Jose Mourinho is too experienced to get drawn into talk of winning the Premier League.
It was only for a couple of hours, but with his Tottenham team top of the pile after one of those narrow, scrappy wins that characterise title-winning teams, Mourinho was asked if his squad has what it takes.
The Portuguese saw it coming – and took evasive action.
“I don’t care,” he said, referring both to the title race itself and the results of Leicester and Liverpool in matches being played after he had spoken that would have a direct effect on what position Spurs would be in as they head into the international break.
Yet, in a way, that Mourinho was even answering a question like that is relative success.
In December 2018, following his dismissal by Manchester United at the end of a tortuous period where rows and recriminations were of far more significance than anything his team was producing on the pitch at Old Trafford, it was generally felt Mourinho was a busted flush.
Improved defence key to a sustained challenge?
Though others might have thought it, Mourinho never felt he was yesterday’s man. Neither did he feel his methods for playing the game were outdated, as others claimed.
He remains an organisational coach. He also still wants to be a winning one.
On more than one occasion during his post-match news conference, Mourinho linked the 1-0 victory at West Brom with a similar success at Burnley in Tottenham’s last away game on 26 October.
The goalscorer that day was Son Heung-min in the 76th-minute. Against West Brom it was Harry Kane in the 88th. Whether it is Gareth Bale, as it was at The Hawthorns, or Carlos Vinicius, who replaced the Welshman in the latter stages, Mourinho feels he has the firepower to score goals anywhere, at any time.
The key is what happens at the back.
Tottenham kept only two clean sheets away from home in the Premier League last season.
They have already matched that total this term and Mourinho feels the collapse against West Ham – when his side conceded three times in the final eight minutes to draw a match that appeared to have been won in the opening 16 – was the trigger for greater solidity.
“This game has some similarities to the one at Burnley, where the clean sheet kept us in the running for the three points,” said Mourinho after Sunday’s win. “Then when you score a goal it’s time to be compact and fight for that victory.
“We felt the pain against West Ham and since then, strategically, the team is behaving in a different way.”
The key decisions Mourinho has made
It is tempting to say Mourinho inherited a better squad than the one he had at Manchester United, which is why he is getting better results.
This may be true. However, the 57-year-old has made some key personnel decisions, all of which fit his demand for organisation – explaining why he was so delighted with the defensive performances at Burnley and West Brom.
First, he has changed both full-backs. Matt Doherty proved as a wing-back at Wolves how effective he can be. The Irishman has been switched to an orthodox full-back position now but he has the defensive awareness Mourinho craves in addition to being a threat going forward. It was no coincidence he supplied the cross for Kane’s winner.
When Tottenham signed Bale from Real Madrid in September, the arrival of Sergio Reguilon – from the same place, at the same time – slipped somewhat under the radar.
But the 23-year-old could prove to be a better signing. Loaned to Sevilla and part of the team that won last season’s Europa League, Reguilon is very much a modern full-back. He gets forward, takes free-kicks and shoots from long range. But, like Doherty, he can also defend.
And then there is Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, a £15m arrival from Southampton during the close season, who also brings solidity to Tottenham’s midfield.
Hojbjerg is not a fussy player. At West Brom, he showed what he does – he gets the ball and passes it on. The 25-year-old Dane’s presence allows Moussa Sissoko to get further forward and bring the strength in midfield Mourinho likes.
The omission of Dele Alli is viewed as the manager’s big decision since replacing Mauricio Pochettino, but fellow England midfielder Harry Winks – a lifelong Spurs fan – also looks as though he is suffering from his manager’s demand for overall improvement.
In isolation, none of these moves look that significant – not alongside the goals of Kane and Son.
But Pochettino’s Tottenham never got to the top of the table. While it was only a fleeting visit for now, the changes Mourinho has made may yet mean they – and he – return there in a more substantial way before the season is over.