Is Jose Mourinho Already Losing Tottenham?

The Special One's side is still in decline


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Well, that didn’t take long, did it? The Premier League has been back for a week, and Jose Mourinho’s already melted down.

In Friday’s 1-1 draw against Manchester United, Tottenham striker Harry Kane made his first appearance and first start since New Year’s Day. He played all 90 minutes ... and produced this shot map (via Stats Perform):

On Sky Sports, Paul Merson, who seemingly gets paid to say controversial stuff, blamed Kane’s muted performance on Mourinho’s notoriously conservative tactics. As you, a beloved reader of this newsletter, likely know by now, Harry Kane’s decline has been going on for about two years at this point, but we don’t need to get into that today. Mourinho, of course, could’ve just ignored Merson’s comments. I guess he also could’ve pointed to Kane’s declining performance before he arrived if he wanted to be brutally honest, but that doesn’t seem like the best way to manage employee morale.

Instead, he went with ... um ... you know what? I have no idea how to describe this in anything other than a purely literal way, so just take a look:

Mourinho used to have a reputation as a master manipulator of the media -- someone who could send the press running in the wrong direction, missing the real story as they went chasing after the fact that he called Rafa Benitez fat or suggested Arsene Wenger was a pervert. And when your team is winning, it’s easy to look at everything you do as in service of and contributing to those victories. As for this latest rant? I’m having a hard time finding even the most galaxy-brained theory of PR genius behind it. 

The obvious issue: scoring rates haven’t been this badly exaggerated since Kim Jong Il carded five holes in one. Drogba scored 73 goals while Mourinho was his manager at Chelsea; it’s so far off from what Mourinho said that the only possible explanations are that he either looked at the wrong number or was counting the 113 goals that Drogba scored during training. On top of that, this doesn’t really strike me as a defense of Kane, either. All these other great players -- “a tall guy called Zlatan” -- scored for me, so why can’t he?

I could listen to Mourinho speak for hours; these press conferences are lite absurdist entertainment. But the truth behind it is that he’s just 18 games into his stint with Spurs, and he’s already flailing.

The first week back saw the Premier League creep back toward Mourinho-ball: about three fewer shots per match than before the break, about one full xG fewer, and about five fewer passes into the penalty area. Like in Germany’s first week back, and unlike most of Mourinho’s sides, the average speed of possessions -- average meters the ball is advanced toward goal per second -- dropped, from 1.47 to 1.34.

I wouldn’t draw too much from that just yet, and I wouldn’t draw too much from the first set of matches, either. Tottenham were awful, at home, against a Manchester United side that has played reasonably well this season but haven’t been able to control games. The game ended even, 1-1, but per FBRef, the xG count was 1.6 to 0.4 in favor of United. Taking into account the post-shot values of each team’s attempts -- where they put their shots on the goal-frame -- United’s number rises up to 2.0, and Tottenham’s remains the same. In other words, Hugo Lloris kept Tottenham in the game, and David De Gea, who once saved Mourinho’s United teams again and again and again, helped bail out his former manager. United had 60 percent possession and completed 13 passes and crosses into the penalty area, compared to just six from the hosts. More games like this from Mourinho and Co. won’t mean many more points.

Now, the result -- and even the performance -- can be written off due to the post-postponement weirdness of your choosing, but here’s the thing I can’t get past: Mourinho only made two subs! In a high-risk match after three-plus months off! I wrote about this in the Bundesliga for FiveThirtyEight; managers are using a smaller percentage of their available subs with the new five-sub rule compared to the three-sub era before play was paused. But they’re still almost all using more subs total because, well, they’re allowed to use more total subs.

Since becoming manager in November, Mourinho averaged 2.82 subs per match before play was paused -- tied for sixth-most in the league over that stretch. He and Sean Dyche are the only managers to not use at least three subs since the games re-started last week. The league average is four, and Mourinho’s opponent last friday, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, used all five of his changes and saw his team increasingly dominate as the match went on.

Subs are free money; every study of sub performance suggests that managers are being way too conservative with their in-game player management. Pretty much no one at the top level is subbing optimally, but only using two subs when you can use five, in a match that you’re losing control of with each passing minute, when your bench is filled with talented, expensive players, and your players haven’t played a competitive match in three months? That’s just an especially terrible form of management that doesn’t have any realistic defense. It makes your team less likely to win, and it makes your players mad -- a lethal double-whammy of bad coaching.

I never really understood the logic behind hiring Mourinho. He’s incredibly expensive and prone to self-immolation. Plus, his track record of real success had already faded a few years into the background. The risk didn’t match the cost.

Since arriving in London, he’s feuded with the club’s big summer signing, and he and his players got in trouble for training at a public park and violating lockdown. You know you’re getting some of that if you hire him, but the hoped-for trade-off of team-wide improvement hasn’t really come along with it. 

Tottenham have been slightly better with Mourinho this season than they were under Mauricio Pochettino, but not by much. They’re in seventh, with a point total that’s closer to 14th than fourth. The attack has been a bit more dangerous -- up to 1.45 xG per game from 1.16 -- while the defense has been just slightly worse: up to 1.57 xG from 1.51. These aren’t necessarily indicators of quality, but Mourinho’s Spurs are completing fewer passes into the penalty area, their share of final-third passes has dipped below 50 percent, and they're moving the ball up the field more slowly than they did under Poch. A lighter final-third presence with slower play isn’t an ideal combo. That’s becoming a bit of a trend here, huh?

Projection systems do a better job of taking into account opponent strength than just raw xG totals, and they’re even less confident in the job Mourinho’s done. At FiveThirtyEight, Tottenham’s SPI rating was 82.4 on November 10. (The number represents the percentage of the points a team would be expected to take against an average team on a neutral field; it’s an estimate of team strength.) Now, it’s down at 76.2. The Elo rating system, which awards points based on results and the quality of the opponent, also sees Spurs as worse since Mourinho arrived:

That’s concerning, especially when you compare it to the rest of Mourinho’s career:

At Porto, Chelsea, Inter, Real Madrid, Chelsea again, and Manchester United, there was either an immediate initial improvement or a stabilization at a pretty high level. At Real, Chelsea, and United, there were then big drop-offs. At Spurs, the decline has already begun, and there’s no history of Mourinho being able to stabilize a decaying team and then improving it. If he’s able to do it with Tottenham, it’ll be something we’ve never seen him do before.

Another way to look at it: Mourinho’s teams have been getting worse since the start of 2018. This isn’t totally his fault. He lost his chief creator, Christian Eriksen, to Inter Milan in January, and his chief goalscorer hasn’t been the same player since before the last World Cup. But there aren’t a ton of signs that Mourinho’s trend is going to change directions -- especially if he’s not willing to use more than 13 players.

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