Jose Mourinho better fit at clubs like Tottenham who are challengers, not serial champions
Spurs hope Portuguese creates the same self-belief he did at Porto and Internazionale
Mid-season is never the ideal time to sack a head coach, but as Tottenham Hotspur chairman Daniel Levy reached the decision he was “extremely reluctant to make”, saying farewell to Mauricio Pochettino, he surveyed a fertile landscape for replacements. Even Max Allegri, who in May won the fifth of his six Italian league titles, was ready to give the idea of Spurs a long listen.
But it was Jose Mourinho who presented the arguments Levy most wanted to hear: more than 300 games’ worth of Premier League knowhow, and, for the vast majority of them, in charge of teams entrenched in the top four of the table.
Never mind a functional playing style, or the awkward back-catalogue of past rivalry with Tottenham, it is that raw data that forms the basis of Mourinho’s appointment at Spurs.
He steps into the job with Spurs 14th, and will go straight into first place on the list of current Premier League managers with the most English titles to his name. His third, and most recent, with Chelsea, came in in 2014-15, at the end of his fifth full season at a club Tottenham supporters would regard as probably their second-worst enemies, behind Arsenal.
Back in the summer of 2015, Mourinho would certainly have been regarded as the nearest thing to a guarantor of success at the top end of English football, Alex Ferguson being well retired by then. How much of that Midas touch he still has remains to be seen.
The shared urge of Mourinho and of Tottenham – who under Pochettino came tantalisingly close to major prizes – is to rediscover the drive, inspiring man-management and brilliant intuition of the Portuguese’s two boom periods at Stamford Bridge, and, importantly, the knack of generating self-belief that Mourinho brought to Porto more than 15 years ago, and to Internazionale a decade ago.
In some respects, the work he did at those clubs – he won a European Cup with each – is closer to what Tottenham need: Inter had suffered a prolonged case of brittleness under pressure when Mourinho arrived in Italy in 2008, and, although they were coming out of it when they hired Mourinho, he was the absolute cure.
As for Porto, that they feature on the list of 21st century winners of the Champions League looks a greater achievement the more that competition becomes the domain of superclubs from the wealthiest countries.
Spurs aspire to superclub status, and they now have the right address for it. The new stadium, built on the back of sacrifices in their transfer and salary budget, is a home for Champions League football, and needs that top-four status to pay its bills.
It is also waiting for someone on the touchline to make it his very own theatre. Pochettino, held in great affection by Tottenham supporters, had not become lord of the new Lane, where some of the more dispiriting afternoons and evenings of the eight-month slump that led to his departure have taken place: the seven Bayern Munich goals there last month, the defeats to Newcastle and West Ham.
Mourinho has the opportunity to define this arena as his, in a way he never could at Old Trafford where he was Manchester United manager until 11 months ago, or at the Bernabeu, where he spent three intense, wearying years as Real Madrid head coach.
At United, he won the Europa League, but Old Trafford never mistook him for the next Ferguson. At Madrid, he won a Liga title ahead of brilliant Barcelona, but finished second to Barca more often, and though many madridistas became cheerleaders for Mourinho, he learned, brutally, that Madrid is simply not a club that ever truly worships the office of head coach.
Tottenham followers will not be instantly star-struck by a manager with 25 career trophies. For one thing, there is suspicion that the perceived functionalism of Mourinho’s football clashes with the cavalier traditions of the club.
Sustained 1-0 wins leading to silverware tend to make those sort of objections evaporate remarkably quickly, and for all his dogmas about defensive rigour and detailed drills for what his players do off the ball, Mourinho is a reactive manager in the good sense of the term as well as the bad.
He will interpret his tactics according to the strengths of his squad, not his own manifesto. “The quality in both the squad and the academy excites me,” he said. “Working with these players is what has attracted me”.
Mourinho knows he has a reputation to mend. His United episode ended badly, and so lacklustre were his final months there that he was dubbed as ‘yesterday’s man’, as if the game itself had overtaken a coach once admired for his innovative man-management and strategic thinking and, yes, even his charm.
That always seemed too absolute a verdict. More compelling is the theory that Mourinho, expert cultivator of siege mentalities and postures of defiance, is a better fit at clubs who are challengers not serial champions, at a Porto rubbing up against privileged Benfica, or an Inter knocking Juventus and Milan off their perch or a nouveau riche Chelsea, rather than a United or a Madrid. Spurs belong in the challengers’ category. If they are no more than that when Mourinho leaves them, then he can be judged as past his best.
Updated: November 20, 2019 08:58 PM