In what is being billed as Jose Mourinho vs. Andre Villas-Boas in the two men’s first meeting in opposite dugouts, there is a game to be played on the pitch, as Chelsea travel to White Hart Lane to face Tottenham in a clash that is as important on the pitch as the press conferences and theatre off it. It’s too early to make much of the table and your league position, but Spurs currently sit joint top of the table with Arsenal and Chelsea sit in fourth. Again, that doesn’t mean that much early in the season, though the winds of change are blowing once more in North London.
While it used to be Arsenal that was the greater threat, Tottenham have signalled their intentions over the past two seasons to overtake them for bragging rights to the north. The development of Gareth Bale into an £85m player and the sale of Luka Modric for £30m has filled Spurs coffers with £115m of Real Madrid’s money over the last two seasons, and it’s hard to argue that they’ve spent it poorly. The additions of the Belgians Moussa Dembele and Jan Vertonghen were excellent business last season, and another young Belgian joins them this year, Nacer Chadli. This year’s recruits look to be good business, with Erik Lamela, Roberto Soldado, and Paulinho all joining. Where Tottenham’s problems to challenging have been strength in depth, the talent suggests that that has been fixed but there are questions.
The loss of Bale is a problem, though the number of talented players brought in can offset that. However, Tottenham have yet to play as a truly cohesive unit, which is understandable given the number of new players brought in this season. Villas-Boas will need to quickly knit the side together over the next month or risk losing out on a chance to compete for fourth place or higher.
It’s a big match Saturday at lunchtime for both teams, and unlike the United match, I don’t expect either manager to be content with a draw, especially now that the shape of the league is playing out.
Though they coached together for many seasons, Mourinho and Villas-Boas’ playing styles couldn’t be more different.
Even though Villas-Boas is the apprentice to Mourinho’s master, Villas-Boas style of football is much different and has proven to be at Porto, Chelsea, and now at Tottenham. Villas-Boas’ approach is generally all about ball retention and “provoking” the opponent with the ball. Stylistically at Tottenham, you can see that in the amount of times the ball circulates around the midfield and back to the defense. That’s shown by any passing graphic you find, where the bulk of the passes are played in the middle third of the pitch or the deeper part of the attacking third.
However, teams that sit deep and are well organized against him can sometimes blunt his attack. Why? Because the build-up play tends to be slow and ponderous. The style is predicated a lot on waiting patiently for the moment for the opposition to leave an opening to take advantage of and then using a creative outlet to play the final ball.
Conversely, Mourinho’s always been more about the transitions of the game and dominating that phase over dominating the “set” periods of the match. I think it’s why he gets labelled as being a counterattacking manager. His teams tend to try to exploit the gaps during the transitional phases, but sometimes also to just get the ball out of danger and into the attack so that the opponents have to scramble to get back, leaving openings in their shape.
Mourinho’s time in Spain has also taught him the value in winning the ball back quickly. After challenging Barcelona for many a season, in his return to Chelsea with a similar type of player, not only is Mourinho looking for his side to play decisively in the transition from defence to attack, but he’s also looking to get his side to win the ball back quickly in transition from attack to defence. I believe that it’s because this Chelsea side no longer has the dominating power in midfield of 2004-2007, so he must rely on the smaller players to press the ball quickly with numbers.
Tottenham have two real dangermen. The first is Roberto Soldado.
Tottenham’s main problem last year was that they struggled to really find goals from their strikers. Emmanuel Adebayor proved to be less than ideal, while Jermain Defoe is capable of goals, but not necessarily great in terms of all-around play for a lone striker. Enter Roberto Soldado from Valencia, whose task is to provide the type of centre forward play that was lacking last year, especially with the magical Bale off in Spain.
Soldado is an interesting striker in that he will bag you goals, he will play well in the grand scheme of the attack, but he’s not really the best header, and he’s not really the best passer if you use him as the focal point or in the build-up. He’s good enough, but I wouldn’t call his skills in linking midfield to attack to be exceptional.
I think that was seen in the Confederations Cup when, though he was given the start in the first match, he was quickly replaced by Fernando Torres and David Villa for later matches and eventually the final. His best attribute was his ability to get into goal-scoring positions, something that neither Torres nor Villa were really showing form in doing, but his weakness was that his chances had to be made for him, and he really didn’t create any for others outside moving outside the area.
The big thing this season is that you’re seeing times when this has become a problem during the gelling period of Spurs. It’s too easy at times to cut his supply off because he doesn’t really make himself the space by linking play and his teammates haven’t quite figured out how to get him the ball in spots. If you can cut him off, you can actually blunt their attack nicely.
The second dangerman is Paulinho.
The less said about this man, the better. We all saw what he did against us in the Club World Cup for Corinthians last year, and he repeated the trick for Brazil at the Confederations Cup. He’s a true box to box midfielder with the ability to win the ball, pass it intelligently, and get forward. In that match in Japan, he simply dictated the entire play of the match against our midfield and pretty much stifled whatever we tried to do. While I don’t have much to say beyond that about Paulinho individually, his main deficiency links with one of the team in the next point.
Spurs need to take the risk and play with creativity.
Though Paulinho might be the dangerman in that midfield in terms of influence on the game from deep, the biggest question will be, what midfield will Villas-Boas choose? Against Arsenal, he went for strength and power with Paulinho, Dembele, and Sandro, but that side lacked creativity to break down Arsenal, and when they went behind, they weren’t able to work out how to come back.
Since that match, Christian Eriksen has been added to the squad and Erik Lamela has had time to adapt to the squad. Lamela will play out wide, perhaps giving them the wide player of the Bale type, but the most important person is Eriksen. Spurs haven’t had a real creative type midfielder since the departure of Luka Modric. Eriksen is that type of player, though perhaps a bit more physically stout and able to play in the number 10 role.
That’s important to Spurs because against a Mourinho side that I expect to favor solidity over flair, the ability to unlock the defence will be key. If Dembele and Paulinho provide the runs from deep, they must have a passer along with them who can find the gaps. Eriksen can do that, but he must show that he’s up to the task. It’s pretty clear after the Arsenal match that you must choose two of Dembele, Sandro, and Paulinho.
What will Mourinho’s first 11 look like?
This is the real question after the past week. Against Swindon, both Mata and Torres staked their claim for why they should be included in the Tottenham squad, albeit against Swindon Town. That was probably the most that I’ve seen Mata close down in the midfield in his time at Chelsea, and Torres showed a level of sharpness and awareness that he had after being kicked in the face and forced to become Zorres. Mata is expected to play at White Hart Lane, and Torres will fight Samuel Eto’o for a spot.
I do believe that Torres has the chance to start. Torres has looked sharper than l Eto’o, who I think is suffering from lack of motivation in Russia for two seasons. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he hasn’t scored, while Torres has scored 2 in 3 starts. In addition, I think Torres links play better than Eto’o at this point, without roaming into wide areas or becoming a midfielder. Part of Eto’o’s problems are that he isn’t really a good frame of reference during the build-up, meaning someone who’s not a striker has to cover.
The last man out, I think, will be David Luiz. While I think he’s the most talented defender, Jose needs to drive some of his bad habits away, such as trying to unlock the defence by himself and leaving a Luiz-sized hole in defence and trying bizarre back heels in his own penalty area. Once he does that, I think he’ll see more time. But until then, he’ll have to sit and watch Gary Cahill in his spot.