Life comes at you fast. This time yesterday, time was trundling along very much in the way that it has so far throughout this relatively drab season so far, from Tottenham Hotspur. The rumour mill was circulating, because the team is in fourteenth place in the Premier League table at the moment, but few believed that Daniel Levy would actually turn out to be dumb enough to press this particular button. Indeed, when he did, it took a few minutes for many to get their heads around the fact that Pochettino had been fired rather than rage-quitting.
The last five and a half years or so have been an emotional time for Spurs supporters. The club had conspicuously messed up with its managerial appointments time after time, but in Pochettino had finally come across one who was able to bridge that gap and truly connect with the supporters. So his departure was always going to be difficult to process. But even this, it turned out, was a mere aperitif in comparison with what Daniel Levy, Football Genius had in mind next.
Perhaps the most pertinent question to ask about this most perplexing appointment is this: did Daniel Levy really look at Manchester United this time last year and think, “I wish we could trade places with them”? Because that may well turn out to be effectively where we are, should Manchester United accept the tap-in that they’ve been handed by Levy and replace the still mis-firing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with Pochettino. Even if United decide to stick or get gazumped, somebody is going to end up with a considerably better manager than they had before. The owners of the pluto-clubs of Europe could well be forgiven for wondering why Levy has handed him to one of them on a plate.
Certainly, no other managerial appointment of recent times has felt as though it needs the club to publicly explain the rationale behind it as this one does, because it feels like such a retrograde step for a supposedly forward-looking club to be taking. Throughout the latter stages of his second period with Chelsea and his time with Manchester United, Jose Mourinho became something approaching a caricature of himself, a Vaudevillian tribute act to his earlier self. He looked like yesterday’s news, tactically left behind and with his supposed man-management skills looking more like experiments in deflecting blame for his own shortcomings on his players, staff, or anyone who dared to critique the facade.
So, what’s the plan, here? What’s the strategy? Tottenham Hotspur are a multi-million pound business nowadays, so the idea that decisions such as this can be taken on a wing and a prayer is ridiculous. And Mourinho is the short-termist’s short-term appointment. Much as his three year spells at different clubs became a cliché, they became as much based on fact, and three years isn’t a very long time. The question of what happens in three years time – or less, should Spurs’ downward trajectory continue – remains broadly rhetorical because it is simply difficult to believe any more that there is any sort of long-term plan or strategy.
To clarify, for several transfer windows the club didn’t move in the transfer market, denying Pochettino opportunities to strengthen the team relatively painlessly. They then fired him when his plate-spinning act started to wobble, which meant chucking away on millions of pounds in paying up the contracts of not only Pochettino but also his backroom staff. They then hired Mourinho on even more money, and have to spend more still on bringing in his backroom staff. And if there’s anything that we know about Jose Mourinho it’s that he doesn’t much like bringing through academy players. We don’t know at the moment, but we can only assume that an amount of money has been agreed so that Mourinho can rebuild the squad. So much for Daniel Levy’s reputation for parsimony with the club’s purse-strings, then.
Levy is believed to have long been interested in Mourinho, having unsuccessfully attempted to entice him to White Hart Lane in 2007. But the Tottenham Hotspur of 2007 was very different to the Tottenham Hotspur of 2019, and the Jose Mourinho of 2019 is not the Jose Mourinho of 2007, either. Mourinho’s recent managerial exploits have looked like little more than extended spells of raging at the dying of the light, continuing to exult his own brilliance despite the evidence of our own eyes demonstrating that the game has moved on over the last decade or so while Mourinho’s modus operandum remained fairly static.
So there is a very real risk that this particular deal with with the devil is already outside of its sell-by date. And there’s the rub, really. It’s easy to forget how different Tottenham Hotspur were before Pochettino arrived, or throughout the years between 1991 and 2005, when they finished above ninth place in the table precisely three times – twice in eighth place and once in seventh. They broke that cycle through being inventive and embracing modernity, only to take on a manager whose powers – which often seemed entirely propelled by his own self-belief – have visibly waned over the last half-decade as a newer generation of managers started to break through.
The success or otherwise of Jose Mourinho will be determined by his preparedness to evolve as a manager. Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp have raised the bar in terms of managerial, tactical, and motivational standards at the elite end of the game, and Mourinho might well be considered their progenitor, but he has some catching up if he’s not to become an end of the pier act. If he can do this, he has a chance of trophies. Spurs are still in the Champions League this season and their involvement in the FA Cup doesn’t start for another two months, but even a Champions League place may already be beyond them this season, regardless of who the manager turned out to be. They are, after all, already eleven points off fourth-placed Manchester City.
Goodness knows how this turns out. I mean, I’m not going to “stop supporting” Tottenham Hotspur. It’s been about seven years since I last went there. What’s my “support” actually even worth? For all that, though, I still feel entitled to say that I don’t know what it would take Mourinho to say or do to talk me round, and I try to keep players and managers at arms lengths because they are transient in nature at the best of times. I don’t “hate” Mourinho as much as many. I certainly enjoy a bit of hubris. It certainly beats bland, monotone statements on how “the lads done great” in post-match interviews. What concerns me more than anything else is the style of football his teams play. I’m not one of those who believe Spurs are entitled to a particularly attractive style of football (I’m old enough to be able to remember the late 1990s), though I think the idea of “The Glory Glory Years” is something that the club should aspire to repeating.
Would I trade that in for a sniff of a Champions League, though? How about for a Premier League or an FA Cup? It’s impossible to say now how tarnished any of those might feel in the eventuality that they ever happened (plot twist – two of them definitely won’t, and the other probably won’t, either), and I suspect that how I feel in the moment should be how I define how I subsequently feel about it. But at least my opinion is unimportant enough for me to be able to defer it. Spurs play their first Premier League match under Mourinho on Saturday at West Ham United, of all places. Even taking into account its shortcomings, The London Stadium should be about as loud as it can get. And that, perhaps, is a large part of the reason why Spurs have made such a counter-intuitive decision. But Mourinho will have to deliver on the pitch, and things may well turn ugly should he not do so.