Gary Neville explains Jose Mourinho’s subtle tactical shift at Tottenham

Alex Pattle
·3-min read
 (Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)
(Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)

Former Manchester United defender Gary Neville has explained how Jose Mourinho’s tactics at Tottenham are different to those the Portuguese has employed in the past.

Neville, writing for Sky Sports, recalled his frustration when watching Mourinho in charge of Manchester United between 2016 and 2018.

United were League Cup and Europa League winners during Mourinho’s stint at Old Trafford and finished as runners-up in the Premier League, but the brand of football on display did not line up with the club’s attacking traditions, Neville said.

“We always used to refer to ‘Mourinho masterclasses’ when he won games and that he was wiser, smarter and cuter than the opposition managers,” Neville wrote. “There’s been an element of disrespect in the past few years whereby his style of play has been criticised to the point that it’s outdated and that the game has now passed him by.

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“We've seen managers like Mauricio Pochettino, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp come into the league and [be] absolutely fantastic. I recall a game when he was Manchester United manager against Liverpool, and I came away thinking that I couldn’t watch United playing this way.

“Mourinho effectively went with a back six and it was desperate to watch. I went away thinking: ‘United need to have more than that.’”

And while Mourinho has not reinvented himself since joining Spurs last November, he has adapted, Neville argued.

“He still wants the defensive stability. He still wants the clean sheet, and I don’t think he wholly trusts his back four at Tottenham, but you look at this Spurs team now – with Moussa Sissoko and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg screening, and you’ve still got a back six (as he had for United against Liverpool), but there are big differences.

“Firstly, the position of Harry Kane is a lot deeper to Zlatan Ibrahimovic into a place that’s difficult to pick up. Secondly, and the most important thing, is that Son [Heung-Min] and [Steven] Bergwijn are near to him.

“Rather than the two nearest players to Zlatan being [Ander] Herrera and [Paul] Pogba – the two central midfielders – now Jose has the right players still in advanced positions to counter-attack quickly.

“It’s a subtle change, but it’s the same system as before in a different way. It is far more palatable and it’s easier on the eye as you’ve still got the attacking players in attacking positions. Jose has adapted, and he’s got the balance of being good defensively with the threat on the counter-attack.

“I feel he has to play this way to have a chance of winning the title, because I don’t think his back four is strong enough without two players beefing it up. They will be a massive threat to most teams and Jose has a plan on how to win the league this season.

“The challenges might come against teams that drop off against them, where they have to be a little bit more creative, but that’s when the likes of Kane and Gareth Bale will come into it.

“I don't think he can win [the league] by being proactive against Liverpool, Manchester City and other teams, but if Tottenham buy into it, the players buy into it, it feels like something that’s innovative. It’s still defensive-minded, but it’s got a real threat to it, and they’re scoring goals as well.”

Spurs are Premier League leaders after nine games, level on points with champions Liverpool but ahead on goal difference.

The north London outfit have a goal difference of 12, the joint best in the league alongside third-placed Chelsea, with whom Tottenham drew 0-0 at the weekend.

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