A Special Turnaround

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What a difference a few weeks can make. After a long, largely underwhelming summer, the season couldn’t have kicked off with a more disappointing result and performance than Everton at home. The team was dull, listless, seemingly bereft of hope or direction, and drifting irrevocably towards mid-table oblivion… 

Fast forward three weeks, to the international break, and Spurs are suddenly one of the league’s hottest teams, scoring at will, and eviscerating England’s biggest club in the process. 

It’s tough to pinpoint an exact moment for the upturn in form and fortune for Tottenham Hotspur, but (re)signing Gareth Bale has to be a prime candidate. Even before his official unveiling, news of his imminent arrival had sent a jolt of electricity through everyone affiliated with the club. The storylines were myriad: a cherished son returning home; a player returning to the Premier League with a point to prove; Kane and Bale, heroes of two distinct Tottenham eras, improbably colliding. 

Ultimately, however, it was an even more basic of plot lines that may have galvanized the team, and resurrected its depleted forces: Tottenham Hotspur had finally signed a player of genuine world class. That it was Bale, one of Spurs’ greatest ever players of the Premier League era, made it extra special. For fans almost conditioned to missing out on top players every window, it was both surprising and wondrous to see Tottenham Hotspur finally flexing some of their financial muscle.

Bale coming in on a free, possibly being injured for a month, and potentially a mere shadow of the dominant, bludgeoning force of seven years ago was irrelevant; the Welshman was back, and nothing else mattered. He is still yet to kick a ball in anger, yet it’s tough to quantify the impact his signing has had on the club. The feel good factor — missing since arguably 2018 (not counting the slightly fortuitous run to the Champions League final the following year) — is back, and a steady sense of hope slowly resurfacing. One could make the case that even if Bale never ends up playing any meaningful games for the club, the effect of having a man of his caliber and experience around Hotspur Way might still be significant. With the likes of Son, Kane, Ndombele etc in such rude form, who needs Bale, anyway?

The week that preceded the season’s first international break is one that may live long in the memories of Tottenham fans everywhere. Nothing was won, to be sure, but the effect on the club’s collective mood, and the renewed optimism it garnered for the season ahead cannot be understated. 

It began in typical Tottenham fashion; a late, unfortunate equalizer after a decent enough performance, cruelly denying the team three points in a game Spurs had to win. Tottenham’s penchant for snatching defeat from the jaws of success had reared its ugly head once more.

Instead of lamenting on the ill fortune and disappointment of the setback, however, Spurs incredibly were able to use it as a springboard to inspire success. Resilience in the face of adversity is not a trait commonly associated with Tottenham Hotspur, so the results of what was on paper one of the more taxing weeks in the club’s recent history, certainly bear grounds for positivity.

Chelsea, so often Tottenham’s nemesis, were put to the sword in memorable fashion, Spurs coming back from a goal down and dominating the second half before holding their nerve to win in penalties. Yes, you heard that right; Spurs came from behind to beat Chelsea, in cup competition — and in penalties no less. In recent years that statement would have read as a print error, a Tottenham loss almost a guaranteed outcome.

Next up were Maccabi Haifa, a far cry from the glamorous array of names Spurs had encountered for the past few years in the Champions League, but a potential stumbling block regardless. The Israeli’s were battered for seven, with Kane even able to rest for the majority of the game.

If the team’s momentum and confidence had been building, Sunday was the coup de gras, the cherry on top of the pie, the final course of a deliciously assembled footballing platter. United weren’t so much beaten, as dismantled, the Theater of Dreams brutally reduced to a pile of rubble. It was the first time Manchester United had conceded four goals in one half, and only the second time they’d conceded six in the Premier League era.

Four games in seven days is the sort of fixture pileup that can derail even the strongest of squad’s. An impossible feat, many observed, both neutrals and those of a Spurs persuasion. Indeed, Mourinho himself had given the team no chance, complaining that there was no possible way he could approach the Chelsea game with any real degree of seriousness. Yet Spurs handled the pileup with aplomb, seeming to grow in stature as the week went on. If anything, it was they, more than any other team in England, who lamented the timing of the international break. 

Tottenham had scored thirteen goals in two matches, with Gareth Bale still to integrate into the team. Suddenly, things were beginning to look much different for the North London side, the various permutations of the team — especially in the forward positions — now appearing a tantalizing prospect. A week that many Spurs fans had entered with a mix of dread and anxiety, ended with warm, slightly irrational delusions of grandeur. Tottenham couldn’t win the league…could they?

One former manager certainly thought so…

The rest of the new signings that arrived didn’t hurt either. Reguilon, who has seen plenty of first team action, has been a revelation. Carlos Vinicius’s mere presence as a second striker seems to have alleviated the burden — at least partially — on Harry Kane, who now knows that an injury to him maybe not be as terminal as in previous seasons. 

Hojbjerg is growing in stature, Ndombele is a man revived — pretty much everyone bar Dele Alli is enjoying a renaissance of sorts. 

But beneath the gloss of Gareth Bale’s homecoming, and the various other signings, along with the improvement of current squad members, it’s hard to ignore the impact a certain Portuguese has had on the club as a whole. Indeed, it would be neglectful to discuss Tottenham’s recent revival without mentioning arguably its most forceful architect. What we’ve seen from Mourinho these past few weeks has been nothing short of a masterclass. 

From managing his chairman, to handling the media and reigniting the psychological games he played to perfection a decade ago, Jose Mourinho is a man now fully in his element. It was said by those close to the club that Jose had provided a dossier immediately upon the close of the previous season on areas he wanted improved. Targets in various positions were presented, and Mourinho followed up on them throughout the summer. Perhaps, this was why — unlike so many summers before — Tottenham moved with urgency, infused with a sense of purpose rarely seen in recent years. There was a plan, a clear directive on what was needed, one that Mourinho helped facilitate from beginning to end. Doherty and Hojbjerg were very much Mourinho signings, players he’d watched and been impressed with, and who he knew the club could get for cheap. The striker situation — something that had lingered for far too long — was a matter that both publicly, and behind the scenes, he was utterly uncompromising on. 

You look to all the other top clubs and they have many options at centre-forward and that question doesn’t appear. I don’t want managers to misinterpret my words.

It looks like it’s only with us that we don’t have the right to have a more balanced squad with more options.

Jose Mourinho

Mourinho’s comments were a damning rebuke to all those who had somehow insisted that with Kane at the club, there was no need to sign a second striker. The onus was very squarely put on the likes of Hitchen and Levy to deliver. And after much ado, they finally did. Vinicius isn’t perhaps the household name some were hoping for, but he is a player with potential; a target man of some quality, who can play both with, and in place of Harry Kane. Mourinho was clear in his objectives, and outside of a new center back, got almost everything he asked for. 

Extracting funds from Levy is no easy feat — something the likes of Redknapp, AVB, and Pochettino have found to their detriment. Yet cajoling Spurs’ infamously parsimonious hierarchy into finally getting their recruitment act together was only one piece of the managerial puzzle. Once the season began, it was Mourinho’s game management skills that would invariably come under the most scrutiny. 

The Portuguese appears back to the cunning, effervescent character of his prime, freed from the shackles of joining a team in sharp decline in mid-season, unsure of how or where the squad might end up. In many ways, the week of games preceding the international break served as an emphatic, unequivocal statement to his critics; showing in no uncertain terms that Mourinho is no spent force; that there is still plenty of fire still left in his belly, and ample ice still flowing through his veins. The old Jose is back, and hopefully here to stay.

Publicly complaining about the fixture list, and essentially giving his team no hope to compete, was classic Mourinho. Like Mohammed Alli, Mourinho loves to play possum, to project an outward appearance of weakness, hoping to lull the opponent into a false sense of security, only to surprise and overwhelm when their guard is down. It’s a tactic he used numerous times as manager of Chelsea, Inter, and Real, and which often worked to great effect. Mourinho wants to win every game he plays. Any suggestion otherwise is mind games, pure and simple. 

Playing up Son’s injury before the crunch match against United was also pure Mourinho — further evidence of his almost pathological immersion in the dark arts of footballing management. With Son hauled off at half time against Maccabi Haifa, and Jose complaining (again) after the game of the fixture pileup, few expected Son to start on the Sunday. One can only imagine the shock and trepidation Solskjaer and his team must have felt picking up the team sheet for the first time and seeing Son Heung-Min not only in the match day squad, but starting. 

Conversely, what a boon it must have been to Spurs to see their talisman alongside them, ready for deployment against an unsuspecting and already reeling United. 

These are the type of tricks that lesser managers are not versed in, the sort of environment in which Mourinho thrives. He is, at his core, a master of the psychological, a professor of the dark arts, and it’s something that Tottenham Hotspur have lacked for years.

It’s no coincidence that Tottenham’s first cup win against Chelsea since 2008 came with Mourinho at the helm. That big game mentality, that uncanny ability to get over the line in big fixtures, is something that no amount of tactical analysis or discussion can teach; it has to be transmitted, osmosis like, into the pores of those watching. For all of Pochettino’s qualities, perhaps this was the area in which he was most lacking. That final intangible, that crucial extra one percent to impart to your team at the key moments. Maybe this is what separates the truly great managers and coaches from the rest? Who among us would have given Spurs any hope of winning that Chelsea game at half time, let alone with such a packed fixture list ahead, and especially in a penalty shoot out? Yet it was Mourinho’s former player, Frank Lampard who appeared flustered, and Chelsea who looked tired and weary, despite not having nearly as tough of a schedule ahead of them. 

Amazon’s All or Nothing documentary was revelatory — if for nothing else to delve deeper into the psyche of Jose Mourinho, to understand what makes him tick, and what contributes most to his success. Having watched the previous installment of the documentary (centered around Manchester City), the contrasts between him and his great rival, Pep Guardiola, are immediately apparent. One is a great student of the game, a deep thinker who meticulously plans and predicts every possible tactical outcome; the other a military-style general, who wages psychological warfare before, during, and after the game, using his wiles and ingenuity to exploit weaknesses and crush his opponents. Pep prepares his players for an examination, Mourinho leads his men into battle. While brains, guile and design are Pep’s greatest weapons; mentality, ruthlessness and fortitude are Mourinho’s. 

Those who have followed Tottenham Hotspur for any period of time will know that mentality has arguably been the club’s biggest weakness. Yes, the various squad’s assembled have always been lacking in key areas, but at the crunch times, when the heat has truly been turned on, Spurs have wilted more often than not. That winning mentality, that special, intangible final piece of a team’s makeup that turns them from a collection of good players, into champions — perhaps this is what Mourinho can offer most to this football club? If ever there was a manager capable of teaching this; it’s Mourinho. And if ever there was a team desperately in need of learning this; it is Tottenham. 

So perhaps, amidst all of the uncertainty that greeted his appointment, the skepticism and antipathy that came with his Chelsea connections and past history, Jose Mourinho and Tottenham really are a match made in heaven after all? It’s early days yet, but the signs that Mourinho is having a massive impact on this team are undeniable. One can only hope that it is just the beginning, and that the good times, and trophies, are on the horizon. Until then, we can all sit back and enjoy the upshot of the Mourinho effect. 

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