Jose Mourinho’s best work has generally come when he feels like he is working against the odds. Tottenham can benefit from that trait.
As football fans in the United Kingdom awoke bleary eyed to take in the Premier League story of the season, one word stood out in the statement announcing Jose Mourinho’s appointment as Tottenham’s head coach – a ghost of hubris past.
“I am excited to be joining a club with such a great heritage and such passionate supporters,” Mourinho said.
Heritage. Football heritage.
This was the subject of Mourinho’s self-pitying soliloquy in the aftermath of Manchester United’s limp Champions League last-16 exit at the hands of Sevilla in March 2018.
A much-trumpeted union that returned two trophies in its first season was going south and Mourinho tried to circle the wagons.
During a 12-minute address where “heritage” was mentioned 10 times, his general point was he had been dealt a duff hand at United. Other rivals were better equipped, having spent more money more effectively to breed cultures of sustained success.
One of the flaws in his argument – there were a few – was the reality of him talking as the manager of Manchester United, the 20-time champions of England. He selected an £89.3million midfielder on the bench for the 2-1 loss to Sevilla at Old Trafford, where he trudged the technical area forlornly under the glare of the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand.
Much as he would talk in reverent terms of his second-place in the Premier League that season, 19 points behind champions Manchester City, Mourinho failed at United.
Another press conference rant, where he exited the room demanding “respect” from those present, came after a 3-0 home loss to Spurs five months on from the Sevilla debacle. Mourinho was a man who had lost the thread and any notion of him succeeding Mauricio Pochettino, who so comprehensively bested him that night, felt beyond absurd at that moment.
— Tottenham Hotspur (@SpursOfficial) November 20, 2019
Underdog, not top dog
Similarly, the 2011-12 LaLiga title triumph at Real Madrid took a heavy toll upon coach and squad alike, with his Santiago Bernabeu tenure concluding unsatisfactorily 12 months later. When in charge of greats of the game, clubs familiar with prolonged and recent success, Mourinho’s schtick came up short.
His greatest deeds played out in sharply contrasting circumstances.
No team outside Europe’s “big five” leagues had won the Champions League in the eight years before Mourinho masterminded Porto’s march to glory in 2003-04 and none have since.
Chelsea were flushed with Roman Abramovich’s riches but had not won an English championship since 1954-55. The self-proclaimed Special One delivered two in two seasons after arriving at Stamford Bridge as a freshly minted European champion.
Mourinho reacquainted himself with the continent’s big trophy at Inter. The 2009-10 Champions League was the Nerazzuri’s third win in the competition but first since 1964-65.
That triumph symbolically came at the Bernabeu, with the big job lying in wait for a man who had defined a decade in European club football. It concluded Mourinho’s imperial period.
The rancour and recriminations of the past nine years leads to an understandable conclusion Tottenham have appointed a downgrade on Pochettino, replacing one of football’s brightest contemporary minds with yesterday’s man.
But if anything should encourage tentative enthusiasm for the third act of Mourinho’s coaching career at the elite level, it is that Spurs bear more resemblance to the Porto, Chelsea and Inter teams he took hold of than Madrid or United.
Pochettino’s sustained excellent over the past five seasons in north London does not mean the scars of “Spursy”, “St Totteringham’s Day” and other mockery do not still sting a little for a club starved of trophy success. Spurs feels like a place where Mourinho can promise the world and demand everyone falls into line far more effectively than when in charge of a superclub.
Those are the jobs Mourinho aspires to – and probably the roles Pochettino will grace soon enough – but it is hard to escape the feeling he has always been better suited to the rung below, with a point to prove and the spite to fuel a siege mentality his men will buy into.
4 – Jose Mourinho has won the league title in every country in which he has managed: Portugal, England, Italy and Spain. Respect. pic.twitter.com/WAGEmtnkdK
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) November 20, 2019
Alli as Lampard, Kane as Drogba?
So, what of that squad? That all important heritage.
It feels safe to say Mourinho is far happier with his lot than when he walked into Old Trafford. Not least because the likes of Danny Rose, Toby Alderweireld, Eric Dier and Harry Kane were all touted as United targets when he was in Manchester.
His best teams have featured a potent striker willing to work hard for the cause, hard running wingers and a goalscoring threat from attacking midfield. Kane, Son Heung-min, Lucas Moura and Dele Alli in tandem could feel instantly more “Mourinho” than anything he threw together at United.
Behind them, a combination of Dier and club-record signing Tanguy Ndombele feel equipped to provide the power and control his most dominant engine rooms boasted.
As for an aging Tottenham defence, they will probably welcome the defensive line being dropped a touch deeper, in line with their new boss’ more reactive principles. Indeed, a squad featuring seasoned, maturing professionals arguably come under Mourinho’s charge at the right time – no longer the all-action, do-or-die tyros who served Pochettino so well until recently.
“It’s a privilege when a manager goes to a club and feels happiness in relation to the squad that he’s going to have,” a suited and smiling Mourinho told Spurs TV. The smile won’t last over the course of a three-and-a-half year contract – it never does – but in the meantime, he might just have found the right place to earn a little more of that respect he craves.