The verdict from the Premier League trial at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium is in: a unanimous win for the defence.
Tottenham against Leeds United – Mourinho-ball versus Bielsa-ball – was set up to be an eye-catching case involving two coaches determined to succeed by their own methods, backed up by a mountain of evidence from previous roles.
Leeds, who have understandably become a favourite for the neutrals since returning to the top flight, controlled possession and had plenty of attempts in the early kick-off on Saturday – 18 in total (albeit only five on target). They made 583 passes as a team, while four of their line-up were successful with more pass attempts than Tottenham’s top distributor, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg.
However, Marcelo Bielsa’s unwavering desire to play out at all costs – to pass, pass, then pass again, no matter how precarious the situation – saw Leeds become the chief architects of their own downfall.
Jose Mourinho, of course, had Spurs set up perfectly to pounce.
If these teams visited an all-you-can-eat buffet, you sense Leeds would waste little time in attacking the complimentary bread plonked at the table before getting started. Spurs, in contrast, would resist getting involved in early carbohydrates, instead choosing to wait for the tastier options yet to come.
Both sides appeared hungry in the early going, but the game changed when Illan Meslier’s wayward pass was picked off in the 27th minute, leading to the crucial opening goal. The goalkeeper’s next task was to retrieve the ball from his net, Harry Kane having converted from the spot.
It was the sixth time Leeds have conceded a penalty this season – they only gave up three during the entirety of their promotion campaign from the Championship – perhaps an accepted consequence of Bielsa’s risk-and-reward policy.
13 – Harry Kane and Son Heung-min have now combined for 13 goals in the Premier League this season – no duo has ever combined for more in a single campaign in the competition. Telepathy. #TOTLEE pic.twitter.com/zgvgCLRPUJ
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) January 2, 2021
Tottenham had made a habit of squandering one-goal leads as of late – doing so away at Crystal Palace and Wolves – but there were no such concerns here, not once Son Heung-min had swept in a Kane cross to double the advantage before the break.
After Son’s 100th goal for the north London club, Toby Alderweireld just about headed in another early in the second half and, while Leeds’ front-foot approach makes you feel there is no such thing as a lost cause, a comeback never materialised in the capital.
Spurs scored three for the first time in 11 league games. They now have 29 goals in the competition this season – just one less than their opponents, branded the top-flight’s great entertainers.
Mourinho had unsurprisingly bristled in a pre-match news conference when asked if it was important for his team to win with style.
“Nobody was saying that when Tottenham scored six goals against Manchester United, nobody would say that if we beat Liverpool at Anfield 2-1,” he said, knowing full well that no league table has ever included a column devoted entirely to points awarded for artistic merit.
“I’m pragmatic, and in some matches Tottenham is winning 1-0 and doesn’t produce enough in the second half to score more and concedes, that I understand. One thing is what you do and one thing is what you want to do.”
Spurs certainly did exactly what Mourinho wanted against Leeds, who like Arsenal and Manchester City before them, fell prey to a method that is all about ambushing opponents when they are at their most vulnerable.
Mourinho has now won all five career meetings with Bielsa, though the Argentine coach will not be too concerned. Both will continue to do things their own way, no matter what anyone else may say.
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