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Jose Mourinho: The Special Once

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Ahh, how the mighty have fallen. Eleven years ago, Jose Mourinho was running across the Camp Nou with unbridled joy as his Inter Milan side had eliminated THAT Barcelona to reach the final of the Champions League which they eventually won. Mourinho was rightly praised as the greatest manager in the world, capable of achieving any feat with any set of players. Back then, Mourinho had an aura of invincibility around him. Journalists hung on his every word with bated breath, players would go to war with him in the blink of an eye and the all-conquering manager had the entire footballing world eating out of the palm of his hand. 


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Cut to today, it’s a different picture altogether. His pragmatism and defensive football are now considered archaic and out-dated and he has been ostracized by football’s elite. Thursday night was the lowest of the lows for Jose Mourinho as his Tottenham side crashed out of the Europa League after losing 3-2 on aggregate in the second leg to Dinamo Zagreb, a team that is in the 19th strongest league in Europe according to UEFA coefficients.

After winning the first leg 2-0 at home, all Tottenham needed was one away goal to kill the tie and seal their place in the quarter-finals. However, they approached the tie to defend their lead instead of extending it and were put on the back-foot instantly. Zagreb scored the equaliser in the 82nd minute to send the tie to extra-time and from then on, there was only going to be one winner. Mislav Orsic eventually scored the winning goal in extra-time to seal Tottenham’s fate and send them home.


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This was without a doubt the most humiliating night in the modern era for Tottenham Hotspur and the most embarrassing blotch on Jose Mourinho’s CV. To lose a tie is normal, it happens to the best of teams. But to lose after leading 2-0 in the first leg, against a team whose manager had been sentenced to jail just three days prior is somehow both funny and saddening.

The problem with the defeat is that it didn’t really come as a surprise. Tottenham no longer kill games under Mourinho and are perfectly content with holding onto their lead. They are playing with the fear of failure embedded in their system which seems to have removed all ambition from their play.

And when you look at it closely, this is perhaps the Jose Mourinho problem. His defensive philosophy has been rendered redundant by modern football and Pep Guardiola. All of the best teams and best managers no longer play with that defensive mindset. Yes, it can work in one-off games like how Arteta showed in Arsenal’s FA Cup run in 2020 but the best managers are no longer reactive. Guardiola, Klopp, Pochettino, Tuchel, Allegri all share similar footballing philosophies of playing at a high tempo which includes progressing the ball from the back and pressing high up the pitch.


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Mourinho’s teams are still content with playing defensive football which includes soaking up pressure and hitting teams on the counter-attack. That might have worked 10-15 years ago but in today’s game, it is no longer a recipe for success at the highest level.

For Tottenham and chairman Daniel Levy, it puts them in a curious predicament as to where they go from here. The Pochettino project which saw them finish in the Champions League places on regular occasions was abandoned for Jose Mourinho’s “winning mentality” and “penchant to win trophies.” Unfortunately, the Jose they signed in 2019 wasn’t the one who led Porto to a Champions League victory in 2004 or the Mourinho who bossed the Premier League in back-to-back seasons with Chelsea or won the treble with Inter. This was the Mourinho who was sacked in his last two jobs in England for a poor run of form with Chelsea and Manchester United and a Mourinho that hasn’t won a league title since 2015.

Every manager eventually loses their Midas touch and it feels like Daniel Levy and Tottenham didn’t consider whether Jose still had his when they gave him a 3 and a half-season deal worth £15 million a year in 2019. Yes, Mourinho has lifted the profile of the club, but Tottenham finished outside the top 4 in 2019/20 and looks set to do the same this year while remaining trophyless. 

Mourinho is no longer the manager he was before. The witty quips in interviews and press conferences are replaced by constant bickering and excuses, the charm is fading and the football is not as effective. If anyone can turn it around you would think it would be Mourinho but the evidence suggests that the Special One was only special once.


[Image Credit: Premier League]