By definition, Jose Mourinho is art, because you can see whatever you want in him. He can be a tactical genius; a stubborn ox afraid of the light; a master motivator; a petulant, selfish irritant; an expert at creating unity within his team while also an expert at blowing it up from within. And all of these things can be true, even at the same time. Oh, to reach for such complexity.
This past week has been an excellent demonstration of all Mourinho is, all the things he has made and will make Tottenham, and all the potential they have and all the reasons they’ll fail to meet it.
Yesterday, the biggest game of the Premier League season took place at Anfield, with first-place Tottenham visiting second-place Liverpool, with the teams only separated by goal difference. Liverpool came away with all three points thanks to a last-gasp Roberto Firmino header to win 2-1, in a match that Liverpool controlled, maybe even dominated, yet could have easily lost and might have deserved to. Such is the “strawberry fields” that Mourinho puts all of us in (Beatles reference, Liverpool, layers).
Mourinho has been able to shape this Spurs team in his perfect image in a way that he was never able to do at Manchester United. They defend deep and doggedly, counterattack like the hounds have been released on them, and have two of the best forwards up top in Harry Kane and Heung-min Son. In a condensed season where everyone is playing twice a week pretty much the whole time, Mourinho is betting even more that his style will be unbreakable, given that attacking teams have been seen to peter out somewhere between the 60th and 70th minute a lot so far.
And that is what seemed to happen yesterday. Liverpool had some excellent chances in the first half, only scoring once. Spurs had one chance, but because it fell to maybe the hottest striker in the world right now in Son, they buried it. Level terms. In the second half, Liverpool struggled to keep up the rhythm and energy needed to break down Spurs as they had in the first half, and Tottenham actually had the better chances.
This is Mourinho’s plan in eternity. Lower the margins for both teams, set the game on a knife-edge essentially, and count on his two studs up front to make more of the limited chances on offer than the other guys will. When you have Kane and Son, this will work most of the time. It’s why Spurs were in first. Even the expected-goal count for the match slightly favored Spurs, 1.3-1.1.
But that’s an awfully tough line to traverse successfully every time, and even the slightest dip in conversion causes it to fall apart. Yesterday’s best two chances didn’t fall to either Kane or Son, but to Steven Bergwijn, and he missed both. Kane had one glorious chance all game, and he missed that. Burying one out of every three or four big chances will win a lot of matches. But when you’re only getting those four chances against a team like Liverpool, you’re definitely teetering on the edge. Liverpool found the winner when given the oxygen to do so by Bergwijn and Kane’s wayward finishing. You come at the king, you best not miss.
And that’s probably why Mourinho has tried to play down Spurs’ title hopes at every turn. He knows they’re counting on Son and Kane, who have dodgy injury histories, to remain otherworldly to run with Liverpool and eventually Manchester City (maybe?) and possibly Chelsea or others (maybe?). Any drop in their conversion rate and Tottenham simply don’t create enough chances to score by volume. Not in a Mourinho system. Neither are they coffin-tight defensively yet.
Four days earlier, against Crystal Palace, was more evidence of where Spurs will struggle. Against Palace, Spurs can’t be on the backfoot, because that’s Palace’s game too. They got one goal, didn’t really ever look like getting a second because they just don’t create much, and because of that not-quite-there-defense let in a late equalizer. Again, the margins Mourinho is an expert at creating only work every time if you’re world class at both ends, with world-class efficiency.
The postgame presser yesterday was classic Mourinho. It involved bus-tossing his players, either them as a whole after last week’s Palace draw for doing the exact opposite of what he wanted, or Bergwijn yesterday for not finishing, instead of the usual “we missed some chances” manager-speak. Then it moved on to his grievances to try to enhance the siege mentality that is his main card to play — “The better team lost last night,” “I can’t behave the way Jurgen Klopp does,” “We did everything right and the gods screwed us,” “It’s everyone’s fault but mine.”
This works for a limited time, and Mourinho’s lucky that in this Spurs team he has a squad of talented players who have also won exactly dick. They’re probably more patient because of his resume and promise. But at some point, players tire of being called out in the media by their manager. It goes from holding players responsible to separating himself from the team, and that’s when things go sour, as they have at every stop for Mourinho. Win, and he’s just an expert motivator and his players respond to the public tough-love. Start dropping points, and suddenly he looks like an aloof, me-over-all boss more worried about his reputation.
Well see how long Jose can dance along this wire this time.