FEW IN FOOTBALL are pleased to see matches behind closed doors, but for Jose Mourinho there must be some relief that he does not have to face 60,000 or so Spurs supporters bellowing their displeasure at what is going on at Tottenham.
Last season’s 2-0 defeat by Chelsea came at the end of 2019 when most of the 60,000 or so in the Tottenham Hotspur stadium filed away silently while a few hundred Blues fans celebrated with Frank Lampard and taunted Mourinho with chants of “You’re not special anymore.”
Back then the prevailing view among Tottenham’s fans was to give Mourinho a chance to weave his magic spell over a team that had gone off the rails dramatically in Mauricio Pochettino’s final few months. From contesting the Champions League final in June 2019 to 14th place in the Premier League five months later was a fall from grace that cost the much-loved Pochettino his job, and though few Tottenham supporters welcomed Mourinho with open arms, most were prepared to see if he still had the Midas touch and could deliver the silverware that had eluded the club for over a decade. His CV is hard to beat, with 25 major trophies in four countries, but Mourinho also brings baggage. His modus operandi is not to everyone’s taste, his management style inevitably leads to conflict, and his tactical approach is pragmatic at best, ugly at its worst.
While he revels in the role of pantomime villain at times, Mourinho could point at his trophy haul.
It had been the same at Manchester United when he took over in 2016, winning the League Cup and Europa League before falling out with key players and alienating fans with his negative style. Like Tottenham, United fans expect good, attacking football even if at the expense of defensive solidity.
Despite taking United to runners-up spot in his second season, he was gone by Christmas 2018. Upon taking over at Tottenham, he claimed his11-month sabbatical had allowed him to reflect and learn from past mistakes, no longer the Special One but the Humble One, and his early games certainly gave Spurs an uplift in results without sacrificing their attacking instincts. But when Harry Kane, Heung Min Son and others became injured at the start of 2020, Tottenham’s form dipped alarmingly and they crashed out of the Champions League shortly before lockdown.
The league’s resumption helped them back to full fitness but only as far as Europa League qualification.
After an influx of players that was never afforded Pochettino, Mourinho’s new side started this season well, with Kane and Son scoring freely. A 2-0 win over Man City in November moved them top of the table, a place apparently cemented with an identical result against rivals Arsenal a fortnight later, watched by 2000 fans in football’s brief baby steps back towards normality. Mourinho’s stock was as high as Lampard’s had been 12 months earlier. But then lockdown returned and it has been downhill for Spurs and Mourinho ever since. The recent defeat by Chelsea, now managed by Thomas Tuchel, was their third in succession and the first time Mourinho had lost two successive league games at home in his career. Spurs have slid down towards mid-table, out of contention for the title, and Mourinho is now second favourite among bookmakers to follow Lampard on to the dole queue. It is not just the defeats, but the nature of them amid dull, defensive football that has angered supporters, whose opposition to the former Chelsea manager is gathering pace.
Tottenham’s form in the past 12 league games is worse than it was in the same period before Pochettino was sacked, with one more defeat and one less point in that time. Would Daniel Levy consider sacking Mourinho? It is unlikely, with Spurs in the League Cup final in April, still in Europe and not out of the running for a top four finish, though it will take a reversal of fortune to get back into the Champions League places. Levy would also need to find a huge severance payout as well as eating an enormous amount of humble pie.
And in this season of all seasons, things can change very quickly. Both Manchester clubs had poor starts to the season before rising to their current lofty positions, Liverpool have struggled for a month or so, Chelsea had such a dip in form that Lampard was sacked, and Arsenal have barely risen above halfway. Who is to say that Tottenham cannot get move back up?
And of course the question who could replace him? Tuchel would have been a shoo-in a month ago, a childhood Spurs fan (whatever he says now) and a top-class coach, but he was snapped up by Chelsea after leaving PSG. There is no obvious replacement available now, which means Mourinho should have at least the rest of this season to turn things around.
He may need to convince some key players, not least Dele Alli who had been given the cold-shoulder this season despite his obvious quality. Would the club’s talisman Kane want to extend his time at Tottenham in such an unhappy atmosphere, while most of the world’s leading clubs would pay top dollar for him?
Mourinho is still defiant, of course, finding excuses in refereeing performances, injuries, the fixture schedule and more. When asked about this run of three straight defeats, Tottenham’s worse run since the ill-fated days of Andre Villas Boas in 2012, he responded with a reference to the 60-year gap since Spurs last won the league title. “Maybe I can give a title,” he said.
Not this year, by the look of it, and maybe never unless things change dramatically.