With Jose Mourinho in Charge, Tottenham Enters Uncharted Waters on a Gamble

Regardless of past successes and recent failures, the question remains for Tottenham’s new manager: Is Jose Mourinho still in the tactical vanguard?
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“He has won honors at every club he has coached,” the Tottenham Hotspur chairman Daniel Levy said on Wednesday after appointing Jose Mourinho as his club’s new manager, in a base appeal to Mourinho’s reputation as a winner. Football, of course, will forgive almost anything if it comes with trophies–but that was just one of a number of lines in Levy’s statement that raised awkward questions.

It’s not true, of course. Mourinho won nothing at either Benfica or Uniao de Leiria, but then he was at the former for only 11 games and the latter is a mid-table club he undoubtedly improved, so perhaps a certain latitude can be forgiven. More concerning is the sense of gradually diminishing returns since he lifted the Treble with Inter in 2010. Yes, he did win the league title in his three years at Real Madrid, before leaving amid acrimony and rancor. And yes, he did win the league and League Cup again with Chelsea before a toxic final season aborted in December. And yes, he did win a League Cup and the Europa League with Manchester United during two and half seasons in which he spent a net $350 million before leaving in a familiar sulk.

“He has a wealth of experience, can inspire teams and is a great tactician,” said Levy. It’s true Mourinho is experienced. He’s been working as a coach for more than quarter of a century.

He certainly was a great tactician, amending and adapting the lessons he had learned working with Bobby Robson and Louis van Gaal at Barcelona to win an implausible Champions League with Porto. His restructure of his Inter side after being reduced to 10 men away at Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final in 2010 was a masterclass in playing without the ball.

But as time has gone by, more and more questions have been asked. Is Mourinho still in the tactical vanguard? He alone among elite managers eschews pressing. In his final season at Manchester United his side ran less than any other Premier League team. It often appeared sluggish and struggled to break down opposition that sat deep against it. A similar problem had emerged at Real Madrid, where senior players expressed frustration that the forwards were expected to improvise rather than following the sort of pre-drilled passing patterns that characterize the teams of, say, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp.

And does he still inspire teams? Paul Pogba, Luke Shaw and Marcus Rashford didn’t look particularly inspired in those final months at Manchester United. By the end at Chelsea the players were in open revolt. Madrid’s players took to briefing openly against him. The suggestion is that he struggles to deal with younger players, those who have grown up with freedom of movement and who do not burn with a desire to prove the rest of the world wrong, as was the case with Porto, Chelsea first time round and Inter.

Perhaps that’s what Tottenham is banking on. Mourinho has always been at his best with underdogs. Porto felt it had to fight constantly against the Lisbon establishment. When Mourinho took over, Chelsea hadn’t won the league for half a century. Inter was battling the Juventus/Milan hegemony. For those clubs, winning was far more important than style; at Madrid and United, there is a sense that the club must not only be successful but should play in a certain way.

Tottenham is desperate for silverware. It last won the league in 1961. How wedded Spurs fans are to their pass and move tradition is unclear. It may be that the attractive football that was often a compensation for failure can be jettisoned for success. But equally there is unlikely to be much patience if Mourinho had his team play ugly football that is not instantly successful.

Then there is the issue of budget. The move to the new stadium meant Mauricio Pochettino faced severe restrictions in spending both on transfers and salaries. Mourinho has a habit of turning on his board if he is denied the budget he believes he needs but he will find Levy an inflexible chairman–even if early reports suggest his own salary is double that Pochettino received.

The Mourinho pattern is well established: a year of building, a year of success, a year of chaos. This time, though, the ingredients for decline are already close at hand, for all that Mourinho insists he has changed. For Tottenham, this feels like an enormous and barely explicable gamble.