A strange encounter with the same problems
This was a strange match, which sitting where it does as Spurs’ fifth Premier League defeat in six matches brings justifiable frustration from the fans.
Taken in isolation, Tottenham went to one the league’s in-form teams and played well for much of the game, having 20 shots to West Ham’s four and 69 per cent of the possession at the London Stadium.
Yet they are being handicapped by the same old defensive mistakes, two right at the beginning of each half, and they are also fluffing their lines in front of goal, with 16 of those 20 efforts heading off target, including the woodwork being struck twice.
Spurs created chances in both halves, even Harry Kane struggling to get some presentable chances on target.
There was one moment in the build-up before Gareth Bale hit the crossbar when Kane raced into the box and had to simply square the ball for either Dele Alli or Son Heung-min, who were clear of the trailing West Ham defence, to tap home but he could not find either of them.
At the other end of the pitch, opposing teams aren’t needing many chances to score, set pieces are terrifying to watch, and crucially Tottenham are conceding at psychologically damaging times.
Jesse Lingard’s strike was the seventh goal Tottenham have conceded within the opening 15 minutes of a second half in the Premier League this season.
That time for conceding goals is only worse at the end of games, with Jose Mourinho‘s men having let in eight in the final 14 minutes of matches.
Despite Michail Antonio’s fourth minute goal, Spurs actually have a much better record in those opening 15 minutes with the Hammers’ man’s effort only the second time they have conceded in the opening 15 minutes of matches, having scored nine during that time period themselves.
In fact Spurs have conceded 18 of their Premier League goals in the second half of matches, compared to nine in the first half. While the perception is that they don’t start matches well, in fact they’re more vulnerable in the second half of games.
What is a first half flaw is the amount of time it takes the attack to wake up and Mourinho is constantly having to make half-time substitutions to fix issues with his starting line-up.
Then conceding goals after the half-time break never looks good for managers after they’ve been able to spend 15 minutes instructing their team.
“I think [we deserved a point]. When you make mistakes you can say you deserve to be punished,” said the Spurs boss after the game.
“So when we made two defensive mistakes, especially the nature of the second goal, maybe we deserve to be punished, but I believe also that the way the team played with the ball, creating some in the first half, and creating so much in the second half, of course I think the team deserves a different result.”
He added to the BBC: “I think we did [have enough to win]. Losing 1-0 at half time you have to lift the players and play better in the second half which we did.
“The first thing that happened is that amazing and ridiculous goal. You are playing against a team that fought in the second half. They defend. We attacked and created and were unlucky.”
The centre-back issue is a weight that drags Tottenham and Mourinho down most weeks.
We’re now 15 months into the Portuguese’s reign and he appears to still have no idea what his best centre-back pairing is, or even more worryingly does not believe any of them are good enough to warrant a consistent starting spot.
The Belgian has arguably been better than the rest this season but that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement and we’re not talking about the Alderweireld of old here.
Joe Rodon is very much a project and one Mourinho appears to feel is safer developing in a back three.
Rightly or wrong, Japhet Tanganga has been deemed to be no longer be a centre-back by the Spurs boss.
That leaves Eric Dier and Davinson Sanchez.
Mourinho is a big fan of Dier, but the England international is struggling to justify that faith during this campaign.
His confidence is gone and the biggest problem for Mourinho is that Dier should be his leader in the backline but he’s not providing that guiding voice.
His skipper Hugo Lloris is not taking charge either and with Alderweireld not a leader, it means younger players such as Sanchez, Rodon and Tanganga are not being talked through matches and guided in their play.
For West Ham’s opening goal, there was no dominant call from Lloris to claim a ball that coming into his six-yard box or from Dier to take control of the situation.
Sanchez was at his best in his first season at Tottenham when he had a prime Jan Vertonghen talking him through games.
Spurs have also lost the balance the left-footed Belgian, at his best, brought to their backline alongside the Colombian and his compatriot Alderweireld. Whoever plays on the left of the central pairing nowadays never looks entirely happy to be there.
Sanchez is a player Pochettino believed had the potential to be one of the world’s best but the 24-year-old has gone backwards since a first campaign that brought impressive performances against Real Madrid and others in the Champions League as well as the Premier League’s best.
He has not been able to find his consistency and has at least one big mistake in him during most matches. Again the lack of someone calmly talking him through matches is glaring for a player who at 24 can still develop but it could end up being elsewhere.
His attempted challenge on Lingard for the second goal was so weak. He pretty much tapped the former Manchester United man on the shoulder, politely asking him to stop his run. There was no strength or desire to shoulder the player off the ball.
Mourinho must come up with a solution to his defensive problems this season.
His future will likely be decided in these months ahead before the club can make a move for a new defender in the summer transfer window.
If Mourinho does not feel he can trust Rodon or Tanganga in the centre of a back four then attack might just be the only form of defence, but he needs those attackers to put the ball in the net.
Gareth Bale starting to warm up
If there was one big positive from the match then it was Gareth Bale taking it by the scruff of the neck and trying to drag Spurs out of the hole they were in.
Bale had impressed against Wolfsberger AC in midweek, scoring a trademark goal and grabbing an assist for his cross to Son.
However, it was decided that he wasn’t ready to start again with such a quick turnaround.
“[Gareth is] not yet ready to start two matches in three days,” Mourinho told Sky Sports before the game at the London Stadium.
“The same as Dele for different reasons. For Dele because he was injured and out of the team for more than a month, not even training.
“Gareth because of his evolution. This is part of his evolution. No doubt that the performance was good and no doubt that I believe sooner rather than later he will be ready to play more than he is now.”
Mourinho needed Bale at half-time and it was another display from the Welshman that showed he is starting to find his rhythm and confidence.
He was constantly demanding the ball on the right, looking to drive inside and get Spurs moving.
He fired a couple of efforts at goal before curling in a pinpoint corner for Lucas Moura to head home off the right-hand post.
After Kane had fluffed a square ball to the free Alli and Son, the striker got the ball back and teed up Bale for a superbly improvised sliced half-volley that struck the crossbar.
The 31-year-old balanced his play between surging forward and conserving energy by sitting back in a deeper role to allow others to get into the box.
The key for Mourinho was that there is far more intensity to Bale’s play. You can see the desire and motivation that some had claimed there was an absence of earlier in the season.
“The quality is there. Nobody can have doubts of that,” said the Spurs boss of the Welsh winger.
“The condition to play three matches in a week, is a different story. We have to try to get the best out of him.
“We gave him 65 minutes the other day not 90. To start today would be too much for him and a risk.
“He is more confident. He is starting to be more intense. He was good in the second half.”
How much time the Welshman gets in the midweek Europa League tie remains to be seen but he needs to keep this momentum going.
He’s warming up and this version of Bale can certainly play a big role for Spurs and Mourinho in the weeks and months ahead.
Mourinho’s future at Tottenham
Mourinho was bullish about his methods when asked whether he had thought about changing them amid this current poor run.
“No, not at all. Not at all. Zero,” he said.
When asked what gave him such belief at the moment, bearing in mind the run of results, he added: “Because sometimes the results are the consequence of multiple situations in football and mine and my coaching staff’s methods are second to nobody in the world.”
With five defeats in six in the Premier League for his side, at what point does this malaise become a crisis?
“I don’t know what you mean by crisis. If crisis is frustration and sadness in the dressing room, I’d say so because nobody is happy and we all showed that in this game,” said Mourinho.
“When a team fights the way the team did until the last second, trying to get a different result, it’s never a group crisis, because groups are in crisis when you’re not together in the search for better results than you have.
“So I wouldn’t say crisis, I would say a bad, a really bad run of results. That is obvious. We’re losing too many matches.”
The gap is now nine points to fourth place, with a game in hand, and the most frustrating thing is that with so many others throwing away points, all Spurs have to do is find a bit of consistency and that climb up the table would not take long.
However, that’s much easier said than done right now for Tottenham and the next three matches in the Premier League will be crucial for Mourinho.
Burnley come to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium next Sunday and then Crystal Palace six days later.
Spurs simply have to win both home games against the league’s 15th and 14th placed sides.
Up next comes the north London derby and the trip to Arsenal and Mourinho’s men need to be back on track by March 13.
“It is mathematically possible [to get back into the top four]. When is mathematically possible, it is realistic,” said Mourinho.
“Very hard, yes, very hard, but mathematically possible. Of course our team has problems, and the problems they have reflection on results and on points, but I also believe that a little bit of that light, a little bit of that luck that you also need in football to win matches, has to be back.
“If that light comes back, is different. You hit the post and the ball goes inside or goes outside. The VAR decisions, many times, I am not speaking about today because today I didn’t watch, but many times are controversial, or are decisions by one inch.
“You sometimes need also a little bit of luck to go in your favour. I believe that if this team wins a couple of matches in a row, that the situation can change, and that we can still fight for top four.”
Perhaps most interesting was a quote Mourinho gave to the BBC about the team’s situation right now.
“I feel that we are not in the position in relation to our potential. Even if I think for a long, long time that we have problems in the team that I cannot resolve by myself as a coach,” he told them.
“Our potential is higher than where we are so of course there is frustration. We should be in a better position. To think about a top four spot is getting very difficult. To play in the Europa League will give us a window of opportunity to get a Champions League spot by winning it. Of course, difficult, but it is possible.”
Mourinho saying he cannot resolve Spurs’ problems alone could point to any number of things.
It could be aimed at individual errors and his big players needing to step up.
It could be sent in the direction of chairman Daniel Levy and the need to go that extra mile in transfer windows, even in these tough times, to fix the problems in his team, as they did in the summer until it came to paying that extra £12m or so for Inter Milan centre-back Milan Skriniar.
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The problem for Mourinho is that ultimately it’s always the manager who pays the price of poor results at Tottenham Hotspur regardless of the context.
Nine permanent managers in 20 years have found themselves pointed towards the exit door of the north London club, their time in N17 even briefer on average when you remove Pochettino’s more than half a decade in charge.
The Argentine had the best relationship with the chairman any manager has had since ENIC bought the controlling stake in the club and yet he was shown the door just five months after a Champions League final appearance.
Mourinho will be helped by Levy’s long chase for his services and the fact that his appointment to replace Pochettino was all on the chairman’s shoulders.
He will be given time to make that decision work but results need to head in a positive direction again in the Premier League.
Games against Burnley and Palace are not ones Spurs should be losing, or even drawing at home, and a north London derby defeat would only increase discontent from the fans on the Portuguese.
There is the Carabao Cup final and the Europa League but putting all of Tottenham’s eggs in the basket of two cup competitions that have Manchester City in one and top sides left in the other is a very risky strategy.
Swapping four consecutive top four finishes – including three top three ones in a row – for a return to finishing sixth or below each season is stepping back in time for Tottenham and it would be a clear sign of regression, even with a League Cup win. Juande Ramos did that and was sacked a few months later.
The Spurs players are playing for Mourinho. He hasn’t lost the dressing room and the style of football has been easier on the eye on the whole in recent matches – the Manchester City game understandably aside – but he must find a solution for the defence.
If he can, he’s got the attacking quality to get Tottenham firing at the other end, but if he can’t and results don’t pick up, then regardless of how expensive it would cost, he would eventually become Levy’s 10th managerial casualty.