While their relationship ended abruptly on Monday with news of his firing, the truth is that Tottenham’s alliance with Jose Mourinho was a transactional relationship from day one.
Spurs are run on a day-to-day basis by chairman Daniel Levy, one of the shrewdest and sharpest administrators in football. Mourinho may have fooled some by reviving his Instagram account and generally employing softer rhetoric in press conferences, but he remains the same combative and confrontational figure he has always been.
These two men were consequently on a collision course from the moment they shook hands at Mourinho’s unveiling in November 2019, though that’s not to say it didn’t make a degree of sense. Spurs needed a manager with the stature and personality to escape from Mauricio Pochettino’s shadow, someone with a track record of doing the only thing Pochettino had failed to achieve during his five-and-a-half years in charge: win trophies. For his part, Mourinho needed a club already positioned within touching distance of major honours to rebuild his reputation, specifically to contest the charge that the game’s elite had left him behind as the curmudgeonly champion of a bygone era.
Levy is parsimonious in his approach, a methodology reinforced by having a £1 billion stadium to pay for. He prefers to buy young players who either develop or possess a resale value. Mourinho’s management requires ruthless big spending on finished products, his authority established through the clinical assembly of talented individuals whom he expects to possess the mental fortitude to focus solely on the relentless pursuit of glory.
Tottenham’s stunning stadium is evidence Levy also wants the best, and sources claim he has admired Mourinho from afar for years, but he is — and always will be — Mourinho’s philosophical opposite. The question was always whether this unlikely marriage could deliver short-term success before the inevitable, and expensive, divorce.
Caught in the middle was a squad moulded perhaps irreversibly in Pochettino’s image, one that became more than the sum of its parts through a strong collective bond with its manager. Mourinho sought to stiffen their resolve, as evidenced in the Amazon documentary for which the 58-year-old became a bonafide star. He was the literal box office material his fans always describe him as — everywhere except on the pitch.
After Pochettino’s more inclusive and empathic style, some “tough love” was perhaps what this group needed to take that final stride to silverware. Before Mourinho, Spurs had been Champions League runners-up and also-rans in the Premier League title race, yet supremely consistent throughout. They were generally accepted to be excelling beyond expectations, playing a brand of football envied by many in the game.
Mourinho claimed that his 11-month hiatus from management, after being sacked from Manchester United in December 2018, had changed him, gaining different perspectives while working in the media and recognising the game had evolved. Yet it wasn’t long before Mourinho began to publicly criticise players making individual mistakes. Defensive errors undermined performances, and a lengthy injury list left the 2019-20 season looking likely to end in disappointment.
“If I could move immediately to the first of July, I would,” he said.
The pandemic offered an unexpected chance to reset. Spurs were at the forefront of football’s spirited attempt to support the NHS and local institutions with, Mourinho, to his credit, personally engaging throughout. Arguably no club benefited more from the break in terms of recovering injured players and a strong finish followed — only Manchester City and Manchester United collected more points (both 21) during Project Restart than Tottenham’s 18 — to end in sixth place and qualify for the Europa League.
A positive summer followed, with Mourinho publicly congratulating “Mr. Levy” — always the “Mister” moniker — at the end of a transfer window in which Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Sergio Reguilon, Matt Doherty, Joe Rodon and Joe Hart arrived, in addition to the loan arrivals of Carlos Vinicius and Gareth Bale. Spurs topped the table in November — almost a year to the day after Mourinho took charge — with a 2-0 win over Manchester City as Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son took their lethal partnership to fresh heights.
Yet they were performing way above their expected goals and assists numbers, suggesting it could not last and in any case, tensions began bubbling beneath the surface.
Bale was given time to get up to speed after being frozen out at Real Madrid, but despite reaching a consistently high level in training, the Welshman remained a substitute in matches against City, Chelsea and Arsenal, all in the space of two weeks. Mourinho was already voicing concerns about conceding leads, insisting the players were not carrying out his instructions by falling back into a defensive mindset rather than staying on the front foot.
Julien Laurens believes the whole of Tottenham’s dressing room turned on Jose Mourinho resulting in his sacking.
Sources have described this narrative offered by Mourinho as one significant area of contention. There were frustrations with Mourinho’s training sessions, too, contrasting the volume of attacking work done under Pochettino with the emphasis on defending and team shape favoured by his successor.
The club’s younger players also felt the pathway to the first-team was much more arduous with Mourinho around. Pochettino had taken great interest in the academy set-up and although members of the development squad often training with the seniors, Mourinho rarely offered more than the odd word of encouragement.
On the pitch, Tottenham’s style of football became regressive. A team built on attacking principles seemed caught in an existential battle with itself, fighting instincts to go forward because of the conservative principles of their manager. They quickly became a side seemingly benefitting from the ongoing absence of supporters. There was nobody in the ground to provide the irate soundtrack while watching their team lack ambition at home. After all, Spurs’ motto is “To Dare is to Do,” not “To Dare is to Defend.”
Kane’s future also became the subject of mounting speculation. Sources have told ESPN that while the England captain would love nothing more than to win silverware with Spurs, there is a sense his ambition to win the game’s biggest prizes may lead him to seek a move.
Spurs had won one of their past six matches prior to Monday’s announcement, but the timing of Mourinho’s departure is a surprise in the context that it comes six days before an EFL Cup Final against Manchester City. The man brought in to win trophies was sacked in the week he could deliver one. Why not give the man who has won 12 out of 15 major finals in his career across Europe the chance to mastermind another win over Pep Guardiola?
ESPN reported on February 19 that Levy wanted to wait until the end of the season before deciding Mourinho’s fate, mindful of the issues within the squad, but chiefly so he knew which European competition Spurs were playing in. With the announcement of Tottenham’s involvement in the European Super League, perhaps he has his answer. It would certainly make the pay-off, worth around £20m according to sources, much more palatable for a club that took out a Bank of England loan last year to cover its running costs during the coronavirus pandemic.
Mourinho was sacked less than 12 hours after the Super League’s inception was confirmed in a statement by the 12 clubs involved. It’s tempting to say he had served his purpose, maintaining the club’s wider profile as they sought a seat at Europe’s new top table.
Spurs deny Mourinho’s departure had anything to do with the Super League and that in fact it was purely a results-based decision. which brings us back to the starting point, that Mourinho’s appointment was supposed to be about silverware. Amazon’s documentary was aptly titled “All or Nothing.” In the end, it was nothing, and that is a big disappointment for all concerned.