We’re about to find out if Jose Mourinho really has changed. Tottenham progressed into the Europa League round of 16 with such a comfortable win against AC Wolfsberger on Wednesday — 4-0 in the second leg, to advance 8-1 on aggregate — that it’s easy to feel the bigger battle took place a day earlier in Mourinho’s prematch news conference.
These are challenging times for the Tottenham Hotspur manager, who has long been miscast as a Machiavellian manipulator. He is mischievous and often calculated, of that there is no doubt, but those who know him best describe a capricious individual prone to violent emotional mood swings.
Several years ago during a private conversation, one of his most famous former players once described to me the contrast between Guus Hiddink and Mourinho during their respective tenures at Chelsea by making two hand gestures. The first was with his hand out in front, palm facing flat to the floor, motioning from left to right to signify calm waters. For Mourinho, he drew waves as high and low as his arms would allow.
Following an 11-month hiatus from the game after being sacked by Manchester United, Mourinho insisted when he arrived at Spurs in November 2019 that he was a different man; a more mellow, measured character who no longer relished conflict no matter how contrived. Anyone versed in his career knows his time at a club follows a specific pattern which never completes a fourth season: improve, excel, push to breaking point, civil war, acrimonious exit.
You know we’ve reached a dangerous stage of the cycle when the blame game starts.
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“I think for a long, long time, we have problems in the team that I cannot resolve by myself as a coach,” he said after Sunday’s 2-1 defeat at West Ham United, their fifth in six Premier League games, which left Tottenham’s top-four hopes hanging by a thread. Three days later, with time to gather himself, he backtracked from that position, keen to reset the rhetoric toward the more conciliatory tone he has struck since joining the club.
“Sometimes, there are moments of frustration and I think postmatch interviews are the perfect place for a coach not to say the right things or to leave some doubts [for interpretation],” he explained. “Like today, a prematch press conference, I think everything we say you can follow word by word, because we are calm with no pressure and no adrenaline but after matches it is not easy for us.”
Postmatch interviews have not been easy for Mourinho because Spurs keep losing. Although they endured a difficult spell before England’s first coronavirus lockdown last March, Mourinho avoided the tough questions because he’d only been in the job for four months, with further mitigation offered by lengthy injuries to Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min, among others.
This time, it’s different, and under a more searching examination, Tuesday’s news conference was at times like watching Mourinho battle with his own shadow. In claiming he has greater composure than the Mourinho of 2004, the 58-year-old made a remarkable admission.
“As you know, I didn’t have many bad runs of results,” he said, struggling with the self-anointed ‘humble’ element of his new persona. “But day-by-day problems that happen many times in clubs with all of us, I reacted previously in a much more emotional way. And instead of helping myself and the ones around me, I even created the kind of conflict situations that I had previously.”
He’s right, of course, but it was no less eyebrow-raising to hear Mourinho admit his penchant for generating internal hostility. And this was why the “problems I cannot resolve as a coach” line set alarm bells ringing; it appeared to signal an escalation in his habitually confrontational approach, with certain members of the dressing room that has inexorably led to his departure from every club he has managed.
Mourinho instead claimed he was referring to “nothing specific, nothing that probably you think I wanted to say and I didn’t,” taking a damp cloth to the small fire he started.
There were more contradictions. A declaration that the club should be everyone’s focus preceded a lengthy ramble about his own feelings and reputation.
In insisting conflict creation was behind him as a more mature man, he had a dig at another unnamed manager — the smart money is on Chelsea’s Thomas Tuchel for his public admonishment of Callum Hudson-Odoi — for going “a bit too far in his words, but that’s another story because it’s not Jose Mourinho, that’s not a problem.” He just cannot help himself, and remember: these are the occasions we can “follow word by word.”
It is easy to place too much stock in news-conference quotes, but Mourinho knows all too well the perception he is fighting: yesterday’s man, left behind by more progressive, expansive managers playing a brand of football to which he is the antithesis.
For a time this season, he appeared capable of catapulting Tottenham into the title race, particularly with Manchester City struggling before their winning streak and champions Liverpool looking truly vulnerable. Yet this downturn smacks of the terminal decline synonymous with Mourinho’s third year at clubs, when defeats are drenched in acrimony, finger-pointing and rancour.
The second season, which Mourinho is now in at Spurs, is supposed to be the peak. At FC Porto, he won the Portuguese Primeira Liga and Champions League in year two. At Chelsea, he retained the Premier League. At Internazionale, it was a Serie A and Champions League double. At Real Madrid came his sole La Liga title. On his second tour with Chelsea, he delivered the Premier League and most recently, in 2016-17 at Manchester United, he won the League Cup and the Europa League.
That double remains possible again this season, and he will have to win at least one to even begin claiming this campaign has been a success.
Those two trophies at United were supposed to be the springboard to greater prizes. The same trajectory is desired at Spurs, whom Mourinho himself declared had a better squad than he managed at Old Trafford. That squad was also supplemented expertly in the summer window with the additions of Sergio Reguilon, Gareth Bale (on loan), Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Matt Doherty, leading Mourinho to “congratulate” chairman Daniel Levy for the work he’d done.
With nobody to blame above him, Mourinho has occasionally taken out his frustration on the players, particularly the number of individual defensive mistakes that have contributed to their dismal run. Players have been ostracised, as is Mourinho’s style, with Bale and Dele Alli now asked to take a more prominent role. Last night was a promising start with Alli and Bale on the scoresheet but their response will be vital to Tottenham in the run-in, as will be Mourinho’s management of those individuals — and the squad as a whole — with his position under mounting pressure.
Being in London at the family’s Belgravia home will help, rather than holed up alone in The Lowry, a five-star hotel in Manchester he preferred to buying a house in the area. But these next few games — starting with Burnley’s visit on Sunday — are crucial moments in determining whether Mourinho truly has evolved as manager and can break his own cycle.
His future at Tottenham depends on it.