Liverpool trip will show whether Jose Mourinho has turned clock back in ultimate test for Spurs

Mourinho takes Spurs to Anfield where the home side haven’t lost in the Premier League since April 2017

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Wednesday 16 December 2020 07:43
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José cam: Tottenham hold firm at Stamford Bridge

When Jose Mourinho left Manchester United two years ago, just after what happened to be his last trip to Anfield, he fully expected to be back in the game in no time.

The phone didn’t ring, though, and it prompted a conversation with a football figure who the Portuguese respects.

“Jose,” the advice began, “no one wants to have to deal with all the nonsense any more.” That wasn’t about how he manages, but all “the noise” Mourinho creates around it. The headlines, the “toxic atmosphere”. Mourinho underwent a bit of self-reflection, that he actually referenced in his introductory press conference at Tottenham Hotspur.

READ MORE: Premier League fixtures and table - all matches by date and kick-off time

Some of the results have been seen this season, not least regarding his team’s scorelines.

Mourinho certainly strikes a different attitude to the time in 2016, just before he started at United, and he was about to be introduced on stage at a promo event as one of the Premier League’s great managers. The presenter cycled through the names beforehand - “You, Pep, Wenger, Klopp…” - at which point the Portuguese cut him off.

“Klopp hasn’t won anything.”

When it was pointed out to Mourinho that he’d won two titles with Borussia Dortmund, Mourinho was still unmoved.

“It’s a two-team league. It’s easy to win. Bayern Munich were shit in those years. It’s easy.”

It’s fair to say Mourinho’s attitude has changed there, too, and that was even before Jurgen Klopp won anything in England.

The Portuguese was utterly wowed at the nature of Liverpool’s comeback against Barcelona in 2019, and what it said about the manager. As much as anything, Mourinho greatly respected the intensity of the display, the emotional investment.

It is why there was more than Mourinho’s occasional performative flattery when he praised Klopp’s side for being a “results machine” on Wednesday. He recognised something of his best teams in them, even if his response also had a bit of Mourinho expectation-management recognisable in it.

“A results machine is what Liverpool has been for the past couple of years, what my Chelsea was in the period we won the two consecutive titles.

“We are a good team that works hard but Liverpool is the result of - if I’m not wrong - 1,894 days with Jurgen. And we are the work of 390 days, but these 390 days are fake because lots of days were not even days of work, they were days of quarantine, being at home unable to work.

“So for us to be able to compete at the level we are doing, I can only give credit to the players.”

Jose Mourinho has newfound respect for Jurgen Klopp

The credit to Mourinho himself will skyrocket if Spurs get a result at Anfield, and especially if they claim a win.

It would represent such a turnaround from two years ago, and a huge turnaround in his career.

The discussion would rise that Mourinho is back to his best, that he may never have been past it at all - he pointedly argued on Tuesday that he just needed “time” at Manchester United but wasn’t given - and that Spurs can prove themselves to be the best in the country; that they are true title challengers.

The Portuguese himself cautioned against reading into any “statement” from Anfield on Wednesday.

“We don’t have to make any statement. We just want to play a game and win it.”

Mourinho knows it can be misleading to read too much into the results of these matches. You only have to look at the 2013-14 season. His Chelsea beat Manchester City home and away - the second 1-0 at Eastlands seen as the classic type of title “statement” - but still finished in third behind them at the end of the season.

Mourinho knows there is much more to a title challenge, as well as the fact that there’s much more to a challenge than an autumn run.

“It’s not just about winning the big matches,” he said on Tuesday. “It’s about winning almost every match. It’s about not wasting points, it’s about being consistent. Some teams, they are very good against the top teams in the big matches, but then they don’t have that mentality to be solid for 10/11 months of competition. Other teams, they are afraid of the big matches, they don’t perform, they hide themselves, they lose against the big opponents but in the smaller games they feel less pressure and they perform better. Both of this profile of team cannot be champions. To be champions you have to be there match after match, point after point. If you cannot get three, you get one.

“It’s about the quality of the team but also of the resilience of the group. You cannot have fractures in the internal dynamic of the group. So to be a successful team you need all these things to be together. So its difficult for me to identify why Chelsea were champions or while Liverpool are now so successful. It’s a series of factors that create that dynamic.”

Wednesday’s showdown thereby won’t be decisive, but it might well be instructive.

Mourinho’s point about getting one point when you cannot get three may actually have been more of a statement than he intended.

Jose Mourinho has hinted a point will not satisfy Spurs at Anfield

Because, over the last few years, the old dynamics of winning titles have been transformed further. The record-busting hauls of Liverpool and Manchester City reflected a wider move to more proactive football, that has sought to maximise concentrations of talent.

It is a few steps on from the more miserly days of the ‘big four’ across 2004-09, when the attitude of those top sides was that a draw away to your rivals was a good result.

Elements of this have fed into the wider debate about whether the elite level of the game have passed Mourinho by, whether he is still just doing things that worked best over a decade ago.

Good as Spurs have been, they haven’t been that expansive, and it appeared this finally cost them in the draw against Crystal Palace. Mourinho may have argued it wasn’t intended, but his team did what so many of their predecessors have made a priority and retreated too cautiously at 1-0.

READ MORE: How Palace showed Liverpool the way to take the fight to Mourinho’s Spurs

It should have cost them in this nascent title race, except Liverpool went and slipped up against Fulham.

That was the type of result that hasn’t happened in the last few years and may further point to why this is a different season, and how the Covid distortions could lower the points threshold to those of a decade ago.

If that’s the case, a mere draw in games like this may be more than enough.

Mourinho insists he will be aiming for more than that, though.

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