Tottenham: Jose Mourinho must iron out Spurs' goal bursts

Harry Kane and Heung-min son celebrate scoring at Old Trafford

Jose Mourinho and goals. Goals and Jose Mourinho. While the Special One will point to the fact his 2011/12 title-winning Real Madrid side currently hold the record for most goals in a single La Liga campaign, those aren’t two phrases we’d traditionally put together. Rightly or wrongly (although, almost definitely rightly), Mourinho is far more synonymous with goalless away legs in Europe, parking buses against key divisional rivals and turning on his pragmatic burners to see out even the most routine of low-scoring wins.

Which all makes Tottenham’s start to the season so unusual, and more specifically so un-Mourinho. The Premier League collectively has seen an uplift in goals this season but even with that in mind, Spurs’ potency truly stands out - they’ve scored 32 goals in just 10 competitive games so far, and in the process already matched or surpassed their biggest score in a single game last season (5-0) on three separate occasions (5-2, 6-1 and 7-2). After five gameweeks, they’re also the highest scoring team in the Premier League.

When Tottenham appointed Mourinho in November 2019, it was reported that his eleven months of unemployment had been spent revising philosophies, adapting to modern changes in the game and learning from mistakes.

Maybe Tottenham’s new-found netting prowess is that process coming into fruition, and maybe these days Mourinho truly is more concerned with scoring goals than trying not to concede them. It certainly makes his philosophy more aligned to the tactical agenda two of his biggest managerial rivals, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, have set in English football over the last few years.

Scoring goals in football can never be a bad thing; it is, after all, the most fundamental objective that must be achieved to win football matches, whereas not conceding can only guarantee a draw. But if there’s one curiosity if not outright concern underlining Tottenham’s enhanced capacity to find the net this season, it’s how those goals are distributed over the course of ninety minutes. Rather than coming at consistent intervals, Spurs’ strikes are arriving in quick-fire bursts.

Indeed, of the 32 goals Tottenham have scored in competitive fixtures this term, 21 have come in seven specific bursts ranging between four and 37 minutes. Illustrating clearer how significant that is, they’ve averaged a goal every seven minutes inside these bursts, compared to one goal every 69 minutes outside of them, a pretty drastic difference.

Jose Mourinho talks with Harry Kane

Of course, it’s by no means unusual for top-end Premier League clubs to score goals in quick succession, especially against lower quality teams. It’s a sign of their game-plan working, a theory that is further aided by the fact the last four of these bursts have come in the first half of matches. A conceding multiple in quick succession, it’s natural that opponents will react by reorganising and making themselves more defensive, therefore reducing Spurs’ opportunities to find the net again and creating a different setup for their attackers to work a way around. 

Nonetheless, what should concern Mourinho is how many of the games featuring these bursts have also contained clear lulls. Before netting five past Southampton, four goals coming in a second-half flurry, Spurs didn't make one effort at goal in 45 minutes and likewise, after scoring early against Shkendija, Mourinho’s side managed just two shots in the following 34 minutes and ultimately took until the 70th minute to find the net again. Having gone 3-0 up against West Ham, the subsequent 50 minutes would see them record only five shots, just as an early 2-0 lead against LASK would be followed by a mere three attempts across the next 45 minutes.

Interestingly, we saw similar bursts from Mourinho’s Manchester United at the start of the 2017/18 season when they finished second. From their first five Premier League games, an impressive 16 goals were scored, with ten of those coming in short stints.

Romelu Lukaku celebrates scoring against West Ham

But there’s a noticeable difference in that all of these came at the end of games in the 70th minute or later, which follows an obvious logic of United grinding down teams to a point of inevitable submission; many of Tottenham’s bursts meanwhile, have more been a case of their intensity levels fluctuating than building up to a goalscoring crescendo, either starting games strongly and then petering out or simply being late out the blocks.

United were also keeping clean sheets during this period, something Tottenham have only managed against LASK so far this season, and bearing in mind the three-goal lead that was thrown away in their last Premier League outing against West Ham, that difference feels particularly poignant.

But perhaps more troubling is the simple fact that Mourinho’s Red Devils really couldn’t keep it up. Having done so five times previously, after October United scored four goals in a game on just three occasions during the remainder of the season, and late flurries became less and less of a theme. Results tempered too, with disappointing draws or losses against Huddersfield, Basel, Burnley, Southampton, Newcastle, West Brom and Brighton.

Manuel Lanzini celebrates scoring against West Ham

Whether a similar fate lays in store for Tottenham remains to be seen, but it’s curious that their goals have been so concentrated this season and certainly in their last two games, early flurries have been followed by drops in intensity - the one against West Ham costing them dearly.

Maybe it’s the case that this Spurs team just aren’t the finished article when it comes to the Mourinho mould and while they can roar to an early lead, they can’t see out games comfortably just yet. Maybe it’s the case that, with this being the most unusual period in Premier League history in terms of season start dates and scheduling in general, fitness issues have created fluctuations in performance.

Whatever the root cause is though, Mourinho will be keen to find a solution, even if that does mean tempering his own side’s scoring prowess to sustain their offensive pressure over longer intervals. As relentless as Tottenham have been in short stints this season, you surely can’t base a successful campaign around brief flurries into fifth gear surrounded by slumps into third and second.

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