As Leicester City’s celebrations subsided following their second goal in this 2-0 win over Tottenham, one voice could be heard ringing out around Spurs’ cavernous arena.
“Hey, come on!” Jose Mourinho screamed at his players, many of them with their heads down, trudging back towards the centre circle to restart a game they never looked like they would win. Spurs have now suffered back-to-back defeats for the first time this season, and the danger for Mourinho is that a squad whose mentality he has so regularly questioned now slips back into old habits. The damage done by Roberto Firmino’s stoppage-time winner for Liverpool against Tottenham on Wednesday night could be greater than first feared.
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Leicester are a super counter-attacking team in their own right — they went into second place at full-time after registering their ninth Premier League win of the season — and these successive results in isolation can in part be explained by the quality of the opposition. But coming together in the same week as they have, it raises the time-honoured question as to whether Spurs can show the best of themselves when the biggest prizes are in sight.
They kicked off at Crystal Palace last Sunday at the top of the table. A week later, they are suddenly in fifth place, six points adrift of the leaders. Things can change quickly at this time of year given the manic schedule, but Spurs quickly need to rediscover the mixture of poise and purpose that propelled them into the early running.
This was also another reminder of the fine margins built into Mourinho’s conservative style. The 57-year-old is moulding Spurs in his own image, but the long-standing club motto ‘To Dare is To Do’ is compromised on days like this. To defend isn’t always to do.
It is imperative his strikers must be clinical when chances come their way. Steven Bergwijn was profligate at Anfield and Harry Kane wasted Tottenham’s best first-half chance here, heading over Son Heung-min’s 41st-minute corner. It was the closest Spurs’ deadly partnership came to extending their record of combining for 12 league goals so far this season, a sign of how Leicester were much more efficient on the counter-attack, even if they required a penalty and an own goal to translate that superiority to the scoreline.
“The fact that we didn’t start well, is not because I didn’t tell the players not to start well, don’t get me wrong,” Mourinho said. “I didn’t tell any player ‘don’t be proactive’ or ‘be reactive’ but I admit: we did start bad. “
“I’m frustrated when I lose but it is not like there is a target that cannot be achieved. Our target is to win the next match and the previous matches, they don’t interfere in our target for the next match. The next match we want to win, like we wanted to win today.
The documentary ‘All or Nothing: Tottenham Hotspur’ offered so much insight into Mourinho’s interactions with his players that there is usually a quote applicable to almost every subsequent situation, and so it proves for Serge Aurier. Mourinho was once shown on camera telling Aurier before a Champions League game against Olympiacos: “I am afraid of you as a marker, because you are capable of doing a s— penalty, with VAR. So I am telling you already that I am afraid of you.”
He was right to be afraid. Aurier has been much improved this season but he retains the unfortunate ability to make headshaking mistakes, barging James Justin in the box with a needless challenge which referee Craig Pawson somehow required VAR to clarify was a foul. Jamie Vardy smashed home the subsequent penalty with the last kick of the first half, Leicester’s first shot on target.
“Is it a problem? Let’s focus on today. Today he made a mistake,” Mourinho said afterward. “But before his mistake on minute 45 or 46, we had other players making mistakes in other areas of the pitch. I can’t blame a player for a mistake.”
Up until that point, the game really could have benefitted from a third team out there that actually wanted the ball. The first goal was pivotal in a contest between two counter-attacking teams because it allowed the scorers to play how they preferred. Spurs had to open up, a task made more difficult by losing Giovani Lo Celso to a muscular injury just a few minutes after half-time. Gareth Bale came on for Tanguy Ndombele at half-time, but he and Lucas Moura, who replaced Lo Celso, created precious little.
James Maddison was denied a brilliant goal by a decision at the more ludicrous end of the VAR spectrum, an offside determined by the position of his armpit as he bent his run superbly, but Leicester didn’t have to wait too long to double their lead as Vardy’s header back across goal hit Toby Alderweireld’s knee and wrong-footed Hugo Lloris.
Bale’s presence barely registered as Spurs mustered just two shots on target in the second half, although one of those forced an excellent save from Kasper Schmeichel as Son went close late on. In previous matches, similarly low numbers have been by Mourinho’s design. Here they were evidence Tottenham need more to stay in the hunt for the title.