Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham Are Sleepwalking Towards Mediocrity
In these latest 'Big Games for Jose Mourinho's Tottenham', there is the overwhelming, remarkable sense that they simply are not there.
In recent losses to Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City and now Arsenal, Spurs have been stunningly devoid of ideas and reactive, reduced to bodies ending up in places, with no thoughts really driving them.
They sit in their deep block and patiently wait for the chance to do nothing.
Tottenham never looked to threaten, or even threaten to threaten, against the juggernaut Man City, outclassed and somnambulant. But against an always shaky Arsenal, there should have been no gulf in class, but Spurs imposed one upon themselves.
With Harry Kane, Son Heung-min, Gareth Bale and Lucas Moura all starting, Tottenham had devastating attacking talent to rattle an often easily rattled Arsenal defence. But the attack never ignited or showed any interest in trying to do so. Only the mazy dribbling solo acts of Lucas made any dent into the Arsenal defence, before a late Kane cameo to hit the woodwork.
Spurs, who were an usually level of dreadful in the first half against Arsenal, only found themselves still in the game at half time after an astonishing finish from Erik Lamela, one of those rare goals where the connection with the ball and its pre-destined path appear to be covered in light.
It was too wonderful of a goal to feel unjust, even though on the balance of play it clearly was, with Tottenham's perfunctory lack of enterprise only unpunished because Emile Smith Rowe and Cedric Soares were denied by the woodwork. Martin Odegaard's fortunate equaliser, deflected by the football Gods, meant that Arsenal entered the second half on level footing. Davinson Sanchez bowling over Alexandre Lacazette for a converted penalty and the always belligerent Lamela being sent off then sent the game on its course, though Arsenal did their best in the final minutes to Arsenal their way to what would have been a bitterly disappointing draw.
After the defeats to Man City and West Ham last month, the Mourinho era seemed to be slow marching to an inevitable conclusion. But then Enter: Bale, with the former superstar's sudden, explosive revival bringing new life to Tottenham and Mourinho. Bale's performance in the 4-0 win over Burnley was so familiar and devastating it felt unreal - here is a finished man, made joyfully unfinished.
He whipped in curling goals on his left boot, raked pristine 60-yard bombed passes for assists, and bolted past defenders like they were Maicon at the San Siro in 2010. There are few more pure sights in all of sports than Gareth Bale just prodding the ball past his man into open space and then making it a footrace to meet the ball that he will invariably win. In that brief moment where the ball is gone and it's just Bale and another hapless man running on the grass, football becomes a different, exhilarating sport.
Bale's sudden form continued into the Arsenal game, where it hit a depressing brick wall in a game he barely existed in. But nor did Kane, or for the time before he got injured, Son, which makes you think that the problem, against Arsenal, went beyond the players.
Mourinho's teams are famously reactive, with game-plans geared to their opponents. There is usually a kick, though – a wait... and then pounce. Of late, it has been, rather a wait... and then just lose miserably.
Spurs are relying on isolated moments of brilliance from their brilliant players, with the first half against Arsenal a fitting symbol taken to an extreme - a diabolical first half hour remedied by an impossible rabona.
Tottenham's sins caught up with them quickly, though, and it was apt that the scorer of the magnificent goal, Lamela - who always seems to be trying to get himself sent off - was then sent off, as brief magnificence descended into a lazy slap of Kieran Tierney's face.
Spurs sit four points above Arsenal in the table, but this game felt like two teams going in opposite directions.
One team full of big names without harmony or a plan, the other full of youth building towards something. Smith Rowe, Odegaard and Bukayo Saka are all blessed with touch, skill, decisiveness and composure. Tierney is a delight, his bursting runs and lightning turns the side's most dependable source of offence. Thomas Partey, finally healthy, is perhaps already the team's best player - every touch and movement feels uniquely purposeful, always a half-second ahead, always looking to find an edge, which was all particularly clear against a Tottenham side that has started to feel agonisingly blunt.
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