Jose Mourinho's great past shines harsh light on struggles at Tottenham

Spurs on course for the lowest points-per-game total of any club the Portuguese has managed to the end of the season

Two hundred victories as a Premier League manager is a major milestone, and by reaching it on Monday Jose Mourinho joined an elite band of coaches, along with Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, to have got there in well under 350 games. But Mourinho could hardly claim he breezed into that select club on an irresistible tailwind.

Win number 200 came via an own goal, from Everton’s Michael Keane, in a dull 1-0 game. In between win number 199 and number 200 Mourinho had watched his Tottenham Hotspur spend 45 minutes chasing a growing deficit at Sheffield United by registering just one shot at goal.

Sometimes, even major landmarks – and a double century of Premier League wins is major – find themselves obscured by untidy weeds and shrubbery. Mourinho almost welcomed a very public spat between two of his players, Hugo Lloris and Son Heung-Min, against Everton to distract from questions about how stubbornly long his Spurs had taken to bring him his 200th Premier League win.

Mourinho described the Lloris-Son confrontation as “beautiful” because it showed the competitive drive of the two team-mates, the goalkeeper blaming the winger for having failed for a moment in his defensive duties. Not much about Mourinho’s Tottenham, since he took over from Mauricio Pochettino in November, has been easily described as beautiful.

But then beauty was not the purpose of his appointment. The intention, at a club who just over 11 months ago were playing in the first European Cup final of their history, was to arrest a slump and somehow eke out a place in the 2020-21 Champions League.

Tottenham’s rise under Pochettino has encouraged fans to forget that, although European football has been part of Spurs’s midweek life for the last 10 seasons, it was more often Europa League football than Champions League.

When Mourinho’s Tottenham make it into Europe next season, it is almost certainly going to be into the secondary competition. On Thursday, at a wretchedly out of form Bournemouth, they could clamber up to seventh in the table and, with a win, give themselves an opportunity to move four points above Arsenal with victory in Sunday’s North London derby.

Finishing the season above their neighbours would spread some cheer, but it might also demand the sort of momentum that Mourinho’s Spurs have found hard to generate. They have put together a sequence of more than two league wins on the trot only once under their new manager in his 21 games in charge.

Tottenham manager Jose Mourinho with Son Heung-Min after the win over Everton. EPA
Tottenham manager Jose Mourinho with Son Heung-Min after the win over Everton. EPA

Indeed, you have to scroll back a long way in the Mourinho back-catalogue to find such a patchy start to a new job. Two decades ago, when Mourinho took on a head coach’s position for the first time, a fresh-faced, ambitious 37-year-old had Benfica on a strong run of form. However, largely because of presidential politics, he lost that job after just nine league games.

He came back to guide modest Leiria to unusual heights before being headhunted by Porto, and embarking on a blessed, 10-year spell of trophy-laden success in Portugal, England, Italy and Spain.

It is now a decade since the last of Mourinho’s two Champions League triumphs, part of Internazionale’s historic treble. It is five years since his last league title – a third Premier League gold medal with Chelsea, to add to the two Portuguese championships at Porto, the pair of Serie A crowns with Inter and the Spanish Liga he guided Real Madrid to.

That great past can act as an unkind mirror on the Mourinho of middle-age. Among the uncomfortable reflections: That his Spurs are on course for the lowest points-per-game total of any club Mourinho has ever reached the end of a season with.

There are mitigating circumstances. He joined mid-season, inherited a club marooned at 14th in the table, lost Harry Kane for a significant period of injury, and had to say farewell to Christian Eriksen in the January transfer window. He is about to lose Eric Dier for four matches, too, the defender learning yesterday of his four-match ban for climbing into the stands to support his brother in an altercation with a spectator in March.

Mourinho suggested Spurs will not appeal the ban, partly because of the risk it only gets delayed. “Let’s start next season without a suspension,” he said, putting little disguise on his priority, which is already the 2020-21 season. Mourinho wants to be judged only after he has won and lost some battles with his boss, Daniel Levy, over summer transfer budgets, and only after he has had a pre-season in which to shape his plans.

Published: July 9, 2020 08:22 AM

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