Chelsea knows this story all too well. A manager comes in to rebuild and perhaps even revolutionize the club. There are bumps in the road as there always is, of course, but they eventually get through the rough patch and on to an easier path. This path culminates with the team topping the Premier League as fans and rivals alike whisper about titles all too soon. Then, inexplicably, it completely collapses. The manager that was seemingly leading them to a promised land increasingly looks like the emperor without clothes.
It’s a story Chelsea just finished and one Tottenham is on at the same time. Jose Mourinho had Spurs high flying in December, not unlike Frank Lampard at Chelsea. But the winter slog plays no favorites and Spurs, like Chelsea, has begun to tumble. Tottenham was top on matchday 12 and lost to Liverpool on matchday 13 to fall out of first. In the seven matches since, they lost three times and drew twice. That is a blow on its own but that the losses included Leicester and Liverpool, Spurs began to slip completely out of the title race.
The recent loss to Brighton, masters of the xG but not actual goals, will certainly not have helped manners. Mourinho is turning inward as he often does during these moments and that rarely ends well for coach or club. He will certainly not want the new Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel, whom he has never managed against, to get any sort of advantage at the Special One’s former club.
Tuchel will prove a tricky adversary for Mourinho, if for no other reason than he can’t pin him down. Mourinho can buck the conventions of Pep Guardiola that football must be beautiful or Jurgen Klopp’s insistence that it is about the stories, but Tuchel fits awkwardly into both. Tuchel wants the team to look beautiful and mean something to fans, but like Mourinho, he wants them to win almost over everything else. Just as Mourinho looks for ways to exploit and hinder the opposition, so too does Tuchel. Neither is an adherent to “our style of play” if it means weakening themselves to the opponent.
When facing three at the back, Mourinho typically takes it a step forward with a system that more or less defends as a 6-2-2. Lampard may have tricked Mourinho a few times with tactical switches, but overall Mourinho does know how to stifle three at the back if he expects it. The system’s 3-2-5 offensive shape is stifled against a six man defensive line and matched man for man in midfield. Two strikers against three centerbacks on a counter seems like a disadvantage, but with two strikers that like to spread wide it can create gaps the back three struggles with. This has been Mourinho’s ploy against nearly every three at the back since Antonio Conte made it popular in the Premier League and it has mostly worked, even if it sucks most of the life out of the game.
Of course, that presupposes two factors. The first is Tuchel continuing with three at the back. If he is as clever at finding opposition weaknesses as advertised, he will recognize that 4-3-3 might be more beneficial for this match given how Spurs might react to the 3-4-3. It would also be very Tuchel to have line up that could be either without having to change a player.
The second factor is the lowering morale of Tottenham. When Mourinho teams are flying, they soar. When things are souring, it can be miserable. Chelsea saw something similar happen under Lampard and it is hard to separate it from what might have happened in Mourinho dressing rooms of old. Chelsea lost motivation and that affected their pressing and runs off the ball. Mourinho will not require either but defending so stoutly requires a similar level of motivation.
Ultimately, this may be a battle of who blinks first like the last few Lampard v Mourinho matches. Does Tuchel adapt to counter Mourinho, or does Mourinho adapt to counter Tuchel? Will the rising morale of Chelsea triumph over the souring of Tottenham? All will be answered on Thursday but it is sure to be a highly tactical contest.