José Mourinho has channelled his inner Basil Fawlty when it has come to the prospect of Tottenham challenging for the Premier League title. Except unlike the original mind-game master from Torquay, the Spurs manager has not even mentioned it once. Why put extra pressure on his players, Mourinho has reasoned? He said last Sunday, after the 0-0 draw at Chelsea which took them to the top of the table, that Spurs were “just a pony” in the race.
Hugo Lloris smiles. “I don’t want to comment on the word of my manager,” the captain says. “I understand what he means. It’s true that some clubs are more challengers than us – Man City, Liverpool, the clubs that are used to win the Premier League in the last few years. Chelsea, as well. But it doesn’t mean that we don’t have ambition. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have the motivation.”
Lloris is never going to go full Lucas Moura. The winger has made it clear that he believes Spurs can win their first title since 1961 if they believe in themselves. Lloris is more measured and he makes the point that it is “just too early to talk about that today”.
But there is an assurance about Lloris which has also been evident in Spurs’s defending this season. Ahead of Sunday’s derby visit of Arsenal – for which Lloris faces a late fitness test on an unspecified problem – they have the division’s meanest record, having conceded nine goals in 10 matches, only four of which have come from open play.
Spurs have started to look like a Mourinho team – physical, hard to break down, tactically savvy, dangerous on the counter – and Lloris takes a large measure of his confidence from the manager.
“It’s a good feeling to be at the place we are today and we just want to carry on,” Lloris says. “You just want to stay calm, focused on the next game and to enjoy the moment. The only thing that can help us is the savoir-faire of José Mourinho – with his experience. You need the best from each player but also in the approach of the games, he knows where we go. Behind every big team, the main leader is the manager.
“He’s a winner. His motivation every day is to win and try to share this approach with his players. We have a competitive squad, we have a lot of talented players and the only answer is to show it on the field. We want to keep consistency in our performances, to keep winning and we will see later in the season where we will be.”
Mourinho wants to go game-by-game, not to over-burden his players with grandiose targets but, on a micro level, make it clear to them that they should be playing to win every week because they are good enough. His belief-building tricks tend to be most obvious in press conferences. He insisted, for example, that the squad had not been happy with the point at Stamford Bridge; they wanted more.
But behind the scenes, Mourinho has done various things to fire team spirit. He paid £500 to get his players a gourmet Spanish ham after the 2-0 home win over Manchester City two weeks ago, having promised them he would do so if they were victorious. The way that Mourinho tells the story, the players wanted the ham and had designated the purchase of it to Sergio Reguilón – basically because he is Spanish. Mourinho then made his offer.
Lloris was not involved when the squad played a game of indoor cricket last month – the video of which went viral after the club released it. “It was for the British players,” he says. “First I need to study the rules.” But it seemed to show a group that is coming together and going places.
“The success of the team is not only what you can see on the field,” Lloris says. “There’s also the time you spend off the field. It can be playing games, spending time together. It’s not easy when you can’t go to a restaurant or spend time outside the training ground so you just try to enjoy the moments between ourselves.
“What the manager said after the Chelsea game was true. There was no celebration in the changing room. We prepare the game to win and we are only happy when we win. It doesn’t matter who the opponents are.”
There was a time at Spurs when beating Arsenal would go a long way towards shaping the success or failure of the season. But now, the derby is merely another big game. After it, Spurs have Crystal Palace, Liverpool and Leicester before Christmas. They will know more about their title chances by then.
“We know Arsenal means a lot for the fans,” Lloris says. “But it’s not enough in the season. It’s not only about one game or two games in the season.”