Jose Mourinho's Tottenham pay the price for their negativity against Wolves

Jose Mourinho's Tottenham paid the price for their negativity in conceding a late equaliser against Wolves; Adam Bate reports from Molineux on what has become a recurring theme for Jose Mourinho's side...

Tottenham players line up in the wall during their Premier League game against Wolves at Molineux in December 2020
Image: Tottenham surrendered their early advantage with a negative display against Wolves at Molineux

When Tottenham beat Manchester City in November with their only two shots on target and 34 per cent of the ball, it was seen as a stunningly effective counter-attacking display.

The subsequent stalemate at Chelsea was deemed an acceptable point. The win over Arsenal, in which Spurs had no second-half shots and just 23 per cent of the possession, was regarded as an exercise in illustrating the impotence of their north London rivals.

Seven points from those three games more than justified the approach and having carried Jose Mourinho's side to the top of the Premier League table, sparked giddy talk of the title.

Four games without a win since then have swiftly ended such hopes - Spurs are effectively now seventh if the teams below them manage to draw let alone win their games in hand.

But perhaps even more significantly than that, recent results have undermined the idea that this team were merely adapting to the circumstances in picking off their rivals on the break.

Caution might have been the template for those earlier successes but it has now cost them points too. The 1-1 draw against Crystal Palace in mid-December, in which Spurs led for an hour but barely seemed to pursue the second goal, should have been a warning.

Instead, there was an even more dramatic example against Wolves at Molineux on Sunday evening as Tottenham had to settle for a point in a match they had led for 85 minutes.

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Wolves' 1-1 draw with Tottenham

Again, had they held on, some would have generously described this as a defensive masterclass but the paucity of ambition against an out-of-form opponent was striking.

Tanguy Ndombele's goal inside the first minute, coming after Heung-Min Son had raced in behind the defence within 30 seconds of the kick-off, should have been the perfect platform.

Not for the first time, this Tottenham team took it as their cue to back off and protect the lead. The Wolves defence, their confidence presumably shaken having only recently switched to a back four, was barely tested again. They were let off the hook. Invited to attack.

Wolves had more of the ball but it was not just that. When Tottenham had it, there was a sterility to their approach play. There were times when Matt Doherty had space in which to run at his full-back and the freedom to do so in his favoured wing-back role.

He turned back.

Harry Kane dropped deeper and deeper, seemingly embracing that ability to step into midfield a little too eagerly. The service to Son evaporated. Overlapping runs were absent.

Spurs went into containment mode from midway through the first half and never quite came out of it. Their last shot on target came in the 21st minute. The only attempt in the second half was a free-kick from Eric Dier. Had Wolves' teenage striker Fabio Silva not mistimed his stoppage-time header from close range, they would have lost.

While those earlier victories showed the merits of a counter-attacking game in the right circumstances, these recent struggles have damned it. Sometimes it works. Often it doesn't. Tottenham have now dropped nine points in the final 10 minutes of matches.

They have also given up the better chances in six of their seven games since the November international break. Of course, that owes much to the game state - Mourinho's men have been leading for much of the time in the majority of them. But if you play as if you are waiting for the opponent to score, sometimes they will.

As a consequence, Kane and Son - still, statistically, the most potent forward combination in the Premier League - now look a little starved of opportunity. That same expected-goals data shows that since mid-November, only West Brom have created fewer chances.

All of which raises the question of who is responsible for the team's mindset. Logic would suggest that this is an instruction drilled into the players by their manager Mourinho.

After all, his disdain for possession football and reputation for winning matches without the ball precedes him. But he was keen to stress afterwards that this was not his directive.

"Our problem was that we scored in the first minute and we had 89 minutes to score more goals and we didn't," he said. "For me, that was the problem."

When Mourinho has a message to get across, subtlety is not his style. Five times in his post-match press conference, he mentioned this line about having 89 minutes in which to score the second goal. He saw it as an attacking failure more than a defensive one.

"It was not just about not scoring goals, it was about not being dangerous, not being ambitious. Of course, we can go to the corner and say that at Liverpool we should have won but we lost with a corner, here we should have won but drew with a corner. We can say that at Palace we should have won but drew with a lateral free-kick.

"I could go even to previous matches. But I don't think it is very obvious to go in that direction and not go also in other directions. For me, if you score in the first minute, you have 89 minutes to score more goals and we didn't."

Jose Mourinho 0:43
Jose Mourinho could not hide his frustration with his side against Wolves

The fact that Mourinho brought on Steven Bergwijn to replace Sergio Reguilon just after the hour mark was evidence to support his claim that this negativity was not coming from the bench. That was a positive change at a time when Wolves were dominating the game.

Indeed, he even suggested afterwards that he had warned his players of the consequences of sitting back on their lead at half-time. It seems likely that he would have reminded them of what happened at Palace and urged his players to avoid a repeat.

Could it be that the messaging and the positive experiences in shutting out Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal has led to misplaced confidence in their ability to rely on clean sheets?

Or was this more of a tactical failing by Mourinho, with the switch to five at the back robbing Kane and Son of more bodies to support them in the attacking phase of the game?

What is clear is that a fortnight after being top of the Premier League table, four games without a win - having twice surrendered leads late on - has altered the mood. Tottenham's negativity needs to stop if they are to shift the momentum once more.

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