Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs exit in November last year was tough to take for both supporters and neutrals, especially given the immediate appointment of the unpopular Jose Mourinho. It was a fraught end to the club’s most successful modern era — even though the Argentine didn’t lift a trophy, the style, quality and competitiveness he instilled in North London surpassed anything seen since the 1960s. That includes the 2008 League Cup win under Juande Ramos, something often weaponised by Pochettino’s critics desperate to put him down.
Statistics and trophies are concrete yardsticks of success, but they are not the only ones. Sometimes, an improvement in the culture and attitudes both in and around and towards a football club is a great way to measure development; that was certainly the case for Pochettino and Spurs. Perhaps they should have won something, but the manager was so focussed on top prizes — the Premier League and Champions League — and he didn’t view domestic trophies with the same credence.
Finishing second in the league — only once outside the top four — and reaching the Champions League final during his five-year reign, without spending obscene amounts of money like some of his direct rivals, was vindication of his quality. While a difficult last full season, despite going all the way to the showpiece event in Europe, and a disastrous start to the next one showed that the young, talented squad he had built was beginning to grow stagnant, he had earned the opportunity to lead a thorough rebuild and go again.
He didn’t get that, which left supporters, neutrals and members of the media dumbfounded. The announcement of his replacement did little to change that feeling, as Jose Mourinho — Pochettino’s antithesis — walked through the door. High pressing, high intensity and energetic, entertaining, free flowing football, which had become the norm for Spurs over half a decade, was the complete opposite of Mourinho’s ideology. Crucially, no manager had been better, or more flexible, when it came to winning trophies over the past 15 years; mainly because he truly values every competition he enters. Everywhere he’d gone, he had implemented a mentality rather than a style, and it paid off.
This was to be his biggest challenge yet. Mourinho left both Real Madrid and Manchester United, two clubs who expected trophies and entertainment as a package deal, under a cloud and, for the first time, his ability was being questioned. He was seen as outdated and past his best, and because the Spurs team he inherited had come together specifically for the purpose of winning a certain way, the job was seen as too much.
Mauricio Pochettino had successfully changed perceptions; Spurs could no longer be patted on the head by their competitors or the butt of jokes from rival supporters for being called ‘bottlejobs’ or the blanket term ‘Spursy’ , but to prove it, they needed silverware, and they hired a specialist to get it.
It took a while for Mourinho, who was extremely vocal about the team being too nice throughout last season — as evidenced by the Amazon Prime All Or Nothing documentary — to get his message across. There were games which looked as though he was slowly killing a once elegant, vibrant creature; Spurs were so flat, so uninspired and so insipid that it only looked like a matter of time until Mourinho would be out of the door. After he departed from Old Trafford, his Manchester United team were looking much the same; it was feared that, while Daniel Levy had gone all out to get the swashbuckling, brash, all conquering Mourinho who swept all before him in the mid-00’s, he had ended up with the washed up, bitter shadow he appeared to have morphed into in more recent times.
If anything is known about Mourinho, though, it is that when the chips are down, he is at his best. Every club in the world faced a difficult transfer window over the late summer months after the previous campaign was belatedly completed because of the coronavirus pandemic, but Spurs operated to perfection. Under Pochettino, they were stagnant and slow to react in the market and rarely bought well towards the end but Mourinho managed to make that team his own. Matt Doherty and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg were perfect Mourinho signings; unspectacular, but with the right personality to add that bite and nastiness which was the hallmark of every successful team he has created. The star quality should, in theory at least, come from Gareth Bale, though he has been overshadowed considerably by Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son.
Tottenham are top of the league right now; Mourinho is back on the perch it was once inconceivable from which he’d fall, and then apparently too far for him to reach. It becomes easier to see how the initially jarring transition between himself and Pochettino was actually fairly smooth. Victory after the North London Derby against Arsenal last week, which maintained their lofty position as well as the strength of Mourinho’s own personal record against the Gunners, was met by criticism of the team’s style of play. Mikel Arteta’s men dominated the ball, but couldn’t create or finish chances to convert that into something more meaningful; Spurs allowed that, countered it and won, but were immediately called boring and difficult to watch by Sky Sports’ band of pundits.
Mourinho, who worked with them during his spell between jobs, will have loved that; the siege mentality is in full swing. Even putting aside the fact that Spurs have got the best goal difference in the league right now, having scored the third highest number of goals, it is impossible to ignore the hypocrisy of recent discourse.
After years of being told they needed to add substance to their style, and seeing Pochettino caveated by his lack of medals, Spurs are finally playing with the edge they always needed to go that extra step. If Mourinho can win something, it completes the job his predecessor started; there is a natural progression and a sense of evolution, which was previously misread as revolution. But the pundits are dismissing the lack of entertainment, which may not even be fair, and using a stick which has been used to beat Mourinho with throughout his career. In that sense, it feels like the normal order of things has finally been restored; he is winning again, and is there to be shot at.
Liverpool and Manchester City are still favourites to win the Premier League title, but Tottenham are showing they are the real deal. They are in the conversation, but after jibes over their ability to convert their exciting football into a winning formula under Pochettino, they shouldn’t be subject to questioning over their approach now they and Mourinho are getting it right together. Winning something now feels like a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’; pundits need to make up their minds on which Spurs approach they prefer.
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