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Reviewing Mourinho’s controversial past

A primer in the reasons that some Spurs fans remain on edge about the Special One

Tottenham Hotspur v Leicester City - Premier League Photo by Adam Davy/Pool via Getty Images

This is the second installment in a series of posts reflecting on Jose Mourinho’s first season at Tottenham Hotspur. Last week, I presented an account of Tottenham’s 2019/20 Premier League season which observed that replacing Mauricio Pochettino with Mourinho in November 2019 did not drastically alter the team’s performance as measured by expected goal difference. However, as commenters were quick to point out, xG is not a perfect descriptor of performance, and given that Mourinho inherited Pochettino’s style of play and was forced to make do with a team thinned by injuries, we have not yet seen a Spurs side playing entirely on Mourinho’s terms. In light of these concerns, it is too soon to reject the possibility that Mourinho will improve Spurs’ on-field performance. In the final post of this series, I will return to that question and delve deeper into the way that Spurs’ style of play has changed under Mourinho and speculate on how a summer of training and transfer business might enable him to deliver a dominant side.

Before drawing those conclusions, however, I want to give attention to the common criticism among fans and neutral spectators alike that independent of whatever tactical prowess he possesses, Mourinho harbors a toxic personality which torpedoes the morale and reputation of his teams. This post will sketch a history of this charge and suggest why it matters to Spurs, and the next will evaluate Mourinho’s behavior at Spurs so far in light of the unique set of concerns that follow him. If you are already familiar with Mourinho’s history, you might want to skip this post and wait for the next, which will focus more on the recent season. Mourinho’s controversial side can be broken down into reputation incidents, in which his conduct was severe and harmed his good standing with football fans, and morale incidents, in which his personality was harmful to his relationship to players and to the mood of the team as a whole. To get a sense of what Spurs fans should be on the lookout for, let’s revisit a few telltale moments of Mourinho at his worst.

Mourinho’s most shameful behavior came after Chelsea team doctor Eva Carneiro, the first woman to serve as an on-pitch doctor in both the Premier League and Champions League, rushed onto the pitch to treat Eden Hazard in a season opener against Swansea on August 8, 2015. Mourinho used a sexist Portuguese phrase against Carneiro in the moment, and later called her “impulsive and naïve” for treating Hazard, despite Carneiro’s professional obligation to do so when beckoned by the referee, as she was in that case. Carneiro was demoted from first-team duties before leaving Chelsea to commence her own private practice. Chelsea suffered, too, both in reputation, for supporting Mourinho over Carneiro and in operations, as they had to go to trial with Carneiro over the incident. I have heard some supporters say they find Mourinho’s behavior in that instance so reprehensible that they will not celebrate Spurs victories while he is in charge.

There are other incidents that make Mourinho personally unlikable. He jabbed a finger into Barcelona assistant Tito Villanova’s eye in a brawl during the August 17, 2011 second leg of the Spanish Super Cup, earning broad and well-deserved condemnation. Other behaviors, such as his bizarre “respect, respect, respect” rant, have not risen to the level of giving offense, but have nevertheless made Mourinho appear egotistical and unpleasant. Much of his outlook seems to be a particularly intense iteration of a familiar win-at-all-costs sporting masculinity, and as such his controversial actions are easily written off by some supporters and exceptionally offensive to others. In light of such polarizing behavior, most supporters have already made up their mind one way or another about Mourinho as a person.

However, there is a further concern beyond Mourinho as good or bad person: Mourinho as manager. To see why his past trophies are not enough to make fans confident that he is the right manager to deliver lasting success at Tottenham, we need to understand not only his reputation incidents but also his morale issues, which occur more frequently and are more impactful on his teams in the long run. Particularly in the last decade, Mourinho has seemed to fall out with players everywhere he goes, with Real Madrid and Manchester United providing particularly high-profile examples. At Madrid, Mourinho waged an ongoing conflict with Iker Casillas and Casillas’s allies in the dressing room, seeking to establish conformity to his system and benching them when he perceived insubordination or disrespect. Conversations leaked to the press showed a team divided, and after Mourinho dropped Casillas from the starting eleven, he was subject to public criticism from Pepe.

A similar tension arose at Manchester United, particularly between Mourinho and Paul Pogba, which saw Antonio Valencia like an Instagram post stating “recently Mourinho has made watching us a punishment” and “it’s time for Mourinho to go.” Two common threads in these incidents and others in which Mourinho has been involved over the course of his career are his willingness to engage in personal conflict with his players, both on the training ground and by singling them out to the media, and the disappointment and resentment players come to feel at playing Mourinho’s exceedingly defensive brand of football.

The most favorable assessment of his morale-injuring actions would claim that Mourinho is a misunderstood football genius, capable of taking teams to great heights if only they would conform to his vision. While that may be true, his time at a club has only once been longer than three seasons (his first spell at Chelsea), and Spurs, more so than other teams managed by Mourinho, depend on the retention of existing talent. Rather than bringing in and selling away a rotation of marquee signings to suit the manager’s whims, Tottenham’s best transfer strategy rests on identifying quality players at good prices and developing them over the long run.

The club cannot afford a manager who turns the team on its head over a two-year period and leaves, so it is especially important that Mourinho make efforts to keep in his players’ good graces. Furthermore, given widespread speculation that Pochettino had partially lost the dressing room by the end of his tenure, it is important that chaos not reign at Spurs for an extended period of time, as it would be a shame to lose any of the more impressive members of the squad to doubts about the club’s management. In the next post, I’ll focus on his conduct thus far at Spurs to examine whether he has toned down the more abrasive aspects of his personality or whether the threat of morale damage remains.