stagnating from bottom to top.
But the enforced break from football did them a world of good. Project Restart saw them look more comfortable in the system, and Son and Kane showed their first signs of linking up on the counterattack.
And all of this brings us into this current campaign, where for all the negative’s surrounding last season have disappeared.
New signings have meant Mourinho can create his ideal team. Tottenham are now increasingly a 4-3-3 operation.
As mentioned previously, the position that he was in the most desperate need of an upgrade was in central midfield, and he did exactly that in signing Bayern youth product Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg.
The Danish international has acted as the regista, switching play from side to side and doing all the hard defensive work in behind Tottenham’s attack.
This signing, along with the resurgence of Ndombele, has inspired the Portuguese manager to change shape.
Spurs have a much steadier defensive base and sounding board for Sissoko to drive forward, as he has both Ndombele and Hojbjerg to cover in behind.
Vice versa, the French midfielder can also drive forward, which he has shown he can be more than capable of doing.
This revitalisation of Ndomeble is something Mourinho deserves some degree of credit for, as the player’s motivation was often called into question in 2019-20.
The midfield is now very well balanced.
The defence is now also a lot more reliable, with new full-back signings in Matt Doherty and Sergio Reguilon boosting their options. Alderweireld and Dier are both having good seasons likewise.
Son and Kane have been exceptional, and their rotational play provides Spurs with great patterns in the final third. Kane now drops into pockets all across the pitch, and his passing range is constantly unlocking defences.
The English captain got four assists in one game, and all of them were in this style to Son.
This system, despite only being eight games, is bringing great success to Mourinho. It is really balanced, and all the players seem to know their duties. They half-press on occasion, but mainly sit and contain in an attempt to hit teams on a quick counterattack transition.
Although, they do struggle when teams allow them the ball and they have to take initiative by breaking down a low-block.
They often get into quite lazy patterns. But, in their last three games in the Premier League, they have faced this problem but overcame it with a single goal.
With sound defensive principles, the positional rotation and connection of Kane and Son, and Hojbjerg’s ball possession allowing for switches of play, Tottenham have created an interesting set-up to achieve much success in 2020-21.
Whether or not they can go the distance and win some silverware remains to be seen, but Mourinho’s Tottenham are certainly an improvement from where the club were this time last season.