“It’s really classy, really classy to act like that,” said Lille manager Christophe Galtier of Jose Mourinho poaching his goalkeeper coach Nuno Santos and assistant Joao Sacramento to Tottenham midway through their season. In addition to his assistants, there were also rumors that Mourinho wanted Lille’s sporting director Luis Campos to also join him at his new club. Galtier continued to hit out at the disloyalty, saying that he, unlike his assistants, doesn’t have “a 1000th of a wish to look elsewhere.” Even before managing his first match in 11 months, Mourinho had already caused international tension in a league that he wasn’t even involved in.
Mourinho insisted that he had changed since getting sacked at Manchester United last season. He said his time away from the game humbled him, before adding that he couldn’t sympathize with Mauricio Pochettino’s struggles following the loss of a Champions League Final because he’s won all of his European finals. The subtle jabs disguised as compliments were textbook Mourinho. He was to clear to differentiate between himself and Pochettino. The Argentine said it would be “a miracle” for Tottenham to win the Champions League this season, whereas Mourinho upgraded their chances of winning the tournament to “very hard.” The message tip-toed a respect for his predecessor that would endear him to his new fan base while emphasizing his superior resume.
Jeff Bezos once said that “your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.” Is there any other soccer figure this century who forces their peers to react? His tangible presence even when not in the room makes him a footballing whitespace of character. No one, not even former pupils, are safe from the jibes. Frank Lampard said upon Mourinho’s hire that he would never manage Tottenham and “you can replay that in 10 years.”
Others tried to laugh off his influence, as if humor would spare them from the mind games. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said the “spectacle” of Mourinho’s return was good for journalists. That was before Solskjaer had to explain away how Nemanja Matic liked a meme on social media stating that the midfielder was waiting for Mourinho to sign him at Tottenham. In examining who Mourinho could feud with this time around, the seemingly short-term nature of his Tottenham arrangement makes it appear as if everyone is at risk during the limited timespan.
“Sorry to disappoint you but it is not going to be about Jose,” Solskjaer opened that press conference, before eventually talking about Mourinho.
Though one area where Mourinho may have grown out of necessity is in his relationship with millennials. He already has a signature moment in asking the off-form Dele Alli whether he was “Dele or Dele’s brother.” He may have used a tough love, breaking someone down to build them back up strategy in the past, but an olive branch that shows both a respect for the player and acknowledgement of their struggles is the 2019 Mourhino. Mourinho also signaled Alli as the most important cog of the team. Tactically, Alli fits the mold of a Mourinho No. 10. He once described the position as an 8-and-a-half out of possession and a 9-and-a-half with the ball, especially with late runs into the box.
The impact of his words were immediate. Up 1-0 in the 43rd minute against West Ham, Alli controlled and flicked a ball to Son Heung-min while falling out of bounds, leading to a goal. That instinctive moment brought Mourinho to his feet. Mourinho has already compared his relationship with Alli to Deco, showing how highly he rates the 23-year-old England international.
“One of the Porto players - and I have no trouble saying this because he laughs about this all the time - was Deco. For 90 minutes I insulted him and he insulted me. Big, big insults,” described Mourinho of the manner in which he respects, gains respect from, and eventually wins over his players. Though those insults disguised as brotherhood have been replaced today with jokes of imposters and showy encouragement from the sideline.
Mourinho also displayed his metronic precision in needling other key players. He challenged Harry Kane to stay with the club in lieu of any big transfer, saying that Kane needed to bring a trophy to Tottenham before he could be thought of as one of the top strikers in the world. He would know, after all, reminding us (and Kane) that he’s worked with some of the best goalscorers last decade, helping them both win and carve out their individual place within the European landscape. Again, there was a compliment immediately followed by a challenge.
Some players are inherently Mourinho players. Toby Alderweireld, often rumored for a move away from the club, is now reportedly reinvigorated and refocused by the hire. Meanwhile, Christian Eriksen has been dropped to the bench. The two players show the talent in the squad despite their early-season struggles. And they did just go to the Champions League final six months ago. Likewise, Mourinho insisted that he didn’t need to buy anyone new. The usual ribbing and challenging, with a newfound encouragement of players, will do.
“Sometimes I was at a football games and I was thinking what am I doing here, in the box or the studio. Today I was where I belong, my natural habitat,” elucidated Mourinho about his existential clarity following his first game on the Tottenham sideline.
Regardless of whether Mourinho needed Tottenham more than Tottenham needed Mourinho, Mourinho needed the Premier League most of all. He’s been linked with big money moves to China and France during his time off, turning them all down for a chance to return to England. It’s not unusual to see players or managers take to a specific league. We’ve seen managers either thrive or never come to grips with the second-ball, uncontrolled nature of the Premier League. Before his first match, Mourinho asked whether he could wear a microphone for an Amazon documentary about Tottenham’s season. All of the posturing, press conferences, and weekends spent patrolling the sidelines roll into one entertainment package that gives Mourinho a lingering sense of purpose and home.
Mourinho spent this past year in studio booths attempting to rewrite his narrative within the game. He especially focused on his story with finances, telling us that he did not need to spend money to win the Champions League with Porto and Inter. He reminded us that he’s done his best work when having to make the most of a situation, stretching limited resources through will and cleverness. Mourinho admitted that it’s too late for Tottenham to win the Premier League title this season. He did add, however, that Tottenham can win the league next year.