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José Mourinho still striving to bring to life Tottenham’s killer instinct | Tottenham Hotspur

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It did not matter for José Mourinho’s Tottenham against West Ham the first time. But it most assuredly did in the early weeks of this season. It was the manager’s first game in charge of the club in November 2019 when they tore into a 3-0 lead at the London Stadium. Yet they ended up conceding twice towards the end and it could have been nervy if the game had lasted a few more minutes.

The memories of what happened in the home game last October remain fresh and they add spice, if any were needed, to the return meeting between the rivals on Sunday at noon. Spurs were 3-0 up again but this time they sieved three late goals, including Manuel Lanzini’s screaming last-gasp equaliser.

The failure to close out matches from a position of strength has been a problem under Mourinho, one that aggravates him deeply. In the Premier League this season, Spurs have dropped 10 points from winning positions, with only one team in the top half of the table having squandered more – Liverpool with 11.

Mourinho can also consider games such as the FA Cup defeat at Everton on the Wednesday before last, when his team were 1-0 up and in control, looking good to score again. In what felt like the blink of an eye, they had made mistakes to fall 3-1 behind. Yes, they fought back before losing 5-4 in extra time but it was all too wild for Mourinho’s liking.

Which brings us to Thursday night’s Europa League last-32 first leg against Wolfsberger, the team that sit sixth in the Austrian Bundesliga and had never played a Uefa knockout tie. The gulf in class was pronounced and Spurs looked to be having fun in the first half en route to a 3-0 lead. But they would give away an avoidable penalty for 3-1 and only the crossbar saved them from being pulled back to 3-2.

Tottenham would end up winning 4-1 and maybe it is unfair to dwell on the wobble. But Mourinho wanted to address it and you can be sure he will analyse it in detail with his players before West Ham.

West Ham players celebrate after Manuel Lanzini’s equaliser at Tottenham in October 2020
West Ham players celebrate after Manuel Lanzini’s equaliser at Tottenham in October. Photograph: Matt Dunham/AFP/Getty Images

“I don’t think anybody can believe in the second half Wolfsberger is going to score one, two or three goals,” Mourinho said. “But then you give them the first goal and when you give the first goal, the game turns. Because football is a game of emotions and when an opponent is, I’m sorry to use the word, almost dead and then you give them life, emotions change. And the opponent becomes a different team than it was. Sometimes the perception of the way the team plays depends on results and I imagine that the Wolfsberger game could be 6-1, 7-1 but it could also be 3-2. And with 3-2, the perception will be completely different.”

It comes down to ruthlessness, to killer instinct and Spurs do not appear to be incorporating it into their make-up. Then again, is it something that players either have or do not? Can it be taught?

“You can teach how to play the transition when you are winning and the opponent is trying to recover,” Mourinho said. “You can teach that objectivity in the fast transitions and the ambition to go for a bigger result. What you cannot teach is to put the ball in the net. That is a fundamental part of the killer instinct. You can work the tactical combinations, the counterattack combinations that keep the pressure high but, in the end, you have to kill. We had lots of chances to score against Wolfsberger and, of course, we didn’t score enough.”

It was interesting to hear Mourinho highlight deficiencies in front of goal because they surely did score enough against Wolfsberger, even before Carlos Vinícius’s late fourth. On the other hand, Mourinho is probably mindful of the four league matches this season in which his team have not built on 1-0 leads before drawing 1-1.

There is an edginess about Spurs at both ends of the pitch, the sense that an error can be a comprehensive mood-changer; almost out of proportion with the error itself. Mourinho can feel it. Witness his furious reaction at 3-0 against Wolfsberger to Moussa Sissoko’s concession of a free-kick on the edge of the area in first-half injury time. Happily for Spurs, it would be just off target.

Mourinho is desperate for calm and control, for balance. The quest for a hardier mentality persists.

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