Is Jose Mourinho the answer Tottenham Hotspur have been looking for?
Mentioning the word “arrogant” in the same sentence as Jose Mourinho isn’t an insult; it is virtually a requirement. This is a soccer head coach, after all, who is not only nicknamed the “Special One,” but essentially gave himself the moniker.
It was all a little puzzling then, when, at the start of his latest and most scrutinized job assignment in the English Premier League, the new Tottenham boss showed something that flew directly in the face of what the soccer public has come to expect.
“It is not about me, it is about the players and the club,” Mourinho told the BBC’s Match of the Day after Tottenham beat West Ham 3-2 in his first game in charge on Saturday. “I will hate if somebody says ‘Jose made an impact.’ I made no impact. Nothing. I just helped them a little bit to win this match.”
And thus, Britain’s sports media and its obsessive soccer fan base was thrown for a bit of a loop. Because to say it is not about Mourinho is to say the Los Angeles Lakers were not about Kobe Bryant back in the day.
It is always about Mourinho … and always has been, ever since he swirled into English soccer with Chelsea in 2004, dropped the Special One comment in his introductory press conference and then proceeded to become arguably the most famous current coach on the planet.
He is loved and hated — sometimes by the same people at the same time. He infuriates and frustrates with his use of the press to air various grievances, usually revolving around his belief that his employer should give him even more money to spend on new players. He often butts heads with his stars; usually beginning with petty arguments that spill over into much more.
🎙️ @dele_official: “I want to keep moving forward and improving. I’ve been lucky to work with two great managers here and I’m looking forward to learning new things.” #UCL ⚪️ #COYS pic.twitter.com/3BP7wCNA5P
— Tottenham Hotspur (@SpursOfficial) November 25, 2019
But he wins. While Tottenham did reach the final of the Champions League last season, the club is nursing a trophy drought that stretches 11 years. Mourinho has racked up 25 trophies across his career, including the Champions League with Porto and Inter Milan, a league title in four different countries, and the Europa League with Manchester United.
It always, always ends badly, but most beleaguered Tottenham supporters — who thought brighter times were coming under former manager Mauricio Pochettino before that dream Champions League run was followed with a disastrous slip to 14th place in the EPL — are prepared for that outcome. Would they take a messy divorce a couple of years from now if, in the meantime, Mourinho has gotten their team challenging at the top of the EPL standings and back into the European mix? Likely, yes.
“I think he has to be a bit more humble this time,” BBC soccer writer Michael Pearlman told me in a telephone conversation. “If you’re a critic of Mourinho, the fact is that the successes have become fewer and the bomb sites he has left behind after his recent jobs have become greater.
“At Manchester United, he won minor trophies, but he spent a fortune to do it and alienated everyone in the process. Historically, managers don’t get better at his age.”
The English press weren’t entirely sold on the Mourinho display of grace, in any case. The Guardian’s Barney Ronay suspected his overwhelming show of modesty might have been another Mourinho mind game.
“Behold: for I am the humblest,” Ronay wrote. “The humblissimus, a superstar of humility. Frowning deeply, face contorted into a rictus of dignified integrity, Mourinho pointedly shook the hands of the West Ham players, who looked a little surprised.”
This column so far reflects what happens quite often with Mourinho, in that we’ve spent virtually all of it so far in talking about the coach and none of it about his most recent game. Tottenham looked far better than in recent times as they dismantled West Ham before surrendering two late goals. It was a matchup, given West Ham’s dismal form, that was a perfect opener.
Jose Mourinho's up and running with Tottenham! 🔥
Spurs get their first Premier League away win since January behind goals from Son, Moura and Kane. pic.twitter.com/7RZ4L2KRNc
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) November 23, 2019
Goals from each of the team’s chief attacking threats, Son Heung-min, Lucas Moura and captain Harry Kane gave rise to optimism, while midfielder Dele Alli looked rejuvenated after a slump that seemed to start at the end of the last World Cup, 17 months ago.
That win alone pushed the team back up to 10th and will provide confidence going into Tuesday’s Champions League clash with Greek side Olympiacos, where victory will guarantee a spot in the round of 16.
Some were stunned when Mourinho’s post was announced just hours after Pochettino had been given his marching orders. He doesn’t seem to fit the club ownership’s big picture, where Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy has helped the club rub shoulders with the historical elites by making shrewd purchases and even smarter sales.
Mourinho has regularly been able to pressure previous employers to open the purse strings to gaping levels to invest in fresh talent that meets his approval. That process might look a little different here.
One thing is for sure though: Mourinho’s return has lit up the EPL at a time of year when it occasionally enters the slightest of pre-Christmas lulls. His comeback is all anyone can talk about and it’s going to stay that way for a good long while. If he reverts to type, he will make sure of it.
Mourinho’s last job, at United, ended poorly; a breakdown in trust between himself and the players, and himself and the board. At Chelsea before that, it also had a sour conclusion. And at Real Madrid, and — yeah, you get the picture.
But each time he packs up and goes, he must find a spot to stash a winners’ medal (or three) as he clears out his desk. He has been described as a serial trophy machine … and he is, plus so much more.
Whether he is still the Special One or now just the Humble One, he’s one of a kind, and simply unavoidable.
🎙️ Jose: "I love the competition as much as everyone in football. It’s something that everyone dreams of winning. We have two matches to qualify and we need to focus on these matches first." #UCL ⚪️ #COYS pic.twitter.com/HEf0xZDJrp
— Tottenham Hotspur (@SpursOfficial) November 25, 2019