José Mourinho’s departure from Tottenham may not have been a surprise, but the timing of it was. The biggest question must be, why now? Have things really gotten so bad that Tottenham’s hierarchy believes it is more likely to win this Sunday’s League Cup final without Mourinho than with him?
Mourinho was always a slightly odd appointment. Form and morale had begun to disintegrate toward the end of Mauricio Pochettino’s tenure, but as he had stressed, the issue was a squad that had gone stale, as recruitment was hampered by the costs of moving to a new stadium. Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy essentially had two choices and he went with the simpler one: replacing the manager.
Hiring Mourinho looks in retrospect like one final throw of the dice, hoping the impact of somebody who was once a charismatic winner would re-energize a fading squad. It did not. The result is that the squad still needs major surgery and now there is a huge payout—likely to be well into eight figures—to be made to a manager who increasingly looks as though his best days are behind him.
Yet very briefly, it appeared that this might work. In December, Spurs went to Anfield knowing that a win would take them top of the league. There was talk of an unexpected title bid, of how the unusual circumstances of this season may suit Mourinho’s football. He appeared to have recovered some of his zest and his charm. For a time he became funny again.
Against Liverpool, Spurs got themselves into a good position. Playing on the break, they unsettled Liverpool, and with quarter of an hour to go were drawing 1-1 and causing problems. Steven Bergwijn hit the post and Harry Kane had a header that bounced over the bar. Then, Mourinho took off Bergwijn for Sergio Reguilón, adding a second left back. The plan, presumably, was to ensure Trent Alexander-Arnold wasn’t able to advance, but it seemed like a misreading of the game from a man once so sensitive to psychological shifts. Tottenham handed Liverpool the initiative, and Liverpool, suddenly released from fear of the counter, poured forward, applied pressure and eventually found a winner.
Since then, Tottenham has taken 25 points from 19 games and has slipped to seventh in the table, five points off fourth. It’s been bundled out of the FA Cup by Everton and the Europa League by Dinamo Zagreb. It’s thrown away promising positions in games against West Ham, LASK, Crystal Palace, Wolves, Fulham, Newcastle, Arsenal and Everton as well as the games against Liverpool and Dinamo Zagreb—almost always through the same process of dropping deep. Mourinho, once the great pragmatist, has become dogmatically dour.
This, perhaps, is the culmination of the process that began when he was overlooked for the Barcelona job in 2008 in favor of Pep Guardiola. Suddenly he became the anti-Pep, the anti-Barcelona. He became everything Guardiola was not. If Barça wanted the ball, he didn’t. If Barça pressed, he operated with a low block. That’s why victory with Inter over Barcelona in the 2010 Champions League semifinal was so special for him: he went to Camp Nou and guided his side through with 19% possession.
But as football has evolved, Mourinho has not. It’s hard to think of a phrase more antithetical to the modern game at the elite level than Mourinho’s dictum, as reported by Diego Torres in his biography, that “he who has the ball has fear.” But there is also a secondary problem, which is that at clubs such as Real Madrid, Manchester United and Tottenham, there is a requirement to play a certain type of football. Madrid and United are grandees of the game who see themselves as possessing a certain swagger; for Tottenham for years the style of football has been a convenient substitute for trophies. Fans will tolerate any sort of football if it is successful, but as soon as it is not, they turn. Ugliness without silverware is pointless.
It was an open secret for several weeks that Mourinho’s future was being discussed, and few expected him to last beyond the summer. It was understood that he was sustained in the job by the support of a handful of senior players and the cost of dismissing him. As the mood has become more toxic, though, and Mourinho has repeated his familiar tactic of using post-match interviews to absolve himself of blame by pointing the finger at individuals, the support of those players has waned.
The League Cup had offered a potential face-saving exit. Levy could say his man had secured Tottenham’s first trophy since 2008, and Mourinho could walk away with another trophy. To believe he would hinder success suggests just how the atmosphere has soured.
Even with a squad that requires work, Spurs remain an attractive proposition for another manager, with their remarkable stadium and, seemingly, membership in the proposed European Super League. But it feels as if the game has evolved and left Mourinho behind, while he no longer has the same hypnotic hold over his players. For him, at the very highest level, this may be the end.
More Soccer Coverage: