The Special One’s brand could suffer severe harm if RB Leipzig ends their Champions League interest in the first knockout round.
He is a winner.
Given the toxicity he leaves in his wake and the rest of the soccer he trainers, that three-word phrase is quite simply the only justification for Tottenham Hotspur hiring Jose Mourinho — particularly after the club was built in the picture of the innovative, aesthetic, and likeable Mauricio Pochettino.
Mourinho wins awful, but he wins. Or at least he used to.
Place the Carabao Cup to one side and, since 2012, Mourinho has won just two prizes of importance — the Premier League title with Chelsea and Europa League with Man Utd. Two main pieces of big silverware in eight years is hardly a record to inspire trust Mourinho will go one better than Pochettino did last May.
His Champions League record is likewise a narrative of waning influence, of genius evaporating. Between 2010 and 2014 Mourinho reached four consecutive semi-finals, losing them all.
He’s managed just two full campaigns in the championship because, losing in the second round to Paris Saint-Germain and Sevilla, at Chelsea and Man Utd respectively. And yet we still look back to these glory years and expect something similar now.
We still look back to the strategic mastermind whose anti-football in Inter toppled Barcelona in 2010, whose aggressively defensive doctrine saw Porto win Europe’s biggest prize.
The prevailing wisdom says that for Tottenham to acquire things they want the older Mourinho of Inter and Porto — the resilient structures, the ultra-compressed defensive arrangement, the free-form counter-attacks — rather than the scowling, petulant one whose strategies felt so slow, so out-dated, at Man Utd.
But a surprising third solution is on the table. There are indications of a brand-new tactician emerging, one willing to adopt modern possession football.
Mourinho was never really a defensive manager. His Porto and Inter sides shared similar traits, especially in the latter stages of the Champions League, but it’s unfair to say either parked the bus.
This accusation comes primarily in the notorious 1-0 defeat at Nou Camp at the 2010 semi-final where Mourinho’s Inter side had only 24 percent possession, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that their intense pragmatism was affected by Thiago Motta’s 28th-minute red card. We must also remember they beat Barcelona 3-1 in the first leg by creating chaos, by counter-attacking so closely that Pep Guardiola’s side were all at sea.
That match is the better indicator of Mourinho in his finest, aligning closely with his Porto team and both stints in Chelsea. His sides were divided into two different sections of attack and defence. The former was compact but sat at a midblock — a comparatively high defensive line — although the latter improvised with abandon on the rest.
If Spurs are to confront RB Leipzig like a traditional Mourinho team, then search for compression between the killing and killing lines but do not find a side camped on the edge of the box. Start looking for frustration approaches and niggly fouls, but do not search for negativity from the forward.
But more likely, not one of these normal Mourinho traits will be observable. Tottenham beneath the Portuguese are nothing like those Chelsea, Porto, or Inter sides and instead appear wildly open, with a focus on building ownership through midfield.
Mourinho’s contour is a 3-2-5 this season, with Serge Aurier supplying width in attack, while the left-back tucks inside, and the midfield three unite harshly with inverted wingers. Giovani Lo Celso appears to set the pace with assertive vertical moves, Harry Winks is a deep-lying playmaker at the bottom of midfield, and Lucas Moura is falling off to make a fluid front.
None of that reflects the Mourinho we’ve always known. Stoic defensive midfielders such as Eric Dier are being left on the bench as Spurs participate in open, finishing games.
The choice to play expansively, it would seem, is deliberate. That spells trouble for the Leipzig tie, in particular, not least because so far Mourinho isn’t fusing possession soccer with high pressing — a necessity for elite clubs in today’s game.
The ruthless counterattacking rate of this German outfit means they need to achieve what so many have in the Premier League in recent weeks; breaking into open patches of grass on the outside of the back three. Winks cannot hold down midfield, undermining Spurs’ efforts to control and suffocate. Timo Werner, particularly, seems likely to have behind Aurier and operate at these error-prone Tottenham centre-backs.
Naturally, fear of the pattern may mean Mourinho’s old habits return. Maybe Dier and Tanguy Ndombele will sit as a set in defensive midfield. Maybe Spurs’ defensive line will move 20 yards deeper. But the issue is that Tottenham, up to now, don’t have any muscle memory to fall back on in this respect.
They don’t feel as a Mourinho group in psychology or physicality, which means getting a feisty defensive outfit for 90 minutes is probably beyond them for this tie and the season as a whole.
Tottenham are devoting an alarming number of opportunities, caught as they are in an unexpected transitional period of the new manager. Perform in the manner they did at Villa Park and Leipzig will tear them through, but try a more old-school Mourinho system and their lack of knowledge or training in defensive methods will certainly be exposed. Worse still, they have no Harry Kane or Son Heung-min to fall back on.
For the time being, Tottenham aren’t prepared to match or better the improbable achievements of last season. That shouldn’t be a cause for concern. These are early days and Mourinho’s tenure shouldn’t be judged on a catchy Champions League tie so early in the project.
Then again, perception is everything in football — and Mourinho’s reputation is starting to become a significant hindrance as fans and pundits alike attempt to confirm their biases against his strategies.
To shed to RB Leipzig is no shame, but to lose three consecutive second-round ties? That could seriously harm the Mourinho brand.