Despite a wonderful consistent run under Mauricio Pochettino, in the aftermath of his tenure Tottenham had to learn how to win ugly, something Jose Mourinho knows well.
To have any chance of making the top four a team must, almost without fail, beat all inferior opposition. At the peak of the Pochettino era, Spurs dominated inferior opponents and were known as flat trackers.
However, to be a top team you must learn to beat teams that are your equal or superior on paper. You must also learn to win when you are not playing your best, a matter Jose Mourinho is an expert on.
Under Pochettino Tottenham struggled to win when they weren’t firing on all cylinders.
Winning when the team wasn’t playing well isn’t something Pochettino’s Spurs were known for. Rather, they were known for forcing their will on inferior opposition and going for it against other top sides. The low block defensive approach Mourinho employs just wasn’t a part of Pochettino’s program.
But it wasn’t Pochettino’s strategy that lost him his job; something broke inside the locker room. The connection that existed between Pochettino and the players clearly evaporated in the Argentine’s final half season at the helm. But it never quite felt like he had a Plan B. And it didn’t feel like his team knew how to win ugly.
Over the last six games, we have begun to see an alternative approach take shape. Since losing 0-1 at home to Liverpool, Tottenham have won four and drawn two, all while not playing at their highest level. Instead of enforcing their will on others, Spurs have been learning to play within themselves, finding opportune moments to strike. All while integrating new players and working to overcome the long-term injury absences of Harry Kane and Moussa Sissoko.
It often isn’t pretty possession football, as Spurs have only won once in that stretch with over 50 percent possession (Middlesbrough in Round three of the FA Cup). Spurs lost the possession battle to both Manchester City and Southampton in the FA Cup replay, yet won both games.
The win over Norwich saw possession split 50/50. Likewise, although Spurs lost to Liverpool, they only had 33 percent possession but enjoyed 14 attempted shots, one more than the Reds. If we go back to the Champions League final, it was Liverpool who sat back and held less than 50 percent of possession. They took less shots than Spurs but were clinical when they had to be. Of course a lot of that was determined by Liverpool’s early goal which changed significantly the complexion.
Bottom line is that in football – like life – you are not always going to be at your best. It doesn’t mean you are not giving your best.
The best teams find ways to win on off days, like Tottenham have in the last few weeks. Sneaking by Southampton and clinically dispatching City demonstrates that Spurs on their way to becoming one of those teams, just the way Mourinho drew it up.