Jose Mourinho is a manager more obsessed with the psychology of players than any other, which raises a significant question about his side’s approach on Saturday. After all, Liverpool are already at that point in their trajectory where they are benefitting from the pure mental intimidation that opposition teams feel. It has a self-perpetuating effect, even within individual games. The longer a match goes on, the more the opposition fear the pain of that inevitable goal, and the more Liverpool’s record of always scoring emboldens them. It starts to make the other side anxious and make Klopp’s team more composed.
So it was Roberto Firmino’s strike on Saturday, even though it came in the first half. That’s how withdrawn Tottenham Hotspur were. That’s how they succumbed to the same pain everyone else does. And that’s what raises the question. This happens to almost every club facing Liverpool, but it shouldn’t happen to almost every manager – especially not one of such a stature and such a price as Mourinho.
A manager of his prestige and proven psychological work should be capable of disrupting this mindset, of emboldening his own players. Instead, the initial approach actually played into this fear. It was so defensively deep that it only served to make Liverpool seem all the more intimidating. It was, in truth, small-team football.
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It was also all the more self-defeating given how Spurs’s relatively rudimentary attacking started to puncture a few holes in Liverpool in the last 10 minutes. Mourinho of course came out to defend this approach after the game, while only bolstering the point.
“If we try to play the way we did in the last 20 minutes from the start, I think we would collapse,” the Portuguese said. “We are speaking about probably the best team in the world. They are in a condition to play a big FA Cup match with the second team and we are a team in difficulties.”
Some of this is undeniably true, but so much of it is so classically Mourinho – right down to the spoiling game, which this Liverpool were just too good for.
And that’s kind of the issue. It was supposed to be a newer Mourinho, with new approaches. It is a little disconcerting just how many of the old issues have resurfaced, right down to Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino form.
That alone illustrates that a lot of this isn’t Mourinho’s fault, especially given the injuries, but so much of it seems avoidable.
The pieces already seem set for potentially edgy talks over transfers, and Spurs will be one of the window’s more interesting clubs. Mourinho had made it clear what he needs. He wants two strikers, for a start. There’s been the indirect criticism of players in the media and conspicuous substitutions. Mourinho then spent much of his post-game press conference talking about defensive throw-ins, how much he’d worked on them in the last week, and how that ultimately let them down against Liverpool.
Well what about working on actually constructive attacking patterns? This is what it keeps coming back to, which means the ball keeps going back to the opposition. What has Mourinho tangibly improved so far? What has the effect been?
There hasn’t been all that much, even allowing for many caveats. There hasn’t been enough to dispel the suspicion that Daniel Levy was seduced by the idea of Mourinho as a big name, and what his appointment represented for the club, rather than what he is currently doing as a coach.
He assured everyone on taking the job that he had evolved. We haven’t seen much evidence of that yet. We’ve only seen the same old themes – and another Liverpool win.