Mourinho has 'fixed' Alli but can he correct Tottenham's other problem areas?
LONDON -- There was a strong sense of deja vu as Jose Mourinho's second Premier League game in charge of Tottenham Hotspur, a 3-2 win over Bournemouth, followed a virtually identical pattern to his first.
Just as against West Ham last weekend, Spurs went 3-0 up and looked to be cruising their way to a simple three points before a couple of late goals -- in exactly the same minutes as a week ago, no less -- made the closing stages much more nervous than they should have been.
And just as against West Ham, Tottenham's win was inspired by Dele Alli. The England midfielder scored two of Tottenham's three goals, had a significant hand in the other with a perfect pass for Son-Heung-min to cross for Moussa Sissoko, and more generally produced a performance of finesse and assurance to inspire Spurs to a third win in three games under their new manager.
This season Alli had managed two goals and an assist in 10 appearances before Spurs made their managerial change, but in the three games since Mourinho's arrival he has scored three and set up another.
Perhaps more important than the numbers, is simply how much more assertive and confident he looks now. Alli at his best had a healthy amount of cockiness to his game, a swagger that when combined with his subtleness and sense of timing made him such a dangerous player.
That swagger had seemed to disappear in the past year or so. More or less since the 2018 World Cup, Alli had played with a lack of purpose, without direction or clarity, his role in the team also less certain.
That, at least, is one thing that Mourinho has tried to change. "Every manager has his own ideas, but for me Dele is not a midfield player," he said afterwards. "He's a player to play like he's playing, close to Harry [Kane], follow some of the dynamics [we've worked on] in training but also with some freedom to associate with the attacking players."
The partnership with Kane has certainly been a key factor, not quite so much that they have been pinging passes to each other or telepathically combining, but the striker's increasing tendency to drop deep has created plenty of space in which Alli can thrive, which he did for both of his goals on Saturday.
It might be a bit much to say Mourinho has made Alli a personal project, but getting the best from him has clearly been a top priority. Mourinho literally skipped up the touchline to applaud and encourage Alli after he played a poor pass late in the game, and his substitution in injury time was less a tactical move and more a chance for the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium to rise and recognize their man of the match.
And man of the match Alli was. He played with assertiveness and finesse, a healthy mix of delicate flicks and confident runs. The run for his first goal is not one he would've made a few weeks ago, confidently running alongside Son to slide home. The finish for his second was a case in point too, not snatching at the chance as he could so easily have done but instead waiting for just the right moment to clip it over the keeper.
A caveat should be offered in that Bournemouth made life relatively easy for him. His run wasn't tracked for the first goal, he too easily dashed between Jack Stacey and Steve Cook for the second and more generally they seemed to leave a lot of space between defence and midfield for him to operate.
Alli clearly looks refreshed, but how much of this is down to words of enthusiasm and encouragement whispered into his ear by the new manager? Mourinho has not been there long enough to do significant work with him on the training ground, but has he offered some secret magic word to dig up previously buried confidence? Is this just a consequence of hearing a different voice -- any different voice -- from the one directing him for the previous five years?
Is it just a coincidence, his performances trending in an upward direction even before Mourinho's arrival, and this tangible success an inevitable result of gradual improvement since he returned from injury earlier in the season?
Perhaps it is down to the new manager. If this really is the Mourinho effect in full force, that he's a mystical "disillusioned player-whisperer," able to reawaken dormant talent and enthusiasm, the question then becomes: who can he work his magic on next?
If he can turn Sissoko into a regular goal scorer, we may have to dunk him in a river to ensure he's not a witch. Sissoko's strike here was his first for Tottenham since Oct. 2017, and his first league strike since September of that year against Huddersfield, which also could easily have been given as an own goal.
But more seriously, Mourinho's main job -- after the obvious winning of games and trophies and potentially getting Spurs into the top four, which isn't out of the question -- is to see which of the disaffected players with one foot out of the door he can re-enthuse enough to stay.
Can he persuade Christian Eriksen, seemingly determined that new challenges away from Spurs are required, that there are sufficient challenges exactly where he is? Can he squeeze another couple of years out of Jan Vertonghen? Can he keep Toby Alderweireld, whose long passes provided Spurs' first two goals here, at the club beyond his current contract?
Can he make Eric Dier the rock-solid midfield destroyer whom he tried to sign at Manchester United? What about the frustrating full-backs, Danny Rose and Serge Aurier? There are plenty of things to fix at Tottenham, and if Mourinho can do what he might have already done with Alli, he could be a big success here.
For now though, improving Alli will do. "I don't need to speak," Mourinho initially said when asked about Alli. "It's the best thing that can happen to a coach, when you don't have to speak. It's obvious. He's playing really, really, really well. I couldn't ask more from him."