EPL

Lamela magic unable to shift Mourinho's familiar big-game malaise

By Sports Desk March 14, 2021

Sergio Reguilon's reaction to Erik Lamela's utterly audacious opening goal in the north London derby said more than any words could.

Faced with Arsenal defenders in front and a Lucas Moura pass just slightly behind him, Argentina international Lamela pulled an impudent rabona out of his bag of tricks to send the ball spinning into the bottom right corner, beyond a helpless Bernd Leno.

Reguilon, whose career at parent club Real Madrid means he will be well-versed when it comes to experiencing excellence first hand, ran off in pursuit of the goalscorer open-mouthed, with his hands seemingly glued to his head.

The left-back's expression was one of near-delirious shock at what will surely come to be remembered as one of the great Premier League strikes

Sport's capacity to surprise and delight is its greatest joy. Such moments have an incredible capacity to galvanise, but before and after Lamela's intervention, Tottenham produced some all-too-predictable sludge.

The goalscorer was only on the pitch because Son Heung-min pulled up with an early injury and his improvised finish was Spurs' only shot of any description during the first half.

Their next arrived by way of a looping Lamela header in the 71st minute, by which point Arsenal were deservedly 2-1 to the good. Either side of his second effort on goal, the winger collected a pair of petulant yellow cards and was sent off.

From seek and destroy to sleep and destroy

A Jose Mourinho masterclass this was not. His self-fulfilling acts of arch-pragmatism have become such a cliche.

Since becoming Manchester United boss in 2016, he has three wins in 20 attempts away from home against 'big six' foes. It is easy to forget it was not always like this.

Seven years ago this month, in his second spell at Chelsea – the other side of his imperial period at Inter and that tumultuous stint at Real Madrid – Mourinho faced up to Arsenal for Arsene Wenger's 1,000th game in charge. An evisceration ensued.

"We came to kill and in 10 minutes we destroyed," Mourinho said coldly of brutal 6-0 win at Stamford Bridge.

Faced with a talented but vulnerable Arsenal line-up on Sunday, the only thing in danger of being destroyed was the consciousness of any television viewers who filled up on a Sunday lunch before settling down on the sofa for kick-off.

Son's unfortunate departure left Harry Kane and Gareth Bale, both of whom scored twice to down Crystal Palace 4-1 in Tottenham's previous league game, isolated and forlorn.

All momentum from five consecutive wins in all competition was wantonly jettisoned. Bale managed 18 touches in the first half, seven more than Kane.

The Wales international was substituted with the score 1-1 and looked exactly as impressed as you'd imagine to see Moussa Sissoko taking his place, a player Mourinho tends to use for spoiling and harrying tasks in midfield. It was a statement of dubious intent.

Fundamental flaws

Of course, such moments grease the wheels of the Mourinho Show and its tired formats. Expect a terse response to Bale's apparent unhappiness, just cryptic enough to take up a decent chunk of the Sunday and Monday phone-in shows.

Then there was Mourinho's finger-wagging disagreement when VAR confirmed referee Michael Oliver's assertion that Davinson Sanchez had haphazardly blundered into Alexandre Lacazette for the decisive penalty.

Predictably, the Tottenham manager railed against it, too, telling reporters: "The only thing worse than our first half was the decision to award the penalty."

But even allowing for the mitigation of an injured star forward, an anonymous star forward and a seventh penalty goal conceded in the Premier League this season, everything else around those incidents was not remotely good enough.

Arsenal's skittish efforts in seeing out victory against 10 men – time must have stood still for Mikel Arteta as he waited for the linesman to rule out Kane's header before the England captain thundered an effort against the post – underlined the folly of Mourinho reverting to type.

Furthermore, Tottenham's attacking gifts stack up favourably when compared to their affectations for defensive solidity.

Sanchez managing to foul Lacazette as the striker launched into a near air-shot was pure comedy. Nobody managing to track Martin Odegaard's run for Arsenal's equaliser was no particular surprise, given the way everyone in white watched Cedric Soares take a long run at a drive against the upright a few moments earlier.

Tottenham lack the fundamentals their manager desires and he does not have the gumption to effectively harness moments of open-mouthed magic such as the one produced by Lamela. That is a combination that makes the six-point deficit to a revitalised Chelsea in fourth look like a yawning gap that is only set to get bigger.

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