‘Little Horse’ Tottenham Hotspur Experiences Growing Pains In Crystal Palace Draw
“We are not even in the race”, said José Mourinho. His side had just drawn 0-0 with Chelsea in a predictably turgid game at the back end of last month, and had done enough to retain top spot in the Premier League PINC . But he was having none of the suggestion that Spurs might be capable of going on to win the title.
He reached for a tried-and-tested metaphor to emphasize his point but could not quite find the language required for it. “I do not know the word in English,” he said. “But the small, the young horses.”
Mourinho turned to the Tottenham Hotspur press officer, just off screen in his Zoom press conference, who obliged. “A what?” Mourinho asked. “A pony! We are just a pony.”
As any resident of north-east London will know, pony is word that was associated with Spurs in the more distant past, mostly used by their own fans, almost always without the indefinite article (‘We are just pony’, rather than ‘We are just a pony’) and often exceedingly accurately. This time, though, the pony was misplaced.
As mentioned, it is an image Mourinho has painted previously. During his second spell as Chelsea boss in 2013, he was similarly asked whether his Blues team were in a three-horse race with Manchester City and Liverpool for that season’s title. He replied that his team were “a little horse that still needs milk and work and [needs to] learn how to jump. [There are] two big horses and a nice horse, a horse that next season can race.”
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Though I claim no expertise in equine matters, I would suggest the word Mourinho was searching for in both cases was ‘colt’ rather that ‘pony’.
In 2013, Mourinho was saying that Chelsea were not yet ready, that they would need to mature a little to challenge for a trophy. And he was quite correct. The next season, his team went on to lift the Premier League title. And in November, he again wanted to suggest that Spurs are an animal that still needs to grow and develop, that with the benefit of time will grow into a beast capable of competing with the thoroughbreds.
Spurs’ comms team, then, managed to further mangle Mourinho’s already rather clunky horsey metaphor. However much it is trained, a pony will never run fast enough to beat a racehorse. But a colt with potential? Well, you never know what the future might bring.
Set aside the philological debate of the intricacies of the equestrian figure of speech for a second, though, and it is clear that its use is a sign of José in his element. The little smirk on his face in both instances said it all. To bring the whole farmyard into our metaphor soup, he looked like a pig in the proverbial excrement.
José adores being in charge of the team that is not expected to win, loves being able to play down his side’s chances of success to take the pressure off when the press is bigging them up.
You could argue that he relies on it. For players to follow his big-match tactics – to abdicate possession, to close up and play on the counter – they must to some degree believe that their quality relative to the opposition's makes such caution a logical approach.
And in recent showpiece games, those tactics have worked magnificently. In the three league matches prior to Sunday’s trip to play Crystal Palace, Spurs had taken on Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal and come out with seven points and three clean sheets. In each of them, Tottenham had the smaller share of possession; 33% against City, 39% against Chelsea and 30% against Arsenal.
The results took the title talk and turned it up another notch, but those games were tailor-made for the underdog mindset that Mourinho has instilled. Mourinho would have known that Crystal Palace would be a different challenge entirely.
Palace are not as dour or as reactive as many like to make out, but when facing a superior team, they are more than capable of dropping in, keeping their shape, and frustrating the life out of the opposition. Spurs, as the league leaders, would be expected to dominate here, to take the initiative and break Roy Hodgson’s side down.
To resort to cliché, winning this sort of fixture is what wins leagues. It turned out to be a test that Tottenham were not quite up to.
In the two spells when the scores were level, from the first minute until the twenty-third, before Harry Kane made it 1-0, and from the eighty-first until the final whistle, after Jeffrey Schlupp made it 1-1, Tottenham were excellent, creating plenty of chances and drawing some quite outstanding saves from Palace ‘keeper Vicente Guaita.
In between, though, they were passive and meek, allowing the hosts to push for an equalizer that, by the time it came, was richly deserved. Experienced champions, in a similar situation, would perhaps have known that 1-0 was not enough, that instead of handing over control they should look to increase the pressure and extend their lead.
In the aftermath Mourinho told BBC that, “I wanted [my players] to go forward, I wanted them to press high, like they did in the first half.” That they did not gives weight to his argument that Tottenham are a little green to be genuine contenders for a league title. The little horse is towards the front of the pack for now, but it will need to grow quickly if it wants to remain there come May.