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Liverpool v Spurs: Defence the best form of attack for the coach who knows how to win

Liverpool v Spurs: Defence the best form of attack for the coach who knows how to win

Liverpool’s long unbeaten run at Anfield in the league faces its biggest test for a while.

Hail Busman

He didn’t invent the phrase, but Jose Mourinho’s irritable dismissal of Tottenham in 2004 after Martin Jol’s team had fought their way to a 0-0 draw at Stamford Bridge ushered the park-the-bus era into English football. Mourinho was in his first few weeks of managing in the England and could have probably said anything and had it eagerly adapted by the nation’s football media. “Tottenham have painted the barn grey”, “Tottenham have subdued a wolf”, “Tottenham have thrown a tram in a river”. Just some of the terminology we might be using now had Mourinho chosen a different path.

Sixteen years later and Mourinho is no longer criticising Tottenham for defensive performances but instead masterminding them for the club. A year ago, it looked like Mourinho’s philosophical winters of discontent at Chelsea and Manchester United had finished his prospects of taking another club to a league title, be it in England or elsewhere. Similarly, Tottenham, still nursing a hangover left over from reaching and losing the 2019 Champions League final, looked like a club in need of serious surgery if they were to once again be in the mix to win the Premier League, as they had vaguely under Mauricio Pochettino.

But the Gods of Alchemy decided otherwise. This Mourinho is back on his perch and Tottenham go into the midweek Premier League fixtures top of the league, away at the champions, needing to keep it tight. Mourinho has ample experience, doing it earlier this season away at Stamford Bridge. Another 0-0, with Spurs’ last shot coming in the 30th minute. Was their manager angry with this one? No, he was not. Mourinho’s fury in 2004 was pure projection, as Martin Jol hoisted him on his own petard. Mourinho’s time in England, Italy and Spain is peppered with superbly crafted defensive performances and everyone should have their favourite, with options including Inter’s Champions League semi-final second leg with Barcelona in 2010 (74 successful passes in 90 minutes and a 15% possession rate) to the literal trolling of Liverpool’s long wait for a 19th league title in April 2014 (157 successful passes, 27% possession, only two shots more than Steven Gerrard had on his own).


Of course, any manager can pull this sort of performance out now and again but Mourinho doesn’t do it because he is desperate, he does it because he knows it works, *if* he has the players willing to commit to it. The numbers in the graphic below show that in away games at Big Four clubs since 2004 (NB: I’m using the Big Four not the Big Six as teams rarely needed to plan a defensive approach at Tottenham and Manchester City in the 2000s), Mourinho has seen a lower shots on target per game rate than any other long-term Premier League manager. At the other end of the pitch he has also seen a higher goals per game rate than those managers below him in the table.

Mourinho’s numbers in the big away games could have been even better but for a loose spell in 2017-18 when his Manchester United team conceded 33 shots on target in three games at Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool. Take those out and the average shots on target faced per game numbers fall to 4.2. Take out the Manchester United spell entirely and the average falls to 4.0. And a further concern for Liverpool ahead of this week’s fixture is that at Tottenham Mourinho has even been able to add goals scored to the toughest away trips of the season. The six goals Spurs scored at Old Trafford in October represent 18% of the goals Mourinho teams have ever scored in Big Four away games. With the Kane & Son goals & dreams pipeline on track to become the greatest partnership in Premier League history, Mourinho has exactly the right tools to mount precisely the sort of title challenge he loves.

Liverpool away is the hardest fixture nearly every team will face in the Premier League this season. But only one of the 19 other teams go there with Jose Mourinho, the coach who knows everything about the bus. It sets up a fascinating game in which Liverpool’s long unbeaten run at Anfield in the league faces its biggest test for a while. We can’t guarantee goals, but narrative is assured.




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Duncan Alexander
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