Shrouded in the Super League fiasco, and perhaps because of it, Tottenham Hotspur were able to admit a huge mistake while no one noticed, or could laugh at them, or wonder if they have any sort of plan, by firing manager Jose Mourinho.
It’s a wonder why they thought it would work in the first place, and most every observer didn’t think it would. It wasn’t even the right platform for Mourinho. In all of his previous high-profile jobs, Mourinho was coming into something on the rise. When he first joined Chelsea, they had only been in Roman Abramovich’s clutches for one season and had the only endless checkbook in world football. It almost was un-fuckup-able. When he scorched that Earth and moved to Real Madrid, they had already taken a backseat to Barcelona’s glittering glass of La Masia graduates, and there’s also a floor to which Real Madrid simply can’t fall through (second place). Inter Milan had been underachieving for…their entire existence? And with Juventus still recovering from being booted from Serie A thanks to Calciopoli, the terrain was clear. His return to Chelsea saw that club in the heaviest of their manager-rotation days and at the bottom of that particular cycle. Manchester United were, and kind of still are, in a post-Alex Ferguson funk that neither David Moyes’ bewildered expression nor Louis Van Gaal’s stale tactics succeeded in clearing. He at least was a breath of...well, not fresh air exactly. New air, let’s say.
But Tottenham...they were as high as they’d ever been (excuse the terminology). They weren’t even a year removed from a Champions League Final, their first ever. They had at least pawed at contending for their first Premier League titles. They were, at worst, on the back end of the club’s greatest ever phase.
While Mauricio Pochettino’s time as manager had peaked and probably gone cold, not only was it the most successful anyone had seen on that side of North London, but the actual soccer was joyous. They attacked, they pressed, they produced some truly wondrous stuff. Harry Kane became one of the best strikers in the world. Son Heung-min became a household name. Christian Eriksen became one of the world’s best playmakers. Dele Alli was actually alive. Moussa Dembele was a pillar in the middle of the field.
So in walks Mourinho, not only with an aging and declining team but with his Eeyore tactics and manner. Not only would Spurs have a hard system to play, on the legs, and hard to watch for the eyes, but if it didn’t work it would be everyone’s fault but Mourinho’s after they had just played for a manager that united everyone.
And so it played out. An initial bounce in results thanks to the utter brilliance of Kane and Son pretty much solely followed by the most turgid, confused, and inert performances that have seen Spurs sink to seventh in the league. In the wake of that, there was Mourinho claiming his players didn’t listen to what he had instructed and that’s why it didn’t work, not realizing that would also be his fault, as well as getting those tactics wrong in the first place. Spurs got out of this relationship before he could spend a summer wailing about not getting the players he needs, the next natural step after blaming his current charges for not doing what he wants (i.e. getting the results he perceives as his right).
The whole thing became so toxic that Kane might be leaving his boyhood club this summer, leaving Spurs completely centerless. Perhaps Spurs acted so quickly, dismissing Mourinho in just 17 months, to pursue Julian Nagelsmann before Bayern Munich comes a-callin’. It would take that kind of hire to convince Kane to stay, if that’s even possible.
If they can’t manage something like that, Spurs could return to the blob of the middle for a long time.
Where Mourinho goes from here, no one knows. It would seem, as it did at United, that the game has passed him by. Players don’t want to play in a rigid, defensive, colorless system unless they play for Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid, but he has a magnetic/cult personality where his players would probably eat a cow heart for him. He doesn’t bus-toss them at the first roadblock, as Mourinho has done at his last few stops.
Perhaps managing his native Portugal could be next, where both he and players would get regular breaks from each other. Boy, if you thought they were boring when they won Euro 2016, just you wait. Or maybe a smaller country would still be awed by his medals collection and needs someone to grind out results better than the quality of the squad.
But can Mourinho do that? What team of his has genuinely overachieved given the talent and wage bill on the squad? Maybe that 2010 Inter team. Certainly that 2004 Porto team. Those were over a decade ago.
Would Mourinho take a job that he didn’t consider top of the line? Like going back to Portugal, or a mid-level La Liga team, or (oh please oh please oh please) MLS? One wonders.
Of all the things the ESL story cost us, laughing at Spurs and Mourinho would have been one of the most entertaining. Let’s do it retroactively, because we shouldn’t miss out on that mirth.
(Apparently Tottenham is feeling it, too, as they beat Southampton on a last minute penalty today.)