When he properly sat down with Daniel Levy in London, Jose Mourinho was of course hugely persuasive. That has been one of the talents of his career, but he still had to impress on the Tottenham Hotspur chairman that those talents remain relevant at the top level. Levy has always wanted Mourinho, and sees his star power as hugely valuable in maintaining Spurs’ top-level profile after a first ever Champions League final. Even the 57-year-old businessman, however, had been attuned to the many doubts about the Portuguese.
Those doubts were blown away.
Mourinho told Levy and the Spurs hierarchy that he has spent his 11 months out of management developing a new football strategy and philosophy. He also stressed to them his Manchester United record proves he will promote youth – if he deems them to be good enough. Mourinho meanwhile laid out plans for recruitment, but insisted he sees Spurs as already having one of the best squads in the league.
This was especially persuasive for Levy. He similarly thinks his club have the third best squad in the league, which was one other reason he grew tired of Mauricio Pochettino’s complaints and appeals for a rebuild. The Argentine did change Spurs, but he couldn’t change one of the fundamentals of football: that it’s easier to get rid of the manager than a raft of players. Levy had become concerned with the atmosphere in the squad. Some described it as “toxic”. The Independent has also been told that tensions rose over Pochettino’s enigmatic comments regarding his future, including the suggestion he would leave if Spurs won the Champions League final. Much of this, of course, played out in press conferences.
Stop us if some of this sounds familiar. So, whether Mourinho is really the “breath of fresh air” to change all of this is now the big question about Spurs’ season, and maybe their medium-term future.
Much of the Portuguese’s pitch will certainly have been familiar to United. It is understood some of their officials went into an intrigued silence on being told the Spurs news.
They were similarly blown away when they met him almost exactly four years ago, when Louis van Gaal was still in a job. Mourinho produced a hugely persuasive dossier that – yes – insisted he had a new philosophy of football after the turmoil of Chelsea, and offered a forensic but optimistic assessment of the then United squad. He insisted he was a huge fan of Marcus Rashford.
They were proven to be mere words. His time at United went largely as expected, for a manager then seen as past his peak. There were flashes of old glory through some new trophies, but ultimately dissatisfaction and under-performance amid a lot of rancour.
So how will this go?
Perhaps the bigger question is really this: if you are implementing an idealised model of a club and what your best practice is – as has been so vaunted about Spurs – how do you go from having managers like Brendan Rodgers and Julian Nagelsmann as first choices to one like Mourinho? They really couldn’t be more different.
Much of this thereby comes back to the question of whether Mourinho is different. He insists he is, and tangible changes like new backroom staff – as seen through Joao Sacramento's recruitment – should not be underestimated. They are crucial, and offer new voices and perspectives. As regards his own voices, his pointed appearances as a pundit on Sky Sports were similarly all about displaying that to the world. They were certainly successful. On watching him, and how clearly he conveyed his clinical analysis of the game, you could instantly see why he had been so historically successful for so long. This is a master communicator that will get a response out of Spurs’ players.
Even there, though, there were a few red flags. Mourinho said on the very first day of the season that Frank Lampard’s choice between Tammy Abraham and Olivier Giroud would indicate whether this was a transitional campaign or not, and later argued the veteran French striker should have started due to the “level of performance”. Mourinho has no doubt been proved wrong there.
More importantly, though, Mourinho must prove that his words are more than just bluster and that he is up to speed with the modern game.
Football has radically evolved even more – and at an even faster rate – since he was making the same pitches to United.
And the harsh reality is that what Mourinho was doing at Old Trafford felt light years behind Jurgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola. Compare the highly co-ordinated attacks and sophisticated transitions of Liverpool and Manchester City – or indeed Rodgers or Nagelsmann, or Pochettino’s best Spurs – with the more functional and looser approach of Mourinho’s United, which often amounted to “finding Romelu Lukaku with his back to goal”.
This is what he will have to show has changed. He does want to sign previous Spurs target Bruno Fernandes, as well as Benfica’s Ruben Dias, but what Nemanja Matic says about all that is another matter. He was another player Mourinho specifically name-checked to Levy. That the other two targets are Jorge Mendes clients is also notable.
It is not just about manner of management, though, but man-management. And this one doesn’t even need to go as far back as to whether his more confrontational approach is out of date. It is actually about something much more modern, and whether it is too close to Pochettino’s.
One of the main problems at Spurs, and specifically why it had gone stale, was that the squad found the Argentine’s managerial regime too oppressive and overbearing. The staff – and especially assistant Jesus Perez – could come down hard on players, who never really felt they could relax. Pochettino has spoken of how Mourinho is a “reference” in this regard.
The usual norm in such situations is for clubs to go for at least a different personality of manager, to give the players that mental break and allow them that release that temporarily lifts performance. Is Mourinho really that?
And what of his dealings with Levy? Pochettino may feel somewhat slighted that the Spurs chairman is doubling the manager’s wages and willing to really back him – at Mourinho’s specific request – in the next two windows, but Levy for his part feels the Portuguese will be “decisive” in the market.
But will Spurs? That’s maybe another greater question. Mourinho ended up wanting to clear out a raft of players at Old Trafford, only to be endlessly frustrated by how restricted they were by contractual situations. He ended up often venting his frustrations in the media, in an ongoing public pantomime.
Again, stop us if this sounds familiar. And what of Spurs’ other economic restrictions?
All that, however, may in some way suit Mourinho.
He has had his greatest successes at clubs who saw themselves as defiantly putting it up to the prevailing elite, a motivation that Pochettino had already greatly engendered. That means there won’t be the same historical and philosophical pressures as at United either.
Mourinho’s words about the squad aren’t totally a charm offensive. He has wanted to sign at least half of Spurs’ best team from this time, from Harry Kane to Toby Alderweireld to Eric Dier to Danny Rose. Them being that bit older also suits Mourinho and his preference for “experienced warriors” – like Matic – which was in great contrast to Pochettino, who works best with hungry youth and was why he so wanted to change that squad.
Mourinho, however, now has a hunger of his own. After almost a year out to recharge, during which his family implored him to wait for a job in London that would be so much better for his personal life, he now feels he has a point to prove, that he is still elite.
Levy meanwhile wants to prove that Spurs are now part of that same elite. He wants to really build on the international profile of last season, which is why he really couldn’t countenance a year of transition. Mourinho has always railed against the idea of transition seasons. He is certainly box office. And this is another curiosity to the appointment: over who is actually doing who the turn. Mourinho is a man who once attempted to insult Manuel Pellegrini by saying he would never be dropping down to a job like Malaga, at a time when they had a lot of money. Spurs are of course a bigger club than Malaga, but one at a much lower level than Mourinho is used to. He’s thereby had to reassess, which is a sign of some development in itself. It does hint at that recharge. And it will do more than drop hints for Spurs. Mourinho now makes them the biggest story in London, which really can’t be overlooked, especially at a time when they are filming a high-profile Amazon documentary and there is so much talk about a sale of the club.
It’s just the biggest story can still become a hugely tedious one, as has happened with the Portuguese in the past. The same old themes, the same old problems - even if he enjoys the same success as at United and wins a trophy or two.
That’s something else that’s persuasive. That’s the power of Mourinho. It has worked on Levy. Whether it works for Spurs is another question.
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