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Old Dog, New Tricks: Jose Mourinho’s fresh outlook has been mostly successful at Spurs

No news is good news where the Special One is concerned

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Crystal Palace v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images

Last week, I provided a history of the trouble that Mourinho has gotten into in past managerial appointments, suggesting that his past might predict further turmoil at Spurs. But beyond unsavory moments at other clubs, is there any recent evidence that Tottenham should be concerned? In this week’s installment in my series of posts reflecting on Mourinho’s first partial season at Spurs, I’m revisiting recent months to suggest that in general, Mourinho has strong support from the team and has toned down his more controversial behaviors, yet signs that things might eventually sour are not altogether gone. Ultimately, everybody will make up their own mind, but I find reason for a cautiously optimistic outlook on Mourinho’s impact on team morale. Next week, in the final update to this monthlong reflection, I’ll return to Spurs’ on-field performances and parse through analytics and my own observations to forecast what to expect from the fall’s season.

In a humble press conference after joining Spurs, Mourinho recalled a period of introspection in the eleven months since he was sacked at Manchester United, and suggested that he might have tamed his petulant and antagonistic sides. “The principle of the analysis was not to blame anyone else. I realise that during my career I made mistakes. I am not going to make the same mistakes… When I don’t win, I cannot be happy… But the emotional control, to keep the self-esteem and confidence in yourself and show confidence to others and in those who work around you is very, very important as a principle,” he explained, and pundits and fans alike reacted positively to the suggestion of a new-and-improved Mourinho. In that spirit, he made efforts to start off on the right foot with players, offering, “I tried to buy some of them for different clubs and I couldn’t. I don’t need [new] players. I love this squad. We cannot win the Premier League this season. We can – I’m not saying we will do – but we can win it next season.”

In those early days, it seemed that the issues of morale that have dogged him in the last decade were not at risk of flaring up again. Sure enough, they have remained mostly a theoretical concern rather than a reality in the time since. Helped by a surge in table position that took Tottenham from fourteenth when Mourinho took over to sixth by the end of the season, things appear relatively smooth at Spurs. There have been no training-ground bust-ups or controversial Instagram posts by players yet, and The Athletic reports that after nine months in charge, “Mourinho is popular with the players,” although some have expressed reluctance at his defensive style and others are frustrated by their lack of minutes. Even those concerns, which I’ll address more in a moment, seem a far cry from the sort of mutiny which Mourinho faced at Real Madrid or Manchester United.

Confirming Mourinho’s popularity with players, there has been evidence of several first-team members getting on well with Mourinho, such as Eric Dier, whose connection to Mourinho began when Mourinho was at Manchester United and began communicating with him, to Pochettino’s dismay. In December, Dier said of Mourinho, “His mentality appeals to me and it is very special,” and he confirmed the sentiment after renewing his contract a month ago, claiming, “I’m really happy to continue here and commit to this new journey we are on… My clear objective and I think the manager’s clear objective is to try and win trophies for this club.” Dier’s bro Dele Alli benefitted from an early intervention by Mourinho when he found a run of good form after Mourinho’s instantly quotable ask, “Are you Dele or Dele’s brother?” in November. Mourinho’s biting tongue and mean style of play have galvanized others among the Spurs squad, like Erik Lamela, whom The Guardian dubbed a “perfect fit for Mourinho’s not-so-nice boys” and who praised Mourinho as “doing the right job and pushing the team in the right way,” or Lucas Moura, who has found new minutes and new fight under Mourinho and declared it “fantastic” to play under the “sincere” and “pleasant” manager.

Yet humble and self-reflective as this new Mourinho may be, he has not always had such a gentle touch with his players. He has made a series of abrupt substitutions which, whether or not they were warranted, certainly would have made some players unhappy. Few will forget Jan Vertonghen’s teary reaction to being pulled just minutes into the second half against Southampton on February 5, and both Dier and Dele, whom I noted as beneficiaries of Mourinho’s arrival at the club, were victims of similarly abrupt, though less brutal, moves: Dier was removed after 29 minutes in defensive midfield against Olympiacos on November 26, and Dele was yanked after 64 minutes against RB Leipzig on February 19. Mourinho seems to have taken care in these cases to protect players’ relationships to him, apologizing to Dier and explaining his decision as a tactical one not motivated by Dier’s performance, and offering reassurance that Dele’s frustrated throw of a water bottle was a reaction against his own performance, not the manager’s decision to substitute him. In Dele’s case, one might find Mourinho’s answer a little hard to believe, but given that Dele’s reaction could have instead been interpreted as insubordination and used as cause for a feud, Mourinho did seem to show some restraint. These seem to be the actions of a manager who is tough, but not unfair, and hardly cause to write off Mourinho altogether.

The greatest player concern, however, is Tanguy Ndombele. In his handling of the midfielder, who made a splash early on after signing from Lyon last summer, Mourinho’s uglier side has jumped out. He has disparaged Ndombele publicly and conspicuously not used him in games, a saga that was analyzed in depth by Carty Free’s Andres Ramirez, and is recounted in the body of this Alasdair Gold article (linked again in a few sentences). Ultimately, the conflict led to a breakdown in communication in which Ndombele reportedly told Mourinho he no longer wants to work with him and the two stopped speaking altogether. Alasdair Gold reports that the club’s consensus is that Ndombele is “the most talented player Spurs have on their books,” while Mourinho remains doubtful of Ndombele’s future at the club. Gold rightly predicts that the resolution of the Ndombele saga will also be relevant to Mourinho’s future at the club, for if he manages to repair the relationship, it will signify a new aptitude for interpersonal reconciliation that would be promising indeed for Mourinho and the club, but if things fall apart, it might be an omen of worse to come in the future.

As for Mourinho, the public figure, he remains as unafraid of controversy as ever. He drew heat several times over the season: he was caught holding a training session in a London park in disobedience of coronavirus guidelines; he had to apologize after calling Southampton’s goalkeeping coach an idiot; some suggested that after the season restarted, he deliberately encroached on other managers’ attempts to keep social distance on the touchline. Yet there are signs of a man more invested in maintaining good public relations, too, like the friendly comment that “I am not a villain” before his return Manchester United.

In conclusion, then, I find reason to be hopeful about Mourinho’s impact at Spurs, contingent on the resolution of his tension with Ndombele in a way that does justice to the gifted Frenchman, who has certainly been harshly and unfairly dealt with so far. Mourinho seems to be making an effort to maintain good relationships with his players and the public, even offering a conciliatory tone to fans’ criticisms of Spurs’ play at the end of the season. One concern remains which affects both his relationship to players and Tottenham’s actual performance, and that’s the Mourinho style of play. We have certainly seen a more defensive, less ambitious Spurs side in recent months, and when The Athletic reported that some players are unenthused about the approach one might remember similar player frustrations at Manchester United. However, that’s one attribute that even the new-and-improved Mourinho seems unlikely to change, so fans might have to resign themselves to it—or start up the #MourinhoOut call. Next week, I’ll provide more insight into how Spurs’ on-field performance changed to determine whether we ought to be pessimistic or hopeful about the future of Mourinho Ball at Spurs.