Nine days before Christmas was not really so very long ago, yet it feels like a different world. Manchester City had just been held to a draw at home by West Brom that left them eighth in the Premier League table. Southampton were third. And Tottenham went to the league leaders, Liverpool, knowing that a win would put them top. In the confusing period between the second and third lockdowns, it seemed possible that this slog of a season might just provide an environment in which José Mourinho’s attritional style could thrive.
Yet Spurs host Manchester United on Sunday afternoon having begun the weekend in sixth place and 25 points behind the leaders, City. They have lost eight of their last 18 league games and been bundled out of the FA Cup and the Europa League. Last Sunday, they were outplayed by Newcastle and escaped with a 2-2 draw.
It’s rare to be able to pinpoint the exact moment when it all begins to go wrong, but in this case you can. Spurs had played well at Anfield. They had sat deep and gone behind but mugged Liverpool on the break to equalise. They kept threatening to nick a second. Harry Kane bounced a header over and Steven Bergwijn hit a post. It was reactive football of the sort that isn’t supposed to work in the modern game, but the Covid world is not a normal world: other rules apply. And Mourinho had some of the old swagger back. It had become possible to remember how he had once charmed English football.
Then, with 14 minutes remaining, Mourinho took off Bergwijn and replaced him with Sergio Reguilón. Perhaps there was some tactical logic. Play two left‑backs, pin Trent Alexander‑Arnold back. But it altered the dynamic of the game. Liverpool had become anxious, aware that the more they attacked, the more exposed they became. But a defensive substitution changed that. Tottenham were blunted. Liverpool poured forward, applied pressure and scored the winner from a corner. Psychologically, Mourinho had misread the play and in one substitution surrendered the game and with it the title challenge and perhaps his long‑term future at Tottenham.
Mourinho once was a master of such things. The Porto squad he led to the Champions League in 2004 still talk of him like a cult leader, remembering his apparent capacity to see into the future, how the world seemed to fall into line with his vision. But at Anfield, he saw only fear.
Fear has become the defining principle of late-period Mourinho. “He who has the ball has fear” remains the most resonant of the core principles laid out in Diego Torres’s biography. There is a stage in the life of almost all public figures when they lapse into self-parody, when they stop asking themselves what the right solution is and instead apply the most characteristic solution.
It happened to Arsène Wenger, it happened to Martin Amis, it happened to Margaret Thatcher. Wenger stopped asking: “How do I achieve the best possible solution to this problem?” and instead started asking: “What is the most Wengerian response to this problem?” The benefits of experience can lapse easily into templating.
Fear has come to define everything about Mourinho’s football. To an extent this is an ideological choice. His scepticism about possession, his obsession with the low block, was established as doctrine only after he was overlooked for the Barcelona job in 2008. His Porto pressed high. In his first stint at Chelsea, Mourinho talked about “resting with the ball”, using possession as a tool of control. By the time he eliminated Barça from the Champions League with Internazionale, having had 19% possession in the second leg, he had established himself in self-conscious opposition to Pep Guardiola: anti-Barcelona, anti‑pressing, anti-the ball.
And yes, this has been remarked upon before, the phenomenon so familiar that a piece about Mourinho’s templating itself now inevitably follows a template. But for Mourinho’s teams the consequences are profound. What is good practice against Guardiola’s Barcelona may not necessarily be the best way of beating Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace or Steve Bruce’s Newcastle.
Again and again this season, Tottenham have held leads, dropped deep and conceded, often in games they appeared to be controlling. Winning positions have been squandered with late concessions against West Ham, Lask, Palace, Wolves, Fulham and Newcastle, advantageous positions given away with a cautious approach not only against Liverpool but also Arsenal and Dinamo Zagreb.
At first it seemed Mourinho was making a point, that the scent of unexpected glory triggered in him a desire not merely to win, but to win his way, to achieve not just late‑career glory but also vindication. The caution felt ideological. But perhaps even that was to be seduced by the memory of his glory years, to assume this was all part of his scheming. Perhaps it is simpler than that: perhaps anxiety has overwhelmed him. Or worse, perhaps when he said the retreats were not his doing but enacted by the players he was speaking a literal truth; perhaps he simply has no control any more.
Either way, what has followed has been a descent into a predictable doom-spiral. Form has crashed, morale has disintegrated and Mourinho’s public utterances have become largely an exercise in blame avoidance. “Same coach, different players,” he said last Sunday when asked why Spurs seemed unable to hold leads in the way his teams had once done. But it’s a phrase with an awkward resonance. Most of these players did defend well under Mauricio Pochettino: same players, different coach. What logic says the fault lies on their side?
The pattern is the same as at Real Madrid, at Chelsea and at Manchester United: a manager deflecting attention as toxicity seeps through the club and performances deteriorate. Perhaps it’s come a year earlier than the classic Mourinho template would dictate but, essentially, it’s different players, same coach, same outcome.
Would it all have been different had he, say, brought on Dele Alli for Bergwijn at Anfield and moved Lucas Moura out wide? Perhaps not, but that substitution was the warning that the title challenge was an illusion, that fear was in control.