There was a time when Jose Mourinho complained about a Tottenham manager parking the bus, using his addition to the footballing lexicon, in a stalemate at Stamford Bridge. It was not on Sunday.
Mourinho, who was famously scathing about Jacques Santini’s tactics against his Chelsea in 2004, ended this weekend with the mischievous suggestion his side were disappointed they did not win a game when they had a solitary shot on target and a meagre expected goals tally of 0.23.
More pertinently, the lack of drama was telling. Tottenham conceded 14 more goals than Liverpool last season. Now they have the division's best defensive record. Since the 3-3 draw with West Ham, and a spectacular conclusion that seemingly prompted Mourinho to tighten up, they have conceded a solitary goal in five Premier League games
That included clean sheets against Manchester City and Chelsea, and just three in nine in all competitions. Mourinho is likely to field a different defence against LASK Linz in the Europa League on Thursday. In a way, however, differences have already abounded.
Spurs’ frugality feels more of an achievement given the personnel. Serge Aurier had such a reputation for erratic defending that, last season, Mourinho told him that with VAR he was likely to give away a bad penalty – and that is the polite version.
Now the Ivorian has been recast as a paragon of reliability to such an extent that he has displaced the summer signing Matt Doherty at right-back.
Eric Dier can still feel more of a jack of all trades than a master of any, despite his preference for playing centre-back, but Mourinho has made the converted midfielder a cornerstone of his side. “It was a decision I made before the manager arrived,” Dier told Sky about his move back. “I felt the time was right in terms of my age and my career.”
Mourinho’s favoured axis of Dier and Toby Alderweireld are an antidote to the ultra-modern centre-back pairings. Instead of a high defensive line, Spurs have the low block that Mourinho prefers and which suits his slower stoppers, who have less ground to cover in compact shapes.
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Indeed, his quickest centre-back, Davinson Sanchez, has been benched and, with Alderweireld injured, it was Joe Rodon who stood in against Chelsea. One mistake apart, when he permitted Olivier Giroud an injury-time chance, the Welshman excelled on his first Premier League start.
Mourinho drew a playful comparison with Thiago Silva, the established great Chelsea recruited, and the buy from Swansea. Perhaps it illustrated his own efforts. A defence with the rookie Rodon, the rejuvenated Aurier and the reinvented Dier feels a triumph of organisation.
There is another ingredient, and Sergio Reguilon’s surging runs have made him the attacking threat Tottenham have lacked from left-back since Danny Rose declined, while he has also conjured solidity from the Spaniard.
Mourinho apart, the most important component in turning what, man for man, is not the best defence into what, statistically, is lies ostensibly in the midfield. Mourinho has always had one of the shrewder analytical brains in the game and, with Dier retreating into the back four and Victor Wanyama leaving, it was evident there was a vacancy for a defensive midfielder.
Mourinho landed his premier target, in Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and, after an inauspicious debut against Everton, the other club who coveted him, the Dane has excelled.
But he has done so in tandem with the tactically disciplined Moussa Sissoko and if both have underlined the difference a defensive midfielder can make, they have done so with a tweak from Mourinho as they have dropped into the channels to form a back six. The strength has come from the structure. Their efforts are reflected in the record.