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Back in the days when Jose Mourinho was funny, self-deprecating and, well, special, he would expound his theories on team-building. He was new in England and won the title in his first two seasons at Chelsea. The Portuguese wanted to make sure everybody knew that it was not just Roman Abramovich’s cash that was the cause of his success.
Most players in the Premier League were of a similar standard, he suggested. With the exception of a few standout stars – the likes of Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney – the gap in talent for the majority was miniscule. How you blended and inspired them was the important thing. Mourinho believed that he could win with almost any set of top-flight players.
A lot has changed in the intervening decade-and-a-half. “Same manager, different players,” is the 58-year-old’s new mantra to explain disappointing results. That is a dispiriting admission for Tottenham Hotspur fans. Mourinho was brought to north London to turn a talented squad at an underachieving club into winners. He may well do that this month: Spurs face Manchester City at Wembley in the Carabao Cup final in two weeks’ time. Yet he was not employed to collect what even he considers second-rate silverware. Both Mourinho and Tottenham had bigger ambitions. His career is turning into one of diminishing returns.
Manchester United, who face Spurs today at White Hart Lane, know that feeling of creeping dismay. Mourinho’s two-year tenure in charge at Old Trafford is not remembered fondly, despite the club picking up the EFL Cup and the Europa League trophy at the end of his first season. All the manager’s worst traits were on display at United – the scapegoating of players, the throwing of blame, the incoherent tactics and the sour attitude. The pattern is being repeated in N17. Where Mourinho’s teams were once greater than the sum of their parts, they have become exemplars of talent unfulfilled.
His apologists claim a cultural shift in the game has caused this state of affairs. Players, they say, have too much power. It is an old excuse and largely nonsense. The best players have always expected and required an element of special treatment. Their supporting cast has always been interchangeable and dispensable. It is a manager’s job to balance the conflicting talents, personalities and emotions of a dressing room. Mourinho used to talk about creating a ‘band-of-brothers’ ethos, where the group had a unity of purpose. What elevated workaday players above their peers at other clubs was the ability to subvert their own game for the team, he would say. In truth Mourinho had the most talented, powerful and expensive squad of the era in the mid-2000s but it suited him to create the narrative that he was a football alchemist.
Mourinho is one of the greatest managers of the modern era. That is undeniable. His two Champions Leagues with Porto and Inter Milan prove that. But he selected his jobs well and until his second stint at Stamford Bridge chose the right time to leave. It is telling that the last happy dressing room he left behind was at Inter 11 years ago. The mood at Spurs is verging on toxic, something the United players who remember Mourinho’s time in charge will recognise.
Footballers have not changed. They will battle for managers they believe in and underperform when they are alienated or feel they are singled out unfairly. Some will try to prove their boss wrong, others will wait for a transfer or the next manager, recognising that it has always been cheaper to sack the man who picks the team rather than go for a wholesale rebuild.
Mourinho, like so many before him, got his job by saying that the players were not the problem. The inference was that Mauricio Pochettino was at fault. That was what Daniel Levy wanted to hear.
Yet Tottenham have gone backwards. The way United did under the Portuguese. Same manager, different clubs.
There is a simple way for Mourinho to turn things around: beat United today, get the team into the Champions League qualification spots – they are only four points off fourth place – and defeat City at Wembley. Triumph is close enough to be tangible, almost within touching distance. Then reality strikes. There is so little conviction around Spurs that redemption feels like a mirage.
In his heyday, Mourinho loved the notion of siege mentality. It didn’t matter who the players hated, he would say, as long as they all pulled in the same direction. They could even hate him. That would bring a laugh because he was the ‘Special One’ and everyone recognised that.
These days it is not funny. Too many in the Tottenham dressing room loathe their manager and his methods. That will tear any club apart.