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Dublin: 9°C Sunday 16 May 2021

Is Jose Mourinho now yesterday's man?

The Portuguese manager saw his Tottenham side’s Champions League hopes diminish amid a loss to Sheffield United on Thursday.

Jose Mourinho is experiencing a tough time at Tottenham.
Jose Mourinho is experiencing a tough time at Tottenham.
Image: John Walton

IN THE DOCUMENTARY ‘Take The Ball, Pass The Ball,’ which focuses on Barcelona during the Pep Guardiola era, there are some fascinating insights into the manager’s philosophy.

One involves Dmytro Chygrynskiy, the €25 million centre-back signed from Shakhtar Donetsk, who promptly went back the other way for €15 million less than a year later, after making just 12 La Liga appearances.

“We played a game against Osasuna,” Thierry Henry recalls. “Osasuna weren’t defending that [central] area well. The guy [midfielder] was not tucking in well.

“That day, Chygrynskiy played because he had a great left foot. He could ping the ball well with his right foot and his left foot. An amazing left foot.

“We were going to play a centre-back who was going to play across for Xavi. Whenever we were moving, Xavi was staying in that zone. That was the exit.

“But what was funny that day was Chygrynskiy twice played the ball long for Zlatan. And it was on. Zlatan nearly went one-on-one with the ‘keeper.

“Pep took him off, because he didn’t respect the pattern. That’s the way he studied that team, that’s the way he asked us to play.”

These words give you an idea of how sophisticated football at the highest level can be, as well as highlighting Guardiola’s uncompromising vision.

By ensuring they always pressed and played out from the back, the coach revolutionised Barcelona, and he has worked similar wonders at Bayern Munich and Man City.

What Guardiola achieved at Barca also brings to mind one of football’s great sliding doors moments.

In 2008, when the Catalan club needed a new manager, there were two primary candidates: Guardiola and Jose Mourinho.

The obvious choice was Mourinho — he was coming off the back of leaving Chelsea, having won two Premier League titles in three years there.

Instead, the Catalan outfit opted for a manager who had no managerial experience at first-team level, having only coached the club’s B team.

On the surface, it seemed illogical. They were favouring an unknown, in coaching terms at least, over someone who was then one of the most highly rated managers in the world.

There is still a strong chance Mourinho would have been successful at Barca, but it seems unlikely they would have become the phenomenon they were under Guardiola, employing a scintillating style of football with aspects to their game that had essentially never been seen before.

Barca had been familiar with the pragmatic tactics Mourinho employed, dumping them out of the Champions League while at Chelsea in 2005, with a defensive masterclass in the first leg setting them on their way, despite playing over half an hour with 10 men.

The Catalan side wanted an individual who would uphold club legend Johan Cruyff’s idealistic footballing philosophy and while some board members argued in favour of Mourinho, suggesting he was more likely to deliver instant results, Guardiola won out in the end and Barca proceeded to change football with their bold and alluring approach.

Mourinho, of course, would go on to enjoy plenty of success too, winning another Champions League with Inter, as well as domestic titles at Real Madrid and Chelsea among other accolades.

Yet it is perhaps a telling indication of their subsequent career trajectories that on the same day Guardiola was overseeing a resounding 4-0 Man City win over newly crowned Premier League champions Liverpool, Mourinho was watching his Tottenham team lose 3-1 to Sheffield United.

In stark contrast with Guardiola, there is a sense of diminishing returns with Mourinho’s brand of football. It is three years since he last won a trophy — the Europa League at Man United — and five years since his last league title win with Chelsea.

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“There are lots of poets in football but poets, they don’t win many titles,” Mourinho told BT Sport, after Man United overcame an exciting young Ajax side to claim a trophy he once effectively mocked Rafa Benitez for winning.  

sheffield-united-v-tottenham-hotspur-premier-league-bramall-lane Tottenham Hotspur's Giovani Lo Celso (left), Dele Alli (centre) and Harry Kane walk off after the Premier League match at Bramall Lane Source: Oli Scarff/NMC Pool/PA Wire

Yet in a world where Jurgen Klopp’s heavy-metal football is king, Mourinho’s far less flashy tendencies feel increasingly stale and redundant.

The 57-year-old coach has picked up titles at virtually every club he’s been at, but whereas he was winning the Champions League early on in his career, that trophy now feels further away than ever. In addition, the spell at Man United is probably his first managerial stint you could brand an unequivocal failure, given that it was the first time since an early stint at União de Leiria that he did not depart with at least one league title to his name.

The self-professed ‘Special One’ made his name in football as an underdog. After Porto beat the Red Devils 2-1 in the Champions League in 2004, an angry Alex Ferguson lamented what he felt was a harsh Roy Keane sending off.

“I understand why he is a bit emotional,” Mourinho responded.

“You would be sad if your team gets as clearly dominated by opponents who have been built on 10% of the budget.”

Chris Wilder is not the type of manager to make provocative statements, but if he was, the Sheffield United coach might have had the exact same reaction yesterday after Mourinho bemoaned some VAR calls when Tottenham were well beaten.

Spurs and Mourinho always seemed a curious fit.

While obviously nowhere near as successful, like Barca, Tottenham have had a history of playing an exciting brand of football.

Even at some of their lowest moments — going 3-0 up against Man United before losing 5-3 in 2001 for instance — they were invariably worth watching.

In the past, managers who have tried to instil a negative style have generally not fared well. In 2004, Jacques Santini imposed what many believed was a dull type of football and lasted just 13 games. 

Immediately upon taking over from Santini, Martin Jol — a boyhood Spurs fan when growing up in the Netherlands — spoke about the importance of playing enjoyable, attacking football, the ‘Tottenham way’.

Subsequent Spurs managers generally shared this belief, right up until last season, when Mauricio Pochettino’s side were involved in two of the most exciting games in recent memory — the thrilling Champions League comebacks against Man City and Ajax.

Yet after an indifferent start to the 2019-20 campaign, Spurs chairman Daniel Levy was not happy. 

One of the most frequent criticisms levelled at Pochettino was that he had not won a trophy, despite comfortably being Spurs’ most successful manager of the Premier League era, guiding them to four Champions League qualifications (they had only qualified once before him) while encouraging the footballing values that supporters hold dear.

Yet 12 months on from those famous Champions League victories, Tottenham look a pale shadow of their former selves and could be set for their first season without any form of European football for over a decade.

Of course, the under-performing likes of Dele Alli, club-record signing Tanguy Ndombele and Eric Dier deserve a considerable share of the blame, but latter-day Mourinho seems to have a habit of getting the worst out of players, as was apparent towards the end of his spells at both Chelsea and Man United.

Previously, the Portuguese coach lamented the absence of key stars such as Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, yet a near-full-strength Spurs were as tepid at Bramall Lane as they have been for much of Mourinho’s reign. 

On Thursday and on previous occasions, Tottenham players looked jaded, devoid of ideas and overly reliant on the long ball up to Harry Kane — the type of play Guardiola was severely punishing players for a decade ago — and which seems antithetical to the modern-day Premier League environment. 

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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