“We did not have that ambition,” said Jose Mourinho. And by “we” he meant his players, not him.
The Portuguese was speaking after Saturday's 1-1 draw with Wolves extended Tottenham's winless run to four games, a period that has taken them from top towards mid-table.
Mourinho may see himself as a byword for ambition, a serial trophy winner who drew predictions Spurs could become champions for the first time in 60 years. Others detect a crippling lack of ambition in Tottenham’s tactics which, even as Mourinho implies his charges were to blame, reflects on him.
Spurs’ last shot on target at Molineux came in the 21st minute. They have only mustered 22 second-half efforts in their last seven matches. They have conceded late goals in three of the last four, adding to the case that their negativity is self-defeating as it invites pressure that eventually tells.
It prompts the question if pragmatism becomes unpragmatic, if a team with Tottenham’s firepower would be better let off their leash or, at least, showing the extra intent Mourinho suggested he wanted to see at Molineux.
Spurs face Fulham on Wednesday even as a sharp rise in Covid cases overnight further threatened to disrupt the fixtures. Rewind to September and this fixture would have seemed a candidate for a 5-2 scoreline. Now, with Scott Parker’s side only breached twice in four games, it looks a potential 1-1 or 0-0.
All of which feels remarkable, given the potent alliance Harry Kane and Son Heung-min formed. The England captain has still been involved in more goals than anyone else this season. Yet he and Son have had arguably their two quietest games of the campaign in the last two, against Leicester and Wolves, and Spurs have been muted.
They seem guilty of assuming their deadly double act would deliver and delegating too much responsibility for scoring and creating to them.
They have been the only two out-and-out attackers named in the last two matches; while Giovani Lo Celso started on the right against Leicester, he was injured four minutes after Mourinho substituted Tanguy Ndombele, the most progressive of his midfielders. There was no third forward against Wolves, so Mourinho could accommodate two left-backs, with Ben Davies in a back three and Sergio Reguilon as a wing-back, in a ploy to nullify a past tormentor, Adama Traore.
Yet even when there has been a trio up front, it has been imbalanced. Mourinho’s favoured third man has been Steven Bergwijn, whom he has turned into an industrious auxiliary full-back, but who has neither a Premier League goal nor an assist this season.
Wolves v Spurs player ratings
But Lucas Moura, with one goal and no assists, is little more productive. If the role on the right seemed reserved for Gareth Bale, injuries and Mourinho’s reluctance to start him have ensured otherwise.
Mourinho’s fondness for the most risk-averse option is apparent in midfield. Moussa Sissoko and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg have formed a defensively excellent axis; their deficiency lies in offering anything more creative. Kane had compensated, dropping deeper to act as the playmaker and forever releasing the surging Son.
Yet that plan is feeling one-dimensional when only Kane, Son and Ndombele, with two, have more than one goal and only Kane, Son and Reguilon, with two, have more than one assist.
The exiled Dele Alli used to contribute in both departments; when fit, the gifted Lo Celso should. Ndombele has brought excitement and improvement but Mourinho’s safety-first substitution of the Frenchman handed Wolves the initiative at Molineux.
Spurs’ season has had a soundtrack of comments that negative football will only be tolerated by supporters with grander expectations as long as they were winning. And until the last four games, they were winning. Recently, they have not been.
More ambition is required, but principally from Mourinho.