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What can José Mourinho teach us about Mauricio Pochettino?

Ahead of Monday’s game, a quick look at how the United gaffer’s dazzling, turbulent career relates to Poch

Brighton & Hove Albion v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Few managers today are as reviled and respected as José Mourinho. He has won just about everything, including the Premier League, Champions League, FA Cup and League Cup, with a managerial style that combines an uncompromising focus on winning with often-brilliant tactical precision and a knack for nurturing his players’ confidence. He has also made a habit of falling out with players, fans, and management as frequently as they fall in love with him: Mourinho has worked at four clubs in the past 10 years, leaving each one after two or three seasons and usually after a small meltdown. For an example of his polarizing effect, look no further than his departures from Inter Milan in 2010 and Real Madrid in 2013: Mourinho was beloved at Inter, so much so that Marco Materazzi wept during their final embrace, but by the time he left Real Madrid in 2013, he had ruined his relationship with several key players, including Iker Casillas and Cristiano Ronaldo. The bravado, brashness and arrogance that inspires love and hate alike is a part of Mourinho’s style. He leads with a cult of personality—not unlike our own ingenious guru. To be sure, Mauricio Pochettino seems like a much nicer guy than José Mourinho, and far less egotistical. Little details like the text messages Poch sent his players during the World Cup remind us that he’s a lover even if he rules the team with an iron grip. Still, they have a few traits in common: a gift for giving their players a sense of purpose, a focus on unity within their teams, and an uncompromising disregard for people who will not follow them. Oh, and they win. A lot.

Where tactics are concerned, Mourinho is both an example and a cautionary tale. Both he and Poch have built success on the pitch through a particular tactical innovation; in Mourinho’s case, the impenetrable defense, for Poch, the high press. To his credit, Mourinho is capable of well-considered tactical shifts at key moments, and a master of winning big games, whereas Poch’s Tottenham, as lovely and as brilliant as they are, often come up just short when it has mattered. The most painful example of this in my recent memory is last spring’s second leg at home against Juventus, when (if you’ve somehow purged this from your memory) we entered the game level after a hard-earned 2-2 draw away in the first leg, gained a 1-0 lead in the first half, and were utterly out-fought by Juve, who won 2-1 and eliminated us from the Champions League. It’s hard to imagine Mourinho losing that game. In defense of Poch, though, Mourinho was a serious student of the game’s tactics for decades before bursting onto the scene. Poch is ten years younger and retired from professional football at 34, so naturally lacks some of the coaching and tactical experience that Mourinho gained during decades as a coach. And he is catching up. His tactical vision has improved each season, and it feels like we’re getting stronger in big games.

Where Poch would do well to avoid Mourinho’s trajectory is José’s apparent reliance on the same tactics for the past few seasons. The conservative (cynical) football that was once revolutionary is now yesterday’s news, and since Mourinho has failed to evolve, so are his chances of dominating at the elite stages. Poch will need to find a way to respond as his high-press becomes more common and thus more comfortable for opponents to defend. Last season, both Liverpool and City showed signs of having figured out the secret to beating the press, but Poch, too has responded, particularly by shifting to prefer a back three in many games.

Poch already has an edge on José in his relationships with players and management style. I said at the start of this that both managers lead by inspiring unity with strong personalities and strict ideologies. However, the content of their ideologies is different. Mourinho is a star himself and a star’s manager: his ego works in tandem with his players, ballooning their confidence and aspirations. As their hopes soar, buoyed by his tactical prowess, Mourinho teams find success for a season or two, but it isn’t sustainable. His managerial approach requires superstars capable of playing under the constant, immense pressure that he puts on players and depends on his teams putting out near-perfect performances almost every game. This is why Mourinho’s teams often succeed so magnificently and fail so spectacularly in quick succession. After Chelsea won the Premier League in 2014-15, he got the sack in December of the next season, with Chelsea sitting 16th in the table. Mourinho doesn’t know how to manage teams that aren’t perfect and aren’t playing perfectly. Take this summer’s preseason loss to Liverpool. After his team featuring many young players was beaten 4-1 in a game that didn’t matter much, Mourinho criticized the team and belittled their efforts, rather than celebrate his young players. Poch, on the other hand, was gloriously optimistic about the prospect of entering this season with the same players as he finished last season with.

The loyalty Poch earns from his players, which we have to thank for the pleasant lack of big-name departures in the past few transfer windows, is because he places faith in their development long-term, regardless of their current form or individual performances. My favorite example of this commitment is Erik Lamela. Remember all those seasons ago when he came in as a massively-hyped, massively confident youngster and proceeded to flounder, then struggle with injury? Under Mourinho he would have been scapegoated or shipped out, or both. Instead, Poch has created a part for him to play in Tottenham’s future, and he is playing it quite well as far as I’m concerned. Think, too, of the youngsters at Manchester United, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford in particular, who will certainly be thinking a little forlornly this Monday about how they might have developed differently under the opposing manager’s tutelage. Dele is an obvious comparison for them, and Poch deserves enormous credit for tempering the expectations—and pressure—that Dele had to deal with in his first few seasons. Now, instead of a star that burned bright and short, Dele has become a smart, consistent, and dependable footballer who always meets or exceeds expectations. Still, in his management of players like Danny Rose and Toby Alderweireld—and as of today, Hugo Lloris—who have failed to meet his expectations in one way or another, Poch would do well to balance the loyalty he demands with a path to forgiveness for those who let him down, lest he become like José Mourinho. Tottenham cannot afford the same whimsical revolving door of favor that Mourinho often creates.

Poch is a bit like the Yoda to Mourinho’s Darth Sidious—they use the same Force, but I’d much rather have drinks with Pochettino, not to mention rather he manage my team. Of course Mourinho is a brilliant manager, and Monday’s game will be a tough and exciting contest, but for my money, what Poch is doing is more special. Mourinho takes superstars and riches and turns them into results before creating a catastrophe for himself and the club. Poch is competing with him using far less money, a team of rising stars and newly-tapped talent, and a philosophy of realist optimism to rival Mourinho’s winning obsession. I am so proud of the way our club stacks up against this competitor on the pitch, but even more so how we stand up off of it.