When word of Jose Mourinho’s latest putdown reached the Tottenham Hotspur dressing room – “same coach, different players” – some of the squad couldn’t quite believe it. It created even more unease, more grounds for complaint.
Some have likened it to the reaction in the Real Madrid dressing room, when there was a similar comment after a 2012-13 defeat to Real Betis. “When we win, we all win – and some more than others,” Mourinho said at the time. “And when we lose, the coach loses.”
The Madrid squad were shocked then, given they had followed Mourinho's own media instructions, but it is why they would certainly be able to believe what Mourinho said after Newcastle United. Those at Manchester United would be the same, as would many at Chelsea in 2015-16. All of those Mourinho regimes ended up “toxic”, or with “palpable discord”, to use notorious phrases from the time.
The Spurs situation isn’t that bad yet, with attitudes towards the manager much more “mixed”, according to sources, than at those other clubs. It is, however, “on a knife edge”. A few more wrong steps and we could really be talking about another departure.
The current problem is that Mourinho has already taken some of the steps that are so familiar in his usual end game. This is what has been so recognisable to former players. “He did that one week with us,” one source says, relaying the steps. “He did that the next week, then that.”
It is why a more accurate comment might have been “same coach, different players, same story” – at least since 2010. From that point after his treble with Internazionale, which represented the peak of Mourinho’s career, there have been almost identical elements to every prematurely ended job. It’s a pattern.
Perhaps the most relevant question for Spurs is not how many of these steps have been taken, but how heavy they’ve been.
Unprecedented bad results
This might sound obvious, but it has an under-appreciated effect that sets this self-perpetuating cycle in motion. As a “born winner”, Mourinho has always struggled to handle extended periods of poor results. The reality was that he never had to face them. He was too good a manager, his teams too relentless. There were signs of it at the end of the first spell at Chelsea, but this really started to change at Real Madrid. Some of it was relative, given their financial superiority over all of Spain bar Barcelona, but there were many more games when they were struggling.
The middle of that 2012-13 season at the Bernabeu brought three defeats in 10, and only five wins. It was when the rot set in. At Chelsea, it was from the start of the 2015-16 season. Mourinho lost nine of his 16 league games, and suffered three successive defeats for the first time in his career. At United 2018-19, they’d only won seven of 16, their worst start in almost 30 years.
At Spurs, they’ve now lost six of the last 12 in the league, to go with that dismal Dinamo Zagreb defeat. Many of these spells went even worse, though, as a direct consequence of Mourinho’s initial attempts to arrest them. He had no experience in solving these problems, and there’s a strong argument he still hasn’t figured them out. This is where the steps really start.
Stronger public criticism of players
Criticism is a constant of Mourinho’s “confrontational leadership” approach, but it has a very different feel when you’re no longer winning. It is also Mourinho’s first recourse in a crisis, when he goes stronger and much more public, to the point it cuts away at relationships. Some of the examples are well known. With Paul Pogba and Iker Casillas, there was a constant stream of barbs. With Luke Shaw, there was the comment about “his body with my brain”. What is really striking, though, is how the same severe criticisms traverse different teams. His comments about Dinamo Zagreb wanting it more than Tottenham, for example, were very similar to another thing he said after that Betis defeat at Madrid.
“When I see a guy like [Radek] Stepanek, who’s 34 and plays Davis Cup games three days in a row, and who dies to win and give victory to his country, don’t tell me that guys who are 23, 24, 25 and 26 cannot play on a Wednesday and a Saturday,” Mourinho said. “Sport is about the head and the heart, too, not only the legs. When you want it, when you want it a lot, you can be dead but you come back to life.”
It can be as if Mourinho goes way beyond fair criticism of mistakes or poor performance to fundamental questions of character, or core ability: that players won’t do it, or just can’t.
"We have problems in the team that I cannot resolve by myself as a coach," he said at Spurs, after the recent defeat to West Ham. He's often gone more specific. “It's normal because he's not the kind of player ready to sacrifice himself 100% for the team and for his mates,” Mourinho said of Hazard in that Chelsea spell in 2015-16. At United, it wasn’t the commitment, but the quality. “There are things that I cannot get from them and I cannot say much more than this,” he said, saying a lot, in December 2018.
The consequence is that players no longer feel motivated to play for him when he needs it most.
Drastic team changes
When criticism hasn’t worked, and results still get worse, Mourinho has tended to go for something even more extreme. He goes against a principle of his career – where there are core “untouchable” players who form pillars of his defined systems – and starts naming totally unpredictable line-ups. As one former player said: “It is as if he is trying to shock players into action, or just jolt them by doing something totally different”.
Stars like Mesut Ozil, Marcelo, Pepe, Hazard, Diego Costa, John Terry, Cesc Fabregas, Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford would be unceremoniously dropped. Forgotten squad players out in the cold would be abruptly called in, often after months without first-team appearances. Among them were as Antonio Adan, Fabio Coentrao, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Kenedy, Baba Rahman, Matteo Darmian, Eric Bailly and Marcos Rojo. Far from jolted, squads were often stunned. They felt like “wild swings”, and even wilder the following week when Mourinho would revert.
Provocations to preserve his reputation
“The one thing you have to remember with Jose,” says one figure who has worked with him, “is that everything he does is for the purpose of his own reputation”. That can at various times apply to anything from tactics to line-ups to press conferences. “It’s as if he becomes more obsessed with making excuses for losing than with actually not losing,” one source adds.
Team approaches have meanwhile seemed more concerned with preventing heavy defeat than going and winning. Examples long put forward are various games against Barcelona with Real Madrid, trips to Anfield with Manchester United and – ironically – a visit to Tottenham Hotspur while with Chelsea.
During one particularly fraught period at the Bernabeu, Mourinho stressed to his players: “Don’t lose the ball”. The problem was that he had been so insistent on it that – to quote Diego Torres’ supreme book on that time – “the message ended up in the collective conscience of the team”. It made it more likely. And when points would be dropped as a result of this, political points would be made in the media. Hence so many press conferences where Mourinho seems to absolve himself of blame.
Reminding everyone of past glories - and club failures
This is when you know a spell is particularly bad. Mourinho feels the need to remind people of why he was for a long time considered among the greatest. The added implication, that is often expressly stated, is that his current employers have never had it so good. The most jaw-dropping example of this was one of the first, that eight-minute monologue after a 3-1 defeat to Southampton that culminated in a direct challenge to Roman Abramovich.
“If the club want to sack me, they have to sack me because I am not running away from my responsibility. Why? Because Chelsea cannot have a better manager than me. There are many managers in the world that belong to my level, but they are not better… This is a crucial moment in the history of this club. Do you know why? Because if the club sacks me, they sack the best manager this club ever had.”
The most self-serving, however, was the notorious “heritage” rant at United. Mourinho belittled the recent European record of one of the continent’s great clubs by not so subtly pointing to his own victories against them.
“2012, out in the group phase,” Mourinho began. “The group was almost the same group we had this season – Benfica, Basel and [Otelul] Galati from Romania. In 2013, out at Old Trafford in the last 16, I was on the other bench [as manager of Real Madrid]. “In 2014, out in the quarter-final. In 2015, no European football. In 2016, back to European football, out in the group phase, goes to Europa League and on the second knockout out of the Europa League.
“In 2017, play Europa League, win Europa League with me and goes back to Champions League. In 2018, win the group phase with 15 points out of a possible 18 and loses at home in the last 16. In seven years, with four different managers, once not qualify for Europe, twice out in the group phase and the best was the quarter-final. This is football heritage.”
This is what riled many at the club. There has already been one reference to how Spurs haven’t won a trophy since 2008. It adds that bit more pressure to the Carabao Cup final.
At every club that has ever struggled, there are inevitably internal complaints, and those complaints have always leaked out. It is a truth of human nature as much as a truth of football. These leaks often aren't anything strategic, either. They just happen, because a lot of people are talking at a tough time.
Mourinho, however, doesn’t see it this way when things turn bad. He instead sees “betrayal”, to quote the Portuguese from his second spell at Chelsea, in every corner. He becomes obsessed with the idea players or staff are briefing against him to undermine him. One phrase tends to trump all others: “rats”.
At Madrid, Jerzy Dudek revealed in his autobiography, Mourinho once exploded when he saw his team had leaked. “How could we ever surprise them if one of you is a rat,” the goalkeeper quotes Mourinho as saying. “Yes, yes, a rat!”
At Chelsea there was the direct quote to journalists, before that game against Southampton. “I don't tell you the team. Maybe you have some sources who can give you some tips. We trained tactically yesterday and today, so I'm sure you have some rats who can tell you what is going on.” What especially set Mourinho off that season was that an old colleague from Porto told him they knew of his plans to drop Fabregas a week before their match.
At United, then, Mourinho would regularly go into a rage when he saw team news posted on social media the night before games. Initial jokes to journalists who succeeded in getting the leaks soon turned to anger at players, to the point he would even withhold some plans in training.
At Spurs, he hasn't withheld suspicion. There have already been reports about his attempts to find "leaks" and public references to agents.
The cumulative effect of all this is a corrosive atmosphere that is impossible to maintain, a suffocating tension. The former Chelsea executive Michael Emenalo used the “palpable discord” description, while one senior Manchester United figure would just repeat the words “toxic atmosphere”. One source maintains the Old Trafford squad were “ecstatic” when Mourinho left, the tension had got so bad. Tottenham aren’t at that stage yet, but there has been movement from each of those steps.
The big question is whether Mourinho can haul it back. It is something he has not yet managed in his career, and would maybe represent one of his best feats, in its own way. It would also be all the more symbolic if a win over United, on Sunday, fired it. The Portuguese badly needs a different outcome – regardless of his approach, or the players.
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