Jose Mourinho: Entropy & Diminishing Returns

by | Feb 5, 2021

The ultimate problem with Jose Mourinho is that he is a deal with the devil. One of football’s eternal struggles is that between style and substance. On the one hand, we all want to be entertained. Whether we’re watching from the stands or on the television, it’s costing us money and time, and it is one of the game’s curiosities that supporters are often chastised if we suggest that, in return for our emotional and financial labour, those who get very wealthy from it all might see their way to granting us something to put a smile our on our faces, every once in a while.

On the other hand, though, football isn’t merely a branch of the light entertainment industry, no matter how much it might feel like it at times. Everybody wants to win and nobody has a divine right to win – there are two teams on the pitch at any given time, after all – but the entire culture of the game in the 21st century is that winning is everything. We may not have to believe that to its fullest extreme, but winning is important, and not only to those who run the club and whose future employment will likely come to rest upon a club’s final league position.

So with a coach like Jose Mourinho, whose shortcomings are common knowledge and whose demeanour makes him difficult to hold any affection for, we all have to make a Faustian pact. We will sacrifice a degree of our insistence on playing a certain type of football, but some degree of success has to be delivered in return. The appeal of that to a club like Tottenham Hotspur, who’ve now gone more than six decades without lifting the league title and three decades since winning the FA Cup, should be obvious.

That Pochettino stuff, with the obvious rapport with the fans and the feeling that there was a sense of purpose but with nothing to show for it in the trophy cabinet was all very well, but in the realpolitik of modern football sentiment counts for very little. Mourinho – The Proven Winner™, The Special One – will fix that habit of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. It might not be pretty but you’ll get to lift a trophy or two at least, and that’s the deal that chairman Daniel Levy has signed on behalf of everybody who supports Tottenham Hotspur, whether they like it or not.

The flaw in such a policy is, of course, glaringly obvious. Such is the nature of this Faustian pact that there is little to no wiggle room for Mourinho when things go badly. Mauricio Pochettino had taken Spurs to the Champions League final and to the runners-up spot in the Premier League. Even in an age when everybody remotely connected to the game has a hair-trigger so far as managers are concerned, Pochettino was still considered with great affection by many Spurs supporters, and this endured even throughout the troubled last weeks of his time at the club.

Mourinho has no grace period like this left. With no prior connection to the club and having been the most successful manager in the history of one of their biggest rivals, he has been tolerated rather than liked by many of the club’s supporters since his appointment, and with the sense of just about having done enough now having been stripped away, his position is immediately exposed. It’s not just the soporific football, of course. The needly persona doesn’t help, either, and neither does that weird tendency of his to take a specific dislike to one or two players and then scapegoat them through his actions before trying to move them on.

This isn’t just ethically reprehensible, either. It doesn’t make any sense for the club as a business, either. Goodness knows that’s happened the transfer value of Delle Alli over the last twelve months or so, for example, but it hasn’t increased. This matters, on the balance sheet, and it’s not difficult to imagine what the reaction of the famously parsimonious Levy would be to dancing around the boardroom at the news that one of his assets has had tens of millions of pounds in his “value” knocked off as a result of what has looked very much like a policy of exclusion by an incoming manager. At a point when Spurs have just built a new 60,000 capacity stadium and have plunged themselves deep into debt in order to facilitate this, can they even afford a decline of this nature at this exact point in the history of the club?

Winning the League Cup final might provide some emollient for all of this, and Mourinho is somewhat fortunate that the final has been pushed back from the end of February to the end of April by the unusual calendar to which the game is playing at the moment. Few Spurs supporters would be able to see how this Spurs team would beat a Manchester City team which has, at the time of writing, won its last nine successive matches and which has conceded just one league goal so far in 2021. That extra couple of months doesn’t just dramatically increase the likelihood of Mourinho remaining in his position until at least the end of this season. It also gives him an opportunity to try to drag the team out of the funk in which it currently finds itself.

The problem with this is that hiring Mourinho has been a matter of diminishing returns for much of the last decade. When he was hired by Real Madrid eleven years ago, it was with the intention of them winning the Champions League. When he was hired by Manchester United five years ago, it was with the intention of them winning the Premier League. Hired by Tottenham Hotspur in 2019, it was presumably with the intention of them qualifying for this year’s Champions League. Furthermore, the Mourinho cycle of entropy has accelerated. The traditional lifespan of this cycle has been three years. At Spurs, he’s pared this down to less than eighteen months.

Last night against Chelsea, the heat death of their season continued unabashed. It says a lot for Spurs’ first half performance that the first fifteen minutes of their second half was an improvement, despite the fact that all they had to show for it was a couple of yellow cards and no shots on target. They finally woke up with about ten minutes to play and might have even have scrambled a draw with a couple of late chances, but they wouldn’t have really deserved a point from it all. Chelsea were less than impressive themselves, but they still deserved the win more.

And if there’s a hint of frustration about these words, it’s probably because this was all so predictable. Spurs should be in a strong position at the moment. In Son Heung Min and Harry Kane, they have one of the best attacking partnerships in Europe, while more recent signings such as Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Tanguy Ndombele have also been encouraging. Then there’s that brand new stadium, sitting more on less on the site of the old one, and the opportunities that should offer, once fans can be allowed back in and its potential can be realised.

That can’t happen at the moment, of course. The world has changed considerably since November 2019, and in ways which could never have been predicted. Jose Mourinho, however, hasn’t, and there’s nothing comforting about that for Spurs supporters who are feeling the return of a rather too familiar feeling of ennui at the moment. These deals with the devil are all very well, but at the time that he was hustled into the managerial seat at The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium no-one seems to have stopped to ask one very important question: what happens if the devil just… isn’t any good any more?