Looking Back at Jose Mourinho's First Year at Tottenham

Nov 20, 2020, 10:45 AM GMT
Mourinho's first game as Tottenham manager was a 3-2 win at West Ham | ADRIAN DENNIS/Getty Images

When Mauricio Pochettino was sacked by Tottenham in November 2019, it felt like the world had imploded and left a barren wasteland behind it devoid of any hope.

Spurs had been a middling, soft and pretty bad team throughout the 1990s, flirted with dreams of grandeur in the 2000s and were so close to achieving something brilliant under their charismatic Argentine in the 2010s.

Pochettino's final game in charge of Tottenham was a 1-1 draw with Sheffield United | IAN KINGTON/Getty Images

He was sacked during an international break after a 1-1 draw with Sheffield United, with Tottenham a team that had clearly lost its way during the early parts of the 2019/20 season. The defence was being torn open with frightening ease - most notably by Bayern Munich and, er, Brighton - and the attacking stars looked devoid of inspiration.

When he was ditched, there was a brief moment of mourning. Pochettino and his coaching staff left almost too amicably, leaving messages for the fans on whiteboards at Tottenham's training ground as supporters cried while watching the 3-2 win at Ajax on their phones at 1am.

Poch was gone. But Daniel Levy and Spurs had evidently been planning for the moment when change was necessary.

Still looks a little odd, doesn't it?
Still looks a little odd, doesn't it? | Julian Finney/Getty Images

At around 6.30am on 20 November, Jose Mourinho, dismissed by Manchester United the previous season and branded a 'dinosaur' far and wide by journalists and 13-year-olds with footballers as their avatars on Twitter, was brought in.

The switch from a young bird of a football club to a supposed massive f-off eagle was beginning, and the first step was replacing a nearly man with a manager who had won it all, someone with a proven track record around Europe, someone who Levy clearly idolised and whose public man management style was totally contrary to Pochettino's.

Tottenham became bastards. The Rock had gone corporate. They had thrown the clothes of a young hot thing out of the window and cosied up with the silver fox down the road.

The switch was pretty jarring. Where once there was a progressively grizzled manager, the cold November mornings at Hotspur Way instead hosted Jose 2.0, a version with a supposed new personality which included stroking his new players during his first few training sessions.

It still looks weird.

Mourinho hadn't taken charge of a club midway through a season before, but the first handful of results were excellent.

Tottenham were dominant throughout their 3-2 win at West Ham in his first game in charge, though a defensive meltdown towards the end of the fixture tainted an otherwise terrific display. That kind of capitulation at the back is something Spurs are still trying to eradicate and will be tested further on in their run up to 2021.

Spurs won four of Mourinho's first five Premier League games in charge, with his first defeat coming at old club United - a loss he would avenge a year later in spectacular fashion - and also made an impression in the Champions League, coming from two goals down to beat Olympiacos 4-2. That game also saw Mourinho assert himself when he saw things were going badly, hauling off Eric Dier in the 29th minute.

A 5-0 victory over Burnley followed, including a long range hit from Harry Kane and Son Heung-min's all-timer, before we got a taste of the bad that comes with Mourinho's good. A brilliant Chelsea won in north London three days before Christmas, with the game marred by racist abuse aimed at Antonio Rudiger by Spurs fans.

Son kicked out at Rudiger and was sent off | ADRIAN DENNIS/Getty Images

Four points were picked up in the following games against Brighton, Norwich, Southampton and Liverpool, though any hopes of Champions League football pretty much evaporated when Kane hobbled down the St. Mary's tunnel clutching his hamstring. It looked like that would be that for his season, but due to the most peculiar turn of events worldwide, it wasn't.

Son stepped up to help secure his side victories against Norwich, Manchester City - during which Steven Bergwijn announced his arrival from PSV Eindhoven in emphatic fashion - and Aston Villa, but a fractured arm curtailed his season. Or so we thought.

So, Kane and Son - Tottenham's two best players - were out for the foreseeable future. The defeat at Chelsea and a draw with Burnley, after which Mourinho publicly criticised midfielder Tanguy Ndombele for a poor performance, sucked the optimism out of the fan base. The FA Cup defeat to Norwich on penalties turned the atmosphere at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium ugly as Eric Dier climbed into the stands to confront an out of order supporter, and the Champions League exit at the hands of RB Leipzig showed just how out of their depth the club suddenly were on Europe's biggest stage.

The squad clearly needed some time to recuperate. It had been decimated throughout the season by injuries to a number of their key players and the side had no clear goal threat without Kane and Son.

Dele Alli, Harry Kane
A nightmarish image for Tottenham fans | Michael Steele/Getty Images

They probably weren't expecting that break to come courtesy of a global pandemic, but it did and we haven't got back to a normal way of life yet - y'know, just in case you'd forgotten about that.

But it did offer some time for reflection.

Giovani Lo Celso had emerged as Tottenham's most important midfielder, often winning the ball tenaciously and driving forward with his impressive dribbling skills in transition. He's yet to show true goalscoring form in the Premier League, but he gave Spurs a proper midfield presence after a period in which Harry Winks and Moussa Sissoko showed they just weren't a good enough combination to offer the side any outstanding influence in either a defensive or attacking sense.

Around him, however, a new approach was evidently needed. Dele Alli had scored the equaliser at Burnley but would be goalless throughout Project Restart, Sissoko's status as a useful squad member had been bumped up to crucial first teamer which wasn't befitting of his talent, and Winks was too sieve-like defensively without being any more than neat and tidy.

But just like the rest of the season had been pretty incomprehensible, Project Restart saw Tottenham dish up more of the same.

Paul Pogba, Eric Dier
Dier gave away a penalty against Manchester United | Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Tottenham outplayed Manchester United in their first game back but failed to put the matter to bed and conceded a late penalty, dispatched by Bruno Fernandes. Spurs have reverted to a backs to the wall approach in recent games against Brighton, Burnley and West Brom, though in those fixtures they managed to see out each match, unlike against the Red Devils.

A terrible game against West Ham followed, in which Kane scored on his 200th Premier League appearance to seal a 2-0 win, before the world imploded on itself again, this time in the form of a 3-1 loss to Chris Wilder's Sheffield United.

They looked clueless in that particular fixture, with Mourinho admitting his side weren't 'mentally strong enough' to deal with a VAR call harshly going against them.

But that was as bad as it would get during Project Restart. After the Blades loss, Spurs were seven points behind Wolves, but a late season surge helped them overtake the Wanderers and finish sixth, securing Europa League football. Mourinho's side took 14 points from the final six games, beating Everton, Arsenal, Newcastle and Leicester coupled with draws at Bournemouth - the less said about that one, the better - and Crystal Palace.

Even with that late spell of good form, however, Mourinho's Tottenham still lacked an identity. They were, as Alli revealed in one episode of 'All or Nothing', 'just smashing it long and f***ing defending'.

But that's where the transfer window came in. A quiet summer was expected, but that's not how it turned out.

Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg was the first to sign as Kyle Walker-Peters departed for Southampton, and the Danish midfielder has settled in extremely well thus far, helping Tottenham retain more possession with his sweeping in front of the back four and occasional roulettes.

Joe Hart joined as a free agent and Matt Doherty was brought in from Wolves to add more competition at right back before things started to get brilliantly weird.

Sergio Reguilon and Gareth Bale - yeah, Tottenham's old pin-up boy - were signed on the same day, simultaneously adding some desperately needed dynamism at left back and giving fans the dose of serotonin they were crying out for.

Those two signings actually came after the club's Premier League opener for the season, a guff 1-0 loss to Everton where they were beaten in every department. Things looked ominously reminiscent of the previous season, with Spurs having little clue how to attack, so the following 5-2 victory over Southampton was something of a happy shock.

It provided the starting point for a remarkable run of form for Kane and Son, with the England captain setting up his partner for no fewer than four goals at St Mary's before getting on the scoresheet himself.

That side was unrecognisable from the one that drew 1-1 with Newcastle a week later. There were Tottenham fans raging all across the world after a dodgy handball call, but Spurs failed to convert their chances and were punished in the 97th minute. Queue that horrible sinking, 'why always us?' feeling in the gut.

So, a 1-0 loss, a 5-2 win and a 1-1 draw, not to mention the penalty shootout victory over Chelsea in the Carabao Cup. Predictions for the trip to Manchester United were rightly all over the place, and Davinson Sanchez spiced things up early on by gifting their hosts an early penalty.

What followed is still pretty difficult to comprehend. Yes, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side were utterly terrible throughout the game, but Tottenham set traps and punished United ruthlessly when they had the chances, eventually winning 6-1.

Mourinho had been patted on the head by Solskjaer the season before, and returned the favour at full time in one of his biggest s**thouse moments as Tottenham manager so far.

But it was the manner of those victories which was pleasantly shocking for Tottenham fans.

Jose Mourinho, Joao Sacramento, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Just a slight tap on the head from Jose | Pool/Getty Images

The support base had become accustomed to a more cautious kind of attack, one that would pick its moments opportunistically, often leading to more dour contests whenever they played. But against Southampton first and United later, the skill and telepathy in the partnership between Kane and Son was laid out for all to see.

Unfortunately, one certain draw with West Ham led to Mourinho taking a more cautious approach in the following fixtures. 3-0 up in no time against the Hammers, a defensive no-show in the final 15 minutes - coupled with Manuel Lanzini's sense-defying screamer - saw Tottenham drop two points from a position of strength.

That game still doesn't make any sense, but Mourinho certainly saw enough from his defenders to decide a change was in order. Firstly, at Burnley, the Clarets were treated like a deadly counterattacking outfit, despite having made a poor start to the season defensively. To say it was a gritty win, ultimately decided by Son's header, would be kind. It was terrible viewing.

Where it was Son who was the match-winner then, it would be Bale's turn to steal the headlines with his first strike since rejoining the club on loan, heading in the winner against Brighton in another game in which Tottenham simply decided against going for the kill, despite going one goal up. The Seagulls were allowed back into the game and got the rub of the green when a foul should have been called before Tariq Lamptey's equaliser but wasn't. But it was another reserved performance that proved to be enough and one Mourinho would have taken delight in.

Those two were pretty bad spectacles, but the win at West Brom was probably even worse. Spurs were dragged down to the level of their opponents and only found the winner courtesy of some indecision from Baggies goalkeeper Sam Johnstone which allowed Kane to flick in the game's deciding goal.

In short - he says, about a billion words into this article - Mourinho's first year at Tottenham has been show-stealing. Tottenham were playing horrible football up until the end of the 2019/20 season and were earning no new admirers, but the Portuguese legend's pull saw the club attract some much needed summer acquisitions who have improved the team ten fold.

What will be defining, however, is how Mourinho decides to set his team up going forward.

Kane and Son have shown they have the quality to decide fixtures purely by their link-up. There have been thumping wins courtesy of that relationship, but also tight, scrappy victories after Mourinho decided the West Ham capitulation could not happen again.

Tottenham are in a better place than they were a year ago. Pochettino should always be lauded for the incredible groundwork he put in place at Hotspur Way - he made Spurs a competitive outfit and took them to heights they hadn't enjoyed before.

PFC Ludogorets Razgrad v Tottenham Hotspur: Group J - UEFA Europa League
It's just a matter of time before this man lines up alongside both Ndombele and Lo Celso in midfield | Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images

But the chance for a painful rebuild had gone by the time the 2019/20 season came around. Surgery was needed and he wasn't given the proper tools, for whatever reason.

Instead, the torch was handed over to Mourinho, who is showing he's far from washed up as a manager. Funnily enough, it turns out that Manchester United's issues were not and are not solely down to their former boss.

It's not perfect, but Tottenham are more functional. They're still working towards that classic 'solid' tag Mourinho teams are often given, but they're now set up to succeed more often in games than fail.

Where Mourinho has to succeed where Pochettino failed is taking that final step to get Tottenham's name scribbled on the side of some ancient piece of metal. This season, there's a small chance. And if he's nothing else, Mourinho's a tough man to bet against.

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