Mourinho is getting results at Tottenham, but must prove he remains a top manager
Jose Mourinho; magician or myth? Special One or Incredible Sulk? His success, or otherwise, at Tottenham Hotspur might settle a few arguments, but either way, he remains the world’s most talked-about manager, which is the way he has always liked it.
Mourinho was refreshed by the sabbatical he took after a less-than-stellar spell at Manchester United, but you sense he missed the spotlight, the daily cut and thrust with the media. Now it has got to the point where his reputation as a “born winner” needs a coat of paint. Perhaps he needs to prove that he is not yesterday’s man in a Premier League era dominated by Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola’s attacking styles.
Mourinho would no doubt scoff at that suggestion and point to his creaking trophy cabinet, which includes Champions League wins in 2004 and 2010, plus eight league titles — in four different countries — among 20 pieces of silverware.
He might also remind you that his first title, in 2004-05 with Chelsea, was won with two exciting wingers in Arjen Robben and Damien Duff. He might add that his Real Madrid team scored more than 100 league goals in each of his three seasons at the Bernabeu.
But a decade-and-a-half since he enchanted us in those early days at Stamford Bridge, has the charmer become a surly dinosaur?
In the opening honeymoon weeks at Tottenham, it almost seemed as if Mourinho was trying to reinvent himself as a cool, urbane character, swerving controversy and even using a little diplomacy and charm; Dele Alli was an early beneficiary, for example. More recently, though, he has shown signs of reverting to type with complaints on several topics.
Results have been pretty good, with seven wins in the Premier League against four defeats and two draws. Spurs have climbed from 14th, when he took over in November, to sixth, four points off the Champions League places. Talking of which, a round-of-16 tie against RB Leipzig begins on Feb. 19.
All of which has been achieved despite the absence of top scorer Harry Kane since New Year’s Day and the protracted sale of Christian Eriksen to Inter. There have been other injury concerns, notably the loss of midfielder Moussa Sissoko.
So what is not to like about Mourinho’s brave new world in North London? Nothing except the fact that it is hard to spot any tangible improvement when you actually watch his side play. Recent wins over Manchester City in the Premier League and Southampton in the FA Cup came in spite of being outplayed for long periods; Spurs have frequently looked laboured by a malaise that, in fairness to their manager, crept in during the latter days of former boss Mauricio Pochettino’s time in charge.
You could argue that Spurs’ rapid climb up the table is more a reflection of the erratic form shown by rivals such as Chelsea and Manchester United, but fans will not care the reason if Mourinho can get them into the top four by the end of a difficult season.
Perhaps Mourinho can also deliver the trophy that eluded Pochettino by winning the FA Cup; Spurs have a tasty-looking tie at home to Norwich in the fifth round at the start of March.
But you wonder if, in the long term, Mourinho’s pragmatic approach is a good fit at a club that prides itself on adventure. Think Danny Blanchflower, Cliff Jones and Jimmy Greaves and, later, Glenn Hoddle, Paul Gascoigne, David Ginola and Gareth Bale.
At Manchester United, Mourinho’s teams were rarely easy on the eye, even if he did achieve a second-place finish — what United would give for that this season — and win the League Cup and Europa League.
Can he produce an entertaining Tottenham team? He has not done so yet. Pochettino did and reached a Champions League final. Spurs fans expect flair, goals and entertainment and they can be demanding, so Mourinho will not survive playing the boring football he often produced at Old Trafford.
In short, he is under pressure to prove he can be Jose 2.0. No one can seriously doubt that Mourinho really was a “Special One.” His time at Tottenham might tell us if he still is.