Tottenham’s victory in the North London Derby featured a rare defensive masterclass in the age of high-stakes football

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They say the art of defending is dead.

Maybe they are right. In the Premier League this season, eyebrow-raising scores seem to crop up on a weekly basis with the high-risk, high-reward pressure play that most teams pursue, generally leading to open fixtures.

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Already this season, the reigning champions have lost 7-2, while their supposed next closest rivals Manchester City have been beaten 5-2.

However, one man who seems hell-bent on making the defense sexy again is Tottenham head coach José Mourinho. The latest example of his team’s old-fashioned strength at the rear came during the 2-0 North London derby win over Arsenal on Sunday afternoon.

As soon as Son Heung-min’s effort brought Spurs to the lead in 13 minutes, it would have taken a very brave man to bet against Mourinho’s charges taking home all three points. Then when Harry Kane finished off a smooth counterattack just before the break, the odds of Arsenal completing a comeback got worse.

After going up 2-0, every Tottenham player knew exactly what their role was on and off possession. It’s a testament to the success your manager has had in molding you in his own image.

Moussa Sissoko sacrificed any real creative aspirations, instead spending the game expertly covering the overlapping runs of Bukayo Saka and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Meanwhile, Giovani Lo Celso challenged his label as a languid playmaker with a fierce defensive display. The Argentine launched into tackles as if he were in a contest with Granit Xhaka over who could collect the most useless yellow card.

However, no one embodied Mourinho more than his trusted lieutenant on the field, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg. He was everywhere once again for the Spurs, sweeping in front of the back four and racking up three innings overall, as well as a series of tackles and punts.

Bukayo Saka, Pierre-Emile Hoejbjerg
Hojbjerg impresses Spurs again | Catherine Ivill / Getty Images

With Dane’s action protecting them, the Spurs defense had little to do in a second half in which their opponents enjoyed a whopping 76% possession but struggled to knock them down.

However, when the Gunners managed to break through the midfielder, the Spurs’ last line of protection held firm. Serge Aurier continued to look reborn with Mourinho, making a game of four tackles, while Sergio Reguilon, a player primarily hyped for his attacking contribution when he arrived in the summer, was also extremely solid.

The Tottenham center-backs also deserved special praise. Eric Dier and Toby Alderweireld were positionally correct, making just half (17) of their team’s 43 punts, while both full-backs made six apiece. Not to mention Kane, who seemed to spend more time making defensive headers in his own box than trying to score himself.

Defending like this no longer generates the respect it deserves, but the Spurs won’t care. His fierce rearguard action sent a strong message to his title rivals. More importantly, it returned them to the top of the Premier League table. Who cares if it doesn’t look pretty?

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