If we’re to dance with the devil for a moment, perhaps, and say it quietly so as not to start a seance, Jose Mourinho was right all along. Outdated and austere, cautious or cagey, take your pick, the criticism has come from all corners, and often frothed with discontent ever since his arrival last November. After Tottenham’s tepid unravelling against Sheffield United, when Mourinho claimed to be “disturbed” by his players’ mentality, the signifiers of chaos were already appearing. Following their lethargic victory against Everton, the manager’s long-term vision was condemned as little broader than a peephole.
Yet, slowly, as the smoke of Mauricio Pochettino’s demise has cleared and Spurs’ turbulent season sputters towards the finish line, Mourinho appears to have rebuilt something not just sturdy, but surgically efficient from the ashes. Since the restart, Tottenham have taken 17 points from eight games, a streak of form easily warranting a top-four finish next season if continued. They have now won three times in eight days, scoring as many goals, and in turn silencing qualms over a bluntness in attack.
Yesterday’s 3-0 victory over Leicester, in particular, felt like a triumph and vindication for Mourinho and his squad, who followed the manager’s unapologetic and uncompromising blueprint to a tee. Despite wielding just 29 per cent of possession, misplacing one in five passes, and having just seven shots to Leicester’s 24, Spurs were disciplined, deadly and rarely ever endangered themselves. In fact, Mourinho’s ideology, in the short-term, at least, seems to be experiencing something of a renaissance.
Arsenal have displayed their own recent twist, sitting back with resolute faith in a questionable defence, pouncing clinically on rare openings and snatching victory against Liverpool and Manchester City. Southampton have thrived off of a high-pressing, anti-possession-based style of play, with Ralph Hasenhuttl even recently bemoaning his side for having the audacity to keep the ball for too long. Chelsea, too, are undoubtedly at their best on the break, relieved of time to ponder.
Spurs may not yet be as slick or expressive as many would like, but Mourinho has crafted a rigid system from makeshift parts and resuscitated their season from what for a long while felt like death by mid-table. His approach might have been considered as much a drawback as a defining principle in recent years. Now, it is the bedrock from which Spurs can shape and sculpt heading into next season.
“I think it was an intelligent performance,” Mourinho said afterwards. “The team is being a team. Even against Sheffield we were a team, a bad team, but we were a team. I think the team is understanding better the principles of playing and what we want to do. I think it’s a good step.
“As I said, to come mid-season is always a complicated situation… It happened with me in Porto, it happened with Brendan [Rodgers] last season when he went to Leicester, and exactly with me too. I think important steps that we have done already and next pre-season when we start we are one step ahead.”
The most distinguishing positive of Spurs’ victory, though, more so for the sake of their long-term health rather than a Hail Mary attempt to breach the top six, was the cathartic return to form of Harry Kane. After rushing back from injury, the captain often felt like a spectre of his former self, bounding and panting doggedly, but still fractionally off the pace, his body incapable of answering that innate and insatiable striker’s instinct.
But after passing the 200 career goals mark on Thursday against Newcastle - still aged just 26 - Kane played with freedom and precision, roving between attack and defence, as readily Spurs’ creative heartbeat as their lethal finisher. The first goal was a product of his own deft hold-up play and incisive vision, slicing an outside of the foot pass to Son Heung-min on the counter-attack – a piece of skill unbecoming to most natural centre forwards. His goals, just three minutes apart on the brink of half-time, were both taken outstandingly.
“Everybody thinks – I think, you think – he’s a fantastic player, and Tottenham is so lucky to have him because he is the player and the person and the Tottenham boy,” Mourinho said. “All this together makes him a really special player for us who probably wouldn’t be so special playing for another team. He’s really special for us and we want him to be happy. He wants victories and he wants to score goals”
It was, perhaps, Kane’s best performance in over a year, and one of Spurs’ most complete victories under Mourinho. That is no coincidence or castaway statement. It might not be a style of play that all supporters enjoy, but Mourinho is successfully squeezing every last drop – and point – from his players at the pivotal end of the season. There will always be questions and concerns over the longevity of his methods, but for now, Tottenham simply need results.
If his Manchester United sacking was heralded as the end of an era, reigniting Spurs with a fighting chance has proved there’s still life in the old ‘Mourinho Way’ yet.
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