TOTTENHAM Hotspur are one of English football’s under-achievers. Their last league title was won in 1961 and their only other championship was secured in 1951. The modern era hasn’t exactly by-passed them, for Spurs have retained their position as a club that attracts respect, praise and plaudits, but something has been lacking, what some might call the “killer instinct”. Others may explain away their paucity of trophies as a consequence of thrift and caution.
This could be about to change. Spurs’ mythical quality of expansive football, which dates back to the days when journalists would eulogise over the quality and attractiveness of their play, has been put aside by José Mourinho in favour of a fit-for-purpose approach that could make them into title contenders.
Mourinho was supposed to be past his best, his ways made decidedly passé by the equally intense regimes of Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp. His last two appointments before joining Spurs, Chelsea and Manchester United, ended with the sack. His methods looked to have greyed almost as much as his hair, but in managerial maturity, Mourinho seems to have softened. The All or Nothing documentary series revealed a different side to the Portuguese, but cynics would say it merely showed the “special one” had some thespian qualities.
He may have a point to prove to those that considered he has lost the magic touch of the serial winner. His last league title, among his impressive total of eight spread across four clubs, was in 2015 with Chelsea. Mourinho’s prime time was in the early 2000s and like his old rival, Arséne Wenger, found at Arsenal, your time of extreme relevance doesn’t last forever. When he was hired by Tottenham, the second successive appointment that looked uncomfortable, the sceptics suggested he was yesterday’s man – his reaction on the TV series was a short, sharp expletive. Mourinho’s ultra-professional, defeat-avoidance ethos may now have stiff competition, but he is still among the most coveted of coaches.
Tottenham’s hope was that Mourinho’s mojo was still intact, or at the very least, recoverable, despite a couple of disappointing years, and that London would reconfirm itself as his natural habitat in the UK. Remarkably, considering he’s generally unpopular with opponents and their fans, Mourinho has now managed three of England’s so-called “big six” clubs.
Tottenham and Mourinho may not have seemed like a likely match, but the club’s fabled attacking style has not exactly been successful – just one trophy in the 20th century, the Football League Cup in 2008. True, they have provided a string of young players for the England set-up and Harry Kane, the national team’s skipper, is one of the most prolific goalscorers in world football, but the Pochettino-era team peaked with no silverware on the mantelpiece.
Against this backdrop, Mourinho is showing that Tottenham could be bedfellows: a coach who has been written off by many and a team that, supposedly, that has lost its momentum. It is, effectively, the kind of siege mentality that can win a cup or two.
And that cup could be the Premier League title. Mourinho has created a less generous Tottenham team that is not only meaner at the back – they may still need to be tighter – but also scores goals. New signing Sergio Reguilón has been a success, although has a clause in his contract that could take him back to Real Madrid, and Tanguy Ndombele looks more comfortable at the club. But the partnership between Son and Kane, exploiting the swift counter-attacks that are something of a Mourinho trademark, has produced some stunning football, not to mention great results with Kane adding provider to his key role. Spurs have yet to see the best of returning hero Gareth Bale, so that could also strengthen their bid.
The time could be right for Tottenham, too. Manchester City are not the Guardiola machine of 2019 and Liverpool don’t look quite as menacing as 2019-20. Chelsea have spent heavily but they are still in transition and Manchester United remain hit and miss. Arsenal are simply in decline at present. Leicester, Wolves and Southampton, who will all have their moments of promise do not have it in them to mount a serious and sustained challenge. It is not too difficult to see a Mourinho team coming through as champions.
Tottenham’s 0-0 draw at Chelsea was a tedious and cautious affair, but it had Mourinho stamped all over it. He said his team was disappointed with winning only a point, but on the back of a 2-0 victory against Manchester City, he will surely be satisfied. There were signs they had arrived at Stamford Bridge to do a specific job, avoid defeat against one of their closest rivals. As in the past, Mourinho played some mind games, claiming his team was “a pony in a horse race”. It’s kidology he’s used before when he was at Chelsea.
Not everyone will be ecstatically cartwheeling about the Mourinho style in north London, but over the past five years, no Spurs team has scored as many goals after nine games as the 21 they have netted so far this season. It’s one of the myths about Mourinho’s approach, which may be defence-first, but his teams also score a lot of goals. When Chelsea won the Premier in 2005 and 2006, they not only had the best defence, but were the joint top scorers in 2005 and second highest a year later. And Inter Milan, under Mourinho, had the best attack and defence in Serie A in both 2009 and 2010. In 2012, when he won LaLiga with Real Madrid, his team scored 121 LaLiga goals.
It is still too early to assume Spurs can maintain their title bid, but they look more durable and Mourinho looks more at ease with his club. It remains to be seen if this is just the cycle repeating itself. History tells us this should be his silverware season, but this is a club that hasn’t won the title for 60 years – but equally, when the year has a one in it, Spurs generally win things – 1901, 1921, 1951, 1961, 1971, 1981, 1991. That’s where it ended, it is up to José Mourinho to restore the trend.