He’s a winner.
Given the toxicity he leaves in his wake and the negativity of the football he coaches, that three-word phrase is quite simply the only justification for Tottenham Hotspur hiring Jose Mourinho – especially after the club had been built in the image of the progressive, aesthetic, and likeable Mauricio Pochettino.
Mourinho wins ugly, but he wins. Or at least he used to.
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Put the Carabao Cup to one side and, since 2012, Mourinho has won only two trophies of significance – the Premier League title with Chelsea and Europa League with Man Utd. Two major pieces of major silverware in eight years is hardly a record to inspire hope Mourinho will go one better than Pochettino did last May.
His Champions League record is similarly a tale of waning influence, of genius fading. Between 2010 and 2014 Mourinho reached four consecutive semi-finals, losing all of them.
He has managed only two full campaigns in the tournament since, losing in the second round to Paris Saint-Germain and Sevilla, at Chelsea and Man Utd respectively. And yet we still look back on those glory years and expect something similar today.
We still look back on the tactical mastermind whose anti-football at Inter toppled Barcelona in 2010, whose aggressively defensive philosophy saw Porto win Europe’s biggest prize.
The prevailing wisdom says that for Tottenham to win things they need the old Mourinho of Inter and Porto – the resilient structures, the ultra-compressed defensive setup, the free-form counter-attacks – and not the scowling, petulant one whose tactics felt so sluggish, so out-dated, at Man Utd.
But a surprising third option is on the table. There are signs of a brand-new tactician emerging, one willing to embrace modern possession football.
Mourinho was never truly a defensive manager. His Porto and Inter sides shared similar characteristics, particularly in the latter stages of the Champions League, but it is unfair to say either parked the bus.
This accusation comes primarily from the infamous 1-0 defeat at Nou Camp in the 2010 semi-final in which Mourinho’s Inter side had just 24 per cent possession, but it should not be forgotten that their extreme pragmatism was influenced by Thiago Motta’s 28th-minute red card. We must also remember they beat Barcelona 3-1 in the first leg by creating chaos, by counter-attacking so brilliantly that Pep Guardiola’s side were all at sea.
That game is the better indicator of Mourinho at his best, aligning closely with his Porto team and both stints at Chelsea. His sides were split into two distinct sections of defence and attack. The former was ruthlessly compact but sat in a midblock – a relatively high defensive line – while the latter improvised with abandon on the break.
If Spurs are to face RB Leipzig like a classic Mourinho team, then look for compression between the defensive and attacking lines but don’t look for a side camped on the edge of their box. Look for frustration tactics and niggly fouls, but don’t look for negativity from the forwards.
But more likely, none of these typical Mourinho traits will be visible. Tottenham under the Portuguese are nothing like those Chelsea, Porto, or Inter sides and instead appear wildly open, with a focus on building possession through midfield.
Mourinho’s shape is a 3-2-5 this season, with Serge Aurier providing width in attack, while the left-back tucks inside, and the midfield three combine sharply with inverted wingers. Giovani Lo Celso looks to set the tempo with assertive vertical passes, Harry Winks is a deep-lying playmaker at the base of midfield, and Lucas Moura is dropping off to create a fluid front five.
None of that reflects the Mourinho we have always known. Stoic defensive midfielders like Eric Dier are being left on the bench as Spurs take part in open, end-to-end games.
The decision to play expansively, it would appear, is deliberate. That spells trouble for the Leipzig tie, in particular, not least because so far Mourinho is not fusing possession football with high pressing – a prerequisite for elite clubs in the modern game.
The ruthless counterattacking speed of the German outfit means they should achieve what so many have in the Premier League in recent weeks; breaking into open patches of grass on the outside of the back three. Winks cannot hold down midfield, undermining Spurs’ attempts to dominate and suffocate. Timo Werner, in particular, seems likely to get behind Aurier and run at those error-prone Tottenham centre-backs.
Of course, fear of this pattern might mean Mourinho’s old habits come back. Perhaps Dier and Tanguy Ndombele will sit as a pair in defensive midfield. Perhaps Spurs’ defensive line will move 20 yards deeper. But the problem is that Tottenham, so far, have no muscle memory to fall back on in this regard.
They do not feel like a Mourinho team in psychology or physicality, and that means becoming a feisty defensive outfit for 90 minutes is most likely beyond them – for this tie and the season as a whole.
Tottenham are conceding an alarming number of chances, caught as they are in an unexpected transitional stage of their new manager. Play in the fashion they did at Villa Park and Leipzig will tear through them, but attempt a more old-school Mourinho system and their lack of experience or coaching in defensive methods will surely be exposed. Worse still, they have no Harry Kane or Son Heung-min to fall back on.
For now, Tottenham aren’t ready to match or better the unlikely achievements of last season. That should not be cause for concern. These are early days and Mourinho’s tenure ought not to be judged on a tricky Champions League tie so early in the project.
Then again, perception is everything in football – and Mourinho’s reputation is beginning to become a major hindrance as fans and pundits alike seek to confirm their biases against his tactics.
To lose to RB Leipzig is no shame, but to lose three consecutive second-round ties? That could seriously damage the Mourinho brand.
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