What has been remarkable about the fourth coming of José Mourinho in English football is how quickly he has played the hits.
He arrived at Tottenham as a changed man, again. This time he was humbler, happier, calmer than ever before. There was a brief upturn in results, then the wider problems at the club began to drag performances down again. And now, already, two months in to his reign, we’re seeing all the familiar favorites: the shrugging, the rolling of eyes, the lineups so defensive they can only have been selected to make a point, the criticism of a player for his injury record, the mysterious blanking of a young forward. It’s the same act as ever, it’s just this time everybody’s seen it before.
And then a genuine point of crisis: a serious hamstring injury to Harry Kane, one that could conceivably keep him out of the Euros. Suddenly Mourinho’s efforts to persuade everybody that the job is impossible without major investment is given credibility, because without the club’s leading scorer, managing Tottenham manifestly is much harder than it was.
A pedant might point out that Kane missed six weeks at the end of last season, a time during which Tottenham saw off Manchester City and Ajax in the Champions League quarterfinals and semifinals; that the squad isn’t that bad; that Son Heung-min and Lucas Moura are pretty decent players; that Tottenham’s record was actually very slightly better without Kane last season than with him. Details are rarely heard over a charismatic populist, though, and Mourinho is brilliant at informing his public that the situation is impossible, that only his drastic measures can save them.
Kane clearly is a major loss. He has scored 11 league goals this season, as many as the next two highest scorers, Dele Alli and Son, put together. But more than that, he is the figure around whom Mourinho has constructed his tactics. He wants to play the familiar way, sitting deep and hitting the ball long. Or at least, the familiar way for the modern Mourinho. He has always favored direct football, and he had great success not only with Didier Drogba at Chelsea but also Derlei at Porto and Diego Milito at Inter, players comfortable with their back to goal. But there is a sense that he is more prepared to go long than he used to be.
A psychological explanation (as set out in this writer's book, The Barcelona Inheritance) may be that after being rejected by Barcelona for Pep Guardiola in 2008, he sought to emphasize his difference from the club that formed him as a coach. At the same time, the pressing revolution, which has largely passed Mourinho by, makes playing through midfield far more risky, naturally increasing the aversion in a coach who has become increasingly defined by fear.
To play consistently long demands a target man, and Kane, a remarkably versatile player, can operate like that, even if there is a thought that having him only do that rather wastes his ability to come deep and operate as a de facto No. 10. Tottenham at its very best under Mauricio Pochettino had him do both, with Son, Alli, Lucas and Christian Eriksen breaking beyond him.
But there is nobody else in the squad who can play like that. Son and Lucas are both quick players, at their best with the ball in front of them. Mourinho could perhaps try Troy Parrott, the hugely promising 17-year-old Ireland international, but he didn’t even include him in the 18-man squad for this week’s FA Cup replay victory over Middlesbrough, a bizarre omission given his obvious talent. But this is Mourinho, so the widespread assumption is that leaving Parrott out was making a point, that he was highlighting to his board that he needs money to sign a striker in this window.
Eriksen, it seems, will finally leave this January, most likely joining Inter Milan. Given his barely engaged performances in the past six months, that will probably come as a relief to all concerned. Gedson Fernandes, the 21-year-old Portuguese midfielder, has joined on an 18-month loan, although given that his involvement at Benfica has been intermittent at best, he is unlikely to be an immediate solution to any of Tottenham’s issues in that area–most troublingly Mourinho’s seeming lack of faith in Tanguy Ndombele and Harry Winks.
And so the wheel turns again, more politicking at the expense of planning, more highlighting the deficiencies rather than tweaking his tactical approach to get the best out of Son and Lucas. Others play for points or trophies, but Mourinho is always playing for Mourinho’s reputation.