Jose Mourinho considered football’s return a “public service”, a piercing shot of distraction, lifting us from our living rooms and into hollow stadiums. But, then, is there not also a vague sense of duty, an obligation even, to entertain? Since the restart, Tottenham have won, lost and drawn, fought resiliently and unravelled spectacularly, and somehow remain within reach of the Europa League. But rarely have they ever truly inspired.
It’s a criticism now habitually levelled at Mourinho: a cautious and restrictive, stubbornly counter-attacking brand of football. Spurs have regressed from bold and brave to beige and unimaginative in the space of 12 months, their irregularities ironed into a rigid but effective system. Despite it feeling like a dated solution to a fresh problem, by and large, it has been a success.
Mourinho would be the first to highlight that he’s taken Tottenham from the brink of implosion to a potential top-six finish. He’s pieced together a new structure from broken parts, carrying over all the aches and pains of last year’s titanic Champions League campaign, scoring more goals and conceding fewer, with Spurs fourth in the form table during his time in charge. The prospect of a potentially season-defining game against Leicester alone would have felt like a mirage when he replaced Mauricio Pochettino in November.
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It’s not to doubt Mourinho’s ability, which comes gilded with indisputable history, but whether the pursuit of three points alone in modern football, for an elite side such as Tottenham, is actually enough anymore? Winning is the difference between Europe and mid-table, elation and despair, but what happens when it comes at the expense of the sheer enjoyment and extremes experienced en route.
During this period of behind closed doors games, each team’s identity has been distilled and laid bare in the training game-esque format: Arsenal’s maddening insecurities, Southampton’s frenetic high press, West Ham’s pivots between the artful and outright apocalyptic. Every weakness and inconsistency, crack and flaw magnified. At Spurs, though, sometimes there’s little that’s really emotive at all: the tension that raises goosebumps or last-minute goal that leaves a sickening feeling in the stomach. In a world where we increasingly crave constant stimulation, their senses feel dulled, their synapses numbed by an exhaustive season.
There was nothing shocking about the club’s thrashing by Sheffield United, despite Mourinho’s claims that he was “disturbed” and “destroyed a little bit”. Their curdling victory against Everton, nursing a one-goal lead like a treasure ghost, was unfulfilling. Even a north London derby win, playing on the back foot with a self-ordained underdog status, a “Mourinho masterclass” in its ageless form, felt strangely unemphatic.
That is, of course, in part due to the circumstances, but it’s a shrug of the shoulders type feeling that’s hard to shake. The grief and nostalgia over all those electrifying and unpredictable nights under Pochettino that now feel like a distant prospect.
Instead, it’s as though Spurs have temporarily accepted this middling purgatory, where the bar is neither too high or low, the football clinical but unexpressive, with joy dovetailed by disgruntlement. Victory against Leicester on Sunday, with Chelsea still needing to play Wolves on the final day of the season, would be a momentous result. Yet, even with that unlikely triumph in view, it still feels like they’re limping towards the finish line.
It would be wrong to lay any blame for that solely at Mourinho’s feet. It’s a lack of warmth that stems from the boardroom, too. News of Daniel Levy’s £7m bonus, confirmed on the day the club furloughed non-playing staff, left a sour taste. The delay in reversing that decision, despite the supporters’ trusts’ pleas not to “further damage the club’s reputation”, only spoke of a distance between fans and the club that Arsenal have been forced to contend with to a far greater extent since leaving Highbury.
Nor was Levy naive to the road he chose when appointing Mourinho: illustrious but reliable, a celebrity of sorts but with a certain safety net. The Portuguese’s tenures have often ended chaotically, but they begin with impetus, and usually results. It’s not to say it wasn’t ambitious, but that after overachieving in spades under Pochettino, reinforcing in the short-term remained the greatest priority, particularly after the huge investment in the new stadium.
For his part, Mourinho is delivering on his promises, even if a sales pitch of new visions and broadened horizons now feel like anecdotes from an old playbook.
It’s why Sunday’s game against Leicester could be so crucial for both the coach and the club. Another vindication of his tactics and their strategy. One that will breathe new life into Mourinho’s indefatigable essence or condemn Spurs to a bleak season best forgotten. And when it really comes down those stakes, when so much is on the line, concerns over a glib style, lack of freedom or stifled creativity quickly go out the window. It’s not about the manager, or even his players, at all. It’s just about winning, and it doesn’t matter what the cost is to get there.
And as Mourinho would happily tell you himself, winning is what he does.