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Spurs just the right size club for Mourinho as he rediscovers his mojo

If Manchester United and Real Madrid were too big for him, Jose is finding Spurs to be the perfect fit for a career redemption.

Jose Mourinho.
Jose Mourinho.
Image: PA

JOSE MOURINHO WAS busy on social media again this week, sending a video to Turki al-Sheikh, the Saudi sports minister and close confidante of Mohamed Bin Salman, in which he invited him to a game at “the best stadium in the world” while praising his “big heart” and “the amazing things you do for people.” 

This was a reminder of Jose’s fondness for established men of power: he posed for photos with Vladimir Putin during the 2018 World Cup, a competition for which he did a few punditry spots for Russian state broadcaster RT. 

Mourinho’s childhood is indelibly linked to a strongman, too. His family were very wealthy in the early stages of his life, growing rich off the back of a sardine-canning empire that largely relied on the stability of António Salazar’s fascist regime, and when the regime was toppled in 1974 the family lost much of their wealth. 

The factory was expropriated by the workers, the town raised a Communist mayor and Mourinho’s family were too easily identified as bourgeois and lost most of their property. They retained their opulent home so Jose wasn’t exactly raised in poverty, but nonetheless, the defining arc of his childhood was his learning he was suddenly no longer part of the establishment. 

His managerial career can be seen to have played out this anxiety, as its defining arc has been the struggle of an outsider trying to prove to everyone else that he belongs among the elite.

It’s been an ambition ultimately unfulfilled as Mourinho has never really fit among the super-elite he’s coached. Real Madrid and Manchester United are too storied and self-confident to be persuaded by their manager they are actually the underdogs. 

This is what Mourinho’s style of football demands, that teams sit deep to defend and aim to score on the counter-attack demands a prior agreement from everyone of their ultimate inferiority. To misquote from a song lately appropriated for Mohamed Salah: these are clubs who have seen such riches they could never live with being poor. 

Instead Jose’s approach has worked at the clubs on the fringes of the establishment, like Porto, Chelsea, and Inter Milan. 

soccer-uefa-champions-league-final-monaco-v-fc-porto Mourinho with the European Cup after Porto's triumph in 2004. Source: EMPICS Sport

It could never really work at United, the only club at which he has failed to win a league title at the end of his second season in charge. It all reached its nadir in the Champions League exit to Sevilla in 2018, as it’s tough to convince the world of your servitude when you play at home to the fourth-best team in Spain with a former world-record transfer in Paul Pogba on the bench. 

After the game Mourinho bleated madly on about United supposedly lacking “football heritage”, in a kind of Lear-on-the-cliffs, crazed raged against a world that had stopped listening to him. 

Roy Keane isn’t a particular good pundit but he did cut to the heart of Mourinho at United when he wondered aloud whether the club was too big for him. 

But perhaps Tottenham is just the right size for a man to whom sedition comes more naturally than he likes to think. 

It was Keane who revealed Alex Ferguson’s ‘Lads, it’s Tottenham’ condescension, and Spurs are just the kind of historically skittish and needy operation in need of Jose’s custody. And as the Amazon Prime documentary series showed, Jose is the only real star at Spurs and that’s just how he wants it. 

Thus he looks rejuvenated and he has positioned Spurs as contenders in the title race, albeit classically describing them as a “pony” compared to the the great galloping thoroughbreads at Liverpool, City and Chelsea. 

But Spurs are definitely in this race. There is nothing sophisticated about his style: Spurs effectively defend deep and rely on the individual brilliance of Harry Kane and Son to get on with the business of scoring goals. 

This style looked painfully outmoded against Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp’s teams in his United days; whereas only Jose’s defence looked coached, here were a pair of carefully calibrated attacks capable of shredding all before them and setting new records in terms of points and wins. They raised the bar to a level Mourinho’s United couldn’t come close to reaching.

The basic maths in this abnormal season are in Mourinho’s favour, though. 

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On the eighth game of the 2017/18 season, United went to Anfield level on points with Manchester City at the top of the league. Liverpool had won just three of their games to that point, were leaking goals and looking vulnerable, but United sat deep and settled for a point. The offence wasn’t that they drew the game; it’s that they never tried to win it. 

It was a miscalculation by Mourinho as City were unlike any opponent he had faced in England before, and were set up to win every game they played. Draws away from home were then a devalued currency which Jose was still trading with. 

The demands of this season and the spate of injuries means the bar has been lowered this time around, however, with the points totals needed to win over the last three seasons – 100, 98, 99 – likely to be much higher than what’s needed this time around. 

If the total needed to win the league drops to 83 points (which would be Liverpool’s total on their present points-per-game ratio) then it brings Jose’s pragmatism back into the play, and thus the draw away to Spurs last month takes on the hue of a useful result. 

They travel to Liverpool next Wednesday, but first up is a home game on Sunday with Crystal Palace, where their status as favourites will pose a challenge. If they can win that then Mourinho will go to Anfield ready for another act of his complex style of rebellion.

Premier League fixtures 

Friday 

Leeds United vs West Ham United (8pm)

Saturday 

Wolves vs Aston Villa (12.30pm)

Newcastle vs West Brom (3pm)

Manchester United vs Manchester City (5.30pm)

Everton vs Chelsea (8pm)

Sunday 

Southampton vs Sheffield United (12pm)

Crystal Palace vs Tottenham (2.15pm) 

Fulham vs Liverpool (4.30pm)

Leicester vs Brighton (7.15pm)

Arsenal vs Burnley (7.15pm)

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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