Mourinho’s year in review

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Jose Mourinho arrived at N17 as one of the world’s most decorated managers. His stock had also never been lower. So how has the Portuguese fared in his first year in North London?

Almost exactly a year ago today, Jose Mourinho walked into Tottenham Hotspur football club and reintroduced himself to the Premier League. His arrival came amidst a tumultuous few days in the club’s history, with Pochettino fired after a dismal run of form, and players struggling at both ends of the pitch. The remit, for Mourinho, was unlike any he’d faced before: take over a struggling team in mid-season, resurrect their fortunes, and somehow get them back on track to compete at the very top of English football.

So 12 months and 50 games later, how should we judge the Mourinho era? We’ll look at his reign through three main criteria: man-management, tactical evolution, and of course, on-field results.

Man Management

Harry Redknapp was often derided for his basic, unrefined tactics, written off as an affable, avuncular coach, not the sharp, serious football philosopher that was fast becoming in vogue across Europe. But while he may not have had the tactical nous of some of his rivals, Harry was nonetheless able to get Tottenham performing at the upper echelons of the league. Indeed, with a little more backing, who knows what his team of Bale, Modric, Van Der Vaart et al might have accomplished? Today, football is widely believed to have moved on from the likes of Redknapp, who’s primary and most marketable asset was undeniably his people skills. But in an era of false 9’s and gegenpresses, it’s often forgotten how crucial the human side of coaching still proves to be.

Mourinho is far more sophisticated and versatile tactically than Redknapp, but he, too, operates more through force of persona than the meticulously deployed patterns and positional augmentations of some of his contemporaries. Where Guardiola, for example, will confuse and outthink opponents with small, often imperceptible tactical tweaks, Mourinho will imbue his teams with the individual and collective mentality of killers. Pep prepares his players for a game of chess; Mourinho readies his troops for war.  

His ruthless, uncompromising brand of management was evident almost immediately upon his arrival at N17. Tanguy Ndombele, Tottenham’s record signing, his first, and not entirely unexpected victim. Ndombele had struggled through form and fitness during the last few months of the Pochettino reign, but was never publicly called out. That all changed abruptly with the arrival of Mourinho. 

My thinking was that in the first half we didn’t have a midfield. Simple as that.

I think more important than the tactics is to have midfield players that want the ball, to have midfield players that connect the game, to have midfield players that press, to have midfield players that recover the ball, to have midfield players that win duels and we didn’t have it.

Jose Mourinho

And just in case anyone was wondering who exactly Mourinho was referring to in his post-match press conference, after watching his team draw with Burnley, he took it upon himself to clarify:

Of course I’m not talking about Skipp as he’s 19-year-old. I’m not critical of Skipp at all. Tanguy had enough time to come to a different level. A player with this potential and responsibility has to give us more than he is giving us.”

Jose Mourinho

It was a rude awakening for Spurs fans as much as it was for Tanguy Ndombele. Rarely had they seen a manager single out and eviscerate an individual in such stark, brutal fashion. Mourinho, clearly, was living up to his reputation.

For Ndombele, a player who was already beginning to become a target of the boo-boys, things were not looking good. If he was under any illusions before, he now knew unequivocally that he had not only to overcome the language, culture and ways of a new country, but a new manager who very much had his sights set squarely upon him. Indeed, Tottenham’s Amazon documentary, All or Nothing, revealed how serious the situation had become, with the club’s chairman, Daniel Levy, eventually forced to step in and personally intervene at one point.

Thankfully, the Ndombele saga is a story with (at least at time of writing) a happy ending, as Tanguy has been able to turn his fortunes around quite dramatically, becoming arguably one of the first names on the team sheet, and a player Mourinho can now count on in big games. The question, however, from a team and management perspective, is was Mourinho right to single out and ostracize the young Frenchman? 

His personal arc at the club, would suggest yes. However, as we’ve seen both before and after in Mourinho’s managerial career, things don’t always work out so well. 

Dele Alli, has also fallen victim of Mourinho’s ire, and has not fared as well. 

Are you Dele, or Dele Alli’s brother?

Jose Mourinho

The comment drew mostly laughs from those who watched Amazon’s documentary, believing it to be mere banter; a light hearted attempt from a new coach to light a fire under the player’s backside and inspire him to greatness. In retrospect, however, it shows that Mourinho was always skeptical of Alli, the same way he was of De Bruyne and Salah at Chelsea, and most famously, Pogba at United. None of those players ever worked their way back into Mourinho’s good books, consigned to remaining on the fringes of his teams, and mired in footballing purgatory. It’s worth noting that while Pogba has yet to truly discover his best form, De Bruyne and Salah have both gone on to become two of the Premier League’s finest players.

Dele Alli, is now very much a man on the outside looking in, with his Tottenham future hanging by a thread. It’s difficult to see a route back for the young Englishman at this point, such is the degree to which he’s been exiled and ignored in recent weeks.

So is this approach warranted? Or perhaps more specifically, is it the smart move given the circumstances? Looking deeper, it’s not hard to see that Chelsea, and to a lesser extent United, were entirely different situations to the one Mourinho is facing at Tottenham. Chelsea’s squad especially was star-studded, laden with quality, with a conveyer belt of talent waiting to take De Bruyne or Salah’s place. Even if an existing player did not usurp them, he knew that he could dip into the transfer market at any point to secure another top player. At Tottenham, the situation is vastly different. As seen with the likes of Walker, Wanyama, Dembele, and more recently Eriksen, signing a suitable replacement for outgoing star players is by no means a sure thing. Given past history, it could be years before a genuine Alli replacement — a player capable of chipping in with 15 goals and 10 assists a season — is actually found. These players will likely cost upwards of £50million, the sort of figures that make Daniel Levy uneasy, and unlikely to sanction a deal any time soon. For this reason, it would appear that this harsh, caustic approach might be a little misguided at Tottenham Hotspur, under a hierarchy so notoriously risk and spend-averse. Perhaps rehabilitating and reintegrating Dele would be the smarter option — at least in the short term?

Score: 6

Tactical Evolution

Mourinho’s style, and his overarching tactics, were arguably the most worrying aspect of his appointment for many Tottenham fans. He’d had run ins with the club before, and his Chelsea past wasn’t exactly ideal, but it was the prospect of dull, dour, pragmatic football — anathema to most Spurs fans, and a profound antithesis of the Tottenham way — that formed the greatest grounds for concern. “Sure we might win…but we’ll die of boredom along the way!” went the familiar refrain, with many initially refusing to accept his appointment at all.

Indeed, Manchester United fans had seen a brand of football that few would describe as inspiring. While he did manage to pick up a couple of trophies — the first for the club in the post-Ferguson era — his reputation had soured to such a degree that many wondered whether he’d ever find himself at a top job again. Was Mourinho a dinosaur? A relic of a bygone era, passed up by younger, more progressive and proactive managers? The likes of Nagelsmann, Klopp, and of course Guardiola were becoming increasingly coveted in the eyes of Europe’s power brokers, and there is no question that Mourinho had lost much of luster in the eyes of the continent’s biggest clubs.

However, was the United episode somewhat of an anomaly? And is his reputation for dull, boring football somewhat overblown? After all, his Chelsea and Madrid team broke records for goals scored, and featured some of the greatest attacking players in recent history. Mesut Ozil — very much a “luxury” player — has been listed among Mourinho’s all time favourite footballers. Furthermore, and perhaps even more pertinently, without a major trophy to celebrate in well over a decade, could fans of Tottenham Hotspur afford to be so picky? After such a barren spell — the longest in the club’s illustrious history — was winning at all costs now not the only thing that mattered? 

Analyzing Mourinho’s style of play at Spurs, it’s hard to paint it as genuinely poor football. Sure, it’s counter-attacking based, and a stark departure from Pochettino’s high press, high octane football. But it’s not Dyche-ball; no one’s leaving 10 men behind the ball and only emerging from their shells once or twice a game. Mourinho’s style is far more progressive than that, coaxing opponents into emerging from their low-blocks, before launching quick-fire and often ruthlessly efficient counters. The approach has worked to devastating effect on more than one occasion — most notably against Manchester United, when the Red Devils were torn apart during 90 minutes, their Theater of Dreams reduced to a pile of smoldering rubble. Few were decrying the lack of entertainment or aesthetic value then. 

This is not to say that the approach is not without its critics. Many feel that Spurs are still too conservative, too reactive, especially against some of the league’s lesser teams. Against West Ham, the team sat back and retreated to such a degree, that the Hammers were given the freedom of the park, provided incentive and license to get back into the game. One can’t help but wonder whether pressing the foot down and driving home the advantage might have averted what was to come. In fairness, however, it’s difficult for any manager to legislate for the individual mistakes the likes of Sanchez and Dier are prone to making week in, week out, and had the team closed out the victory, few would be talking about it today.

As long as Tottenham keep picking up results, few will complain about Mourinho’s tactics.

Score: 7

On Field Results

Like any manager past or present, Mourinho will ultimately be judged on his on-field results. Looking purely through this prism, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. After a great first few matches, and some promising results, the team had slid off the pace to such a degree, that the pandemic break came as a welcome relief. Indeed, prior to the lockdown, Mourinho’s 44% win ratio at Tottenham was worse than any manager since Juande Ramos, and only the 8th highest since the birth of the Premier league. Yes, there were injuries, but it’s no exaggeration to say that without the coronavirus interruption, the team may have been in serious trouble, unable to buy a win in any competition, and looking bereft of hope and inspiration. Spurs were toothless up front, but also leaking goals at an alarming rate, surprising for a Mourinho team.

After the restart, with Kane and Son back from injury and virtually a full squad of players to choose from, expectations were high. Indeed, Champions League qualification was still very much a possibility. However, Tottenham underwhelmed, succumbing to some disastrous defeats, and rarely looking like a top 4 team.

6th, ultimately was a fair outcome for Spurs, showing that while the ship had been steadied, there was still clearly much work to be done. Having taken over with the team in 14th, Mourinho would feel that while one part of his brief had been completed, the stated goal of bringing Tottenham back amongst the elite was still a distant prospect.

After a relatively stable summer, and some intelligent transfer business, expectations were high going into the new season. Once again, however, Spurs flattered to deceive, falling to a dismal opening day defeat at the hands of Ancelotti’s Everton.

Yet remarkably, form and fortunes picked up drastically since then. 8 games into the new season, Spurs find themselves exactly where they want to be, in 2nd place, and just one point behind leaders Leicester. The underlying figures are also solid, with Tottenham the league’s second highest scorers, and boasting the joint highest goal difference. Time will tell whether the team can sustain this form for the rest of the season, but the early signs are promising.

Score: 7

Final Thoughts:

Overall, Mourinho’s 1st year at Tottenham has to be classed as a success. He’s gets a lot of leeway due to the myriad complications that have arisen during his brief tenure. Had he enjoyed the benefit of a full complement of players to choose from, without injuries to a paper thin squad, and of course without the interruption of a global pandemic, one might have to view things in a different light. 

Given all that’s transpired, however, Mourinho has accomplished his major directives, without setting the league on fire. His primary remit, of course, after the turmoil and disarray of Pochettino’s final days, was to steady the ship. He has inarguably achieved this, with a semblance of normality and stability now clearly pervading the club. Insiders have observed that the spirit within the team, from the treatment rooms and gyms inside Hotspur Way, to the dressing rooms pre and post games inside the stadium, is as good as it’s been in quite a few years. 

Tactically, there is room for improvement. There are still games — and even moments in games — where the team could go for the jugular more, and try to kill off games rather than sitting back. The West Ham and Newcastle games are perfect examples of opposition being fully, comprehensively beaten, before being allowed a route back into the game. One must also take into account, however, the tools at his disposal. Sanchez is not a top defender, and simply cannot be trusted, something Mourinho appears to have acknowledged. Dier, while somewhat more reliable, is still prone to the occasional catastrophic error, and doesn’t read the game nearly as well as he should. Toby is still the club’s number one center back, but he is aging, shorn of the pace and sharpness of years gone by.

The potential with Mourinho at the helm is clearly there. Rumors of his demise appear to have been greatly exaggerated. On the evidence of the past year, there is still much left in the tank of the wily Portuguese. One hopes that with a few more tweaks to the squad, Tottenham will finally have a team and squad truly capable of competing at the very top level of European football. With January fast approaching, and Mourinho already discussing long-term transfer plans at the club, one can only hope that, unlike many of his predecessors, he will actually receive the backing required. Whether he will or not, time will tell. What’s indisputable, however, is that he’s earned the right.

With a better defense, it’s not hard to imagine that some of those silly points dropped could have been avoided, and the team sitting in a much more comfortable position atop the Premier League table. A new center back — or even center back pairing — is paramount if Tottenham are serious about contending at the top level. Milan Skriniar would have made a big difference to this team, and one hopes that the club either return for him in January, or have another top quality center back lined up. A creative player to finally replace Christian Eriksen is also important, as the team have struggled to break down tightly packed, deep lying defenses. It’s also tough to expect Son and Kane to maintain their blistering form throughout the season, so another forward to ease the burden would be wise. With copious amounts of deadwood to shift, one hopes that the finances will be there to bridge the gap and truly take the team to the next level.

So with a healthy squad and Mourinho at the peak of his powers, could this be the year that Spurs finally break their trophy drought? In a year with no runaway leaders, and even Liverpool and City looking vulnerable, Mourinho will know that his team will have as good a chance as any to launch a genuine title charge. And with the year ending in one, maybe, just maybe, this will prove to be Tottenham’s year.

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