José Mourinho has been sacked on the cusp of a Carabao Cup final that many believed only he could lead Tottenham to victory in. It begs the question, how did it all come to this?
To Dare Is To Do.
The fabled motto of Tottenham Hotspur did the rounds on social media back in the November of 2019 when Spurs sacked Mauricio Pochettino, bringing an end to his five-year tenure at the club. Spurs were taking a punt on perennial winner José Mourinho to deliver the one thing that Pochettino had failed to achieve in his otherwise widely successful managerial rein: trophies.
Pochettino’s sacking was a shock, in spite of his side’s dismal league form, for he had achieved legend status among the club’s supporters, taking Tottenham to their first ever Champions League final, following that memorable game in Amsterdam back in 2019. Tottenham’s squad had never been sufficiently reinforced to take that extra step though and, without such changes, it had grown older and come to the end of a cycle. For most, he had earned the right to rebuild a team that had been punching well above their weight – in term of the finances spent on the first-team squad – for much of the Argentine’s time there.
Still, with Mourinho’s appointment, it all made sense. Near enough the only person qualified to replace one of the world’s best up-and-coming managers[Pochettino], was the man with arguably the most impressive résumé in Europe in the past 20 years, Jose Mourinho. Where Mourinho goes, silverware follows. With Tottenham’s squad, which arguably is the most talented squad they have had in generations, reaching their peak, it was important for Spurs to adopt a ‘win now’ policy to ensure that they deliver the success that the displays of some of their star performers, such as talisman Harry Kane, have merited.
Fast-forward 17 months though and fans of the Lilywhites are once again scrolling through internet feeds, this time desperate to find hints as to who will permanently replace the 58-year-old Portuguese icon. Mourinho’s tenure was short, but not so sweet and the promise of silverware never materialised, with Spurs’ trophy cabinet in their world-class new stadium growing ever dustier.
Initial rumours on social media speculated that Mourinho’s exit was down to him refusing to take training after hearing that Tottenham had agreed to join the European Super League, but it has since become clear that his removal as head coach was purely results-based. This should not come entirely as a surprise, with Tottenham 5 points behind 4th-placed West Ham, out of Europe and having failed to beat anyone of significance in either domestic cup competition, with their run to the Carabao Cup final arguably aided by them receiving an incredibly fortunate draw.
Mourinho’s appointment was always going to be controversial, given his long-standing ties to Tottenham’s London rivals, Chelsea. However, the fan base soon began to warm to him, due to his entertaining Instagram posts and charismatic appearances in the Amazon documentary ‘All or Nothing’, which followed the club’s 2019-20 campaign. Results on the pitch gradually improved, as Mourinho led Spurs up the table from 14th, eventually achieving a sixth-place finish.
After re-signing club legend Gareth Bale on loan prior to the start of this season, Spurs supporters were confident of competing for the top four, with a few optimistic of another title challenge. Their campaign began strongly, including a 6-1 win at Old Trafford against Mourinho’s former club, Manchester United. A 2-0 home win over North London rivals Arsenal saw Mourinho guide Spurs to the top of the table for the first time in the Premier League era. Confidence was booming.
However, cracks soon began to show. Five defeats in six Premier League games to start the year saw Tottenham plummet from being false title contenders to outsiders in the race for the top four. The early season form of Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son – soon to be the highest scoring partnership in Premier League history – could only go on for so long and the fine margins that Spurs had previously seen fall in their favour soon began to disappear.
Mourinho’s early friendship with Dele Alli soon turned sour (albeit with his relationship with Tanguy Ndombele doing the complete reverse) and claims of the ‘same old José’ from rival fans began to surface. He had completed his usual 3-year cycle with a club, but in double-quick time; only this time without the middle part where he wins lots of trophies.
Was it his fault? Yes and no.
Spurs never looked like a José Mourinho side throughout the Portuguese’s tenure at the club, with 11 of the 20 points they have dropped from winning positions this season coming from goals they conceded in the final 10 minutes of matches. Defensive resiliency is an attribute that is synonymous with Mourinho’s sides over the years, yet Spurs failed to hold on to crucial leads in the crunch time of games again and again and again.
They were second in the league in alternative graphics for scoring first and being ahead at half time, so inevitably Mourinho’s tactics to sit off the opposition and invite pressure when ahead has to come under some scrutiny. Yet, in the past he has deployed these tactics to great success, so perhaps his hints that the Spurs squad lacked quality in certain areas of the pitch has some merit.
It is certainly fair to say that Spurs’ run to the Champions League final papered over a lot of the cracks that were clearly present in the squad if you watched their domestic form. Only one of arguably Pochettino’s best back four during his time at the club – Kyle Walker, Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Danny Rose – still remains in the first-team fold at Spurs and the others have not been adequately replaced. It is no surprise that Spurs have once again been linked with Milan Škriniar, the Inter Milan centre-half who Mourinho allegedly wanted last summer, before he had to settle for Joe Rodon from Swansea.
However, Mourinho did get Matt Doherty, who has not worked since his arrival from Wolves and Sergio Reguilón, who, while he has widely impressed going forward, has left much to be desired defensively. The best managers make their players better. Take John Stones, for example. Under the stewardship of Pep Guardiola, Stones has matured into an accomplished defender, ousting the talented Aymeric Laporte to start alongside Rúben Dias at the heart of Manchester City’s defence.
You would be hard pushed to identify anyone at Tottenham that Mourinho has made better from a defensive standpoint, which is meant to be his priority when he comes into a club. Eric Dier was identified early on as a leader, but even he has been dropped as the season has progressed. Japhet Tanganga, who excited Spurs fans with his performances at the back-end of last season against the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City has not been given sufficient minutes to progress. Club legend Ledley King, who was brought in as a defensive coach, has thus far been a disappointment.
Granted, Mourinho inherited problems when he came to the club and was always going to need time to mould the squad to his style which starkly contrast the high line, intense pressure tactics previously deployed by Pochettino. However, to earn this time, you would expect to see some form of progress at Spurs. None was forthcoming.
Throughout the campaign, Mourinho has chopped and changed his backline like there’s no tomorrow, desperately searching for some invincible formula, unwilling to accept that none exists. These repeated defensive changes have prevented Tottenham’s defenders from establishing any form of chemistry with one another that can clearly be seen across the league if you look at the defensive partnerships of other sides. Tottenham’s defenders may not be the best, but they have never been given sufficient time to develop.
What’s more, if Mourinho was so adamant that his side’s defenders were not up to scratch, why did he not even once set up his team to make use of the array of offensive talent that they have at their disposal? Yes, his long-term vision may be for defensive solidity, but until adequate players to make that vision a reality at the club, Mourinho should have done a better job with what he had, adjusting his style to fit the abilities of his squad.
Mourinho’s defensive-minded tactics were epitomised by having 8 defensive-minded players on the pitch for much of their recent 2-2 draw away to Everton, which also turned out to be the Portuguese’s last game in charge of Tottenham. Chasing a win to keep them in the race for the top four, did they really need a midfield base of Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Moussa Sissoko in front of three centre-halves? It is these decisions which frustrated fans and eventually must have become too much for chairman, Daniel Levy.
Højbjerg may have had an impressive first season at the club, but Mourinho’s repeated determination to leave him on the pitch, instead replacing a more offensive-minded player when his side were behind in games, was just peculiar. Carlos Vinícius impressed some in his limited minutes, leading to rumours the club could look to sign him on a permanent deal, but was never given the opportunity to cement a significant role in the squad.
Yes, Mourinho may not have been a major fan of the likes of Harry Winks, Dele Alli and Gareth Bale. Yes, Levy arguably should have tried to move some of these players on in January, once he was made aware of this situation. However, once this did not happen, why on Earth did Mourinho bring them along to every single matchday, just to leave them on the bench, bar the occasional 5-minute cameo? If one of your side’s well-documented issues is an ageing team, with Tottenham’s squad now having one of the highest average ages in the league, why not give youngsters from the academy, such as 17-year-old Dane Scarlett, some meaningful minutes?
Once again Mourinho allowed his tenure to become a bit of a circus act, with players seemingly put in awkward positions, just so that their manager could send a message to them. Maybe Mourinho was trying to appease Levy by having these players remain within the first-team fold. There were signs of Mourinho attempting to appease fan criticisms of his style of play, when he gave his side permission to express their freedom in the 5-4 FA Cup defeat to Everton. However, if these were legitimately the reasons behind Mourinho’s thinking, then the reality is that he failed in trying to find a halfway house between sticking to his guns that saw him become a three-time Premier League winner and two-time Champions League winner and adjusting to fit to the demands of modern-day players.
When Mourinho first arrived at Tottenham, 3-2 league victories away to West Ham and home to Bournemouth, came either side of a 4-2 home win against Olympiacos in the Champions League. These were displays stacked with free-flowing, attacking football. The promise of a new Mourinho, revitalised from his first extended period out of the dugout in several years, seemed real.
However, Spurs’ dismal downfall since saw Mourinho return to the deep, unambitious, counter-attacking football that saw him come under vast criticism for during his time at Old Trafford. As a result, following his departure, calls of ‘same old José’ are likely to ring out once more and follow the Portuguese manager wherever he goes next.
So, what next for Tottenham?
Well, the timing of Mourinho’s departure was the biggest surprise, given Mourinho’s illustrious record in cup finals and Spurs’ desperation to win their first major honour since 2008. A date at Wembley with Manchester City awaits on Sunday, with new caretaker manager Ryan Mason set to be at the helm.
This is quite the task for former Spurs midfielder Mason, who has no managerial experience of any note, with his last role being acting as Head of Player Development at Tottenham. City’s form has stuttered as of late and their quadruple dream was recently quashed at the hands of Chelsea, but this will just leave the Citizens hungry for retribution.
Alongside this, Mason will be tasked with attempting to get Spurs back into the top 4 race, with their favourable fixture list the main reason a minority of fans still believe they are somewhat in with a shout of Champions League football. Aged 29, Mason, who retired aged 26 with a head injury, will become the youngest Premier League manager ever, competing against renowned managers with far greater experience, with united squads with clear visions, who also have a points advantage to Tottenham.
So, to answer my above question, in all likelihood, not an awful lot.
As unlikely as it is, if Mason can launch a remarkable recovery leading the side where he made his name as a player, then the permanent position may well be his for the taking. He does have a lot of tools at his disposal, such as bringing back the likes of Dele Alli and Harry Winks from the wayside. Heck, even Danny Rose may once again appear in a Tottenham shirt. Probably not, though.
Potentially most influential to Mason’s hopes of succeeding long-term at Spurs will be his ability to get Gareth Bale fit and back to his best, something that his predecessor Mourinho either couldn’t, or opted not to, on a regular enough basis. The best attacking units in Europe are all tridents. Mané, Firmino, Salah. Neymar, Mbappé, Di María. Sané, Lewandowski, Gnabry.
For Spurs, it was meant to be Son, Kane, Bale. As a duo, Kane and Son are deadly. As a trio, with someone on their level beside them, they could be unstoppable.
However, so far Bale’s return to Spurs has been far from triumphant, as he has struggled for minutes and allegedly for fitness. It may surprise you that Bale actually has a better goals-per-minute record in the Premier League than both Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son this season. However, with this coming from such a small sample, Bale’s ability to deliver the goods on a regular basis has to be questioned.
This season, Tottenham have had a greater proportion of their goals come from their top two scorers than any other side in the Premier League. That is a problem. When Kane and Son are not available, they struggle and with Kane’s recent ankle injury, that he sustained in the draw against Everton, likely to rule him out of Mason’s first game in charge, the young boss will have to find another source for his side’s goals. Bale and, to a lesser extent, Alli, are the most obvious candidates to fill the void that the England captain will leave behind. Getting these players firing and quickly will be key to Mason’s prospects.
As taken aback as I was by his appointment, I certainly believe that if he does pull off a top four miracle, or wins Tottenham their first trophy in over a decade, then Mason will deserve an opportunity at the job long-term. Young English managers very rarely getting their due opportunity at the biggest clubs in the Premier League and Mason’s story is a remarkable one, so Spurs fans and neutrals alike will be hopeful it has a fairy-tale ending. However, how much Levy values top four though, given that, in his mind, Spurs may well be competing in the European Super League next year, remains to be seen. Perhaps, even if Mason is hugely successful between now and the end of the season, the top job may still not be his for the taking.
Mourinho’s sacking does appear to have been timed in an attempt to appease Spurs supporters who are disgruntled with the news that their club has joined the disgraceful European Super League proposal, rather than to give Mason time to show his own credentials.
Tottenham’s squad clearly needs a huge upheaval this coming summer, with a large cash injection required into the club. If, as supporters will hope, this is forthcoming (or more likely facilitated by player sales), then it seems highly unlikely that such a well-versed operator in Daniel Levy will want such an inexperienced manager to be let loose with the finances that will determine his team’s future.
That being said, it is unlike Levy to have sacked Mourinho without having a ready-made target lined up. Perhaps he does. However, with rumoured top target Julian Nagelsmann being courted by Bayern Munich (although this could have been another trigger behind Spurs sacking Mourinho now) and another man heavily fancied for the role in Brendan Rodgers committed to the long-term at Leicester, it seems that, for once, Levy has taken a step into the unknown.
So, maybe Mason does have a chance after all.
Either way, with the proposed European Super League threatening to derail football as we know it and get Tottenham’s players suspended from both domestic and international competition, the only thing certain is that the future of the Lilywhites, and the beautiful game as a whole, is uncertain.
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