Footballnus Exclusive: The story of Jose Mourinho's failures at Tottenham - Part 1

Footballnus Exclusive: The story of Jose Mourinho's failures at Tottenham - Part 1

Jose Mourinho
Love him or hate him, the aura remains. Jose Mourinho is out of job now and the question is: What next for him? (Photo credit: ESPN)


There's this thing about round pegs and round holes, the tale of Jose Mourinho at Tottenham Hotspur epitomizes the opposite, what was Daniel Levy thinking? He didn't know what he was getting into? We take a look at the genesis and the ultimate revelation as inspired by inside stories from the highly reliable The Athletics

It was half-time at the Etihad Stadium on February 13. Tottenham were 1-0 down to Manchester City but had barely been in the game at all. No shots on target, no corners, 35.9 per cent possession.

Jose Mourinho walked in and was unusually positive, telling the players they were doing well and to keep it up. Some of the senior players in the dressing room were shocked that such a passive, negative approach could be right for this club. “You really think this is good?” remarked one. Tottenham did nothing in the second half and lost the game 3-0.

That one moment encapsulated the divide between the players and their head coach, the divide that has finally cost Mourinho his job. His defensive tactics, his reactive training and his repeated public criticism of the players have driven Mourinho apart from the squad, the fans and ultimately Daniel Levy.

While many of the players were pleased to hear of Mourinho’s dismissal on Monday, the only part that surprised them was the timing — six days before they face Manchester City in the Carabao Cup final, and when the rest of the world was discussing the new European Super League that Tottenham have signed up for. The decision was made over the weekend after Friday night’s 2-2 draw at Everton.

Spurs are now five points away from fourth place, a stark contrast from the optimism of November when they were top of the league.

Tottenham players

The Mourinho reign at Tottenham has unraveled faster than anyone could have expected six months ago.

Via The Athletic, Footballnus.com can reveal how:

Tottenham players were left bored and untested by his training sessions

Most of squad were expecting his sacking

Tactics were so obsessed with stopping opposition that players were unsure how to attack

Mourinho’s assistant Joao Sacramento was unpopular with the squad

The club were unhappy with Mourinho’s criticism of the players and asked him to stop it

Mourinho ran out of allies at the club, on and off the pitch

Only Harry Kane was loyal to Mourinho at the end

His dismissal had nothing to do with the Super League and was based purely on results

The result is that Mourinho, 17 months after his appointment, is now on gardening leave with the rest of his coaching team.

The fact that it has ended like this, and this quickly, makes the Mourinho era one of the most costly mis-steps in Levy’s 20 years running Tottenham.

Having arrived to such high expectations, Mourinho leaves Tottenham in seventh place, and he has not won them a trophy (leaving a job trophyless for the first time since going from Uniao de Leiria to Porto 19 years ago).

The football his team have been playing has been negative and uninspiring. Spurs have not won any new fans during the Mourinho era, and have upset plenty of their traditional ones.

Levy was anxious that when fans returned to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium at the end of the season, they would make their feelings about the manager known. He has spared Mourinho that indignity.

When Tottenham appointed Mourinho, Levy proudly told the All Or Nothing documentary-makers he was “one of top two coaches in the world”.

Mourinho was appointed to replace Mauricio Pochettino, Spurs’ best and most popular manager since Bill Nicholson. Levy hoped that Mourinho would build upon the progress of the Pochettino era and finally win them a trophy. He also hoped that Mourinho would build up Tottenham’s global image, star in Amazon’s behind-the-scenes show about them and attract new fans to the club.

Levy had built his team a world-class training ground and stadium, and now he finally had his superstar manager to go with it. He had considered Carlo Ancelotti that autumn, but Mourinho’s winning aura swung him the job.

If it was a marriage of convenience, it worked for both parties. Mourinho had long seen Tottenham as a model club. They were ambitious, well-run and with a streamlined management structure. After his political problems at Real Madrid, Chelsea and Manchester United, this was a club with fewer decision-makers in charge. Mourinho sold them a vision that he was a changed man, that he had learned from his last few failures, and that he would bring Spurs a new era of success.

Mourinho and Levy were very close from the start. Mourinho would discuss everything with Levy, including selection issues. Some sources who know Levy thought the chairman was too close to Mourinho, too pleased with the fact that he had finally appointed one of the biggest names in football to manage his club.

Recall that when Mourinho took over, Spurs were 12th in the 20-team Premier League, their players looking mentally and physically drained by a year in which they had reached but lost the Champions League final before seeing the Pochettino era unravel in the early months of the next season.

The squad had needed a rebuild for years and the lack of transfer activity finally caught up with them. 

Mourinho lost his main goalscorer Kane to a serious hamstring injury six weeks after taking over, and two months after that he faced a three-month coronavirus stoppage.

Mourinho had to guide Spurs through some very difficult waters and the fact that he managed to get them to sixth by the time the season finally ended last July has to go down as a success. 

Then, in the summer transfer window, Mourinho got plenty of the players he wanted — Matt Doherty, Joe Hart, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Sergio Reguilon — while Levy brought ‘home’ fan-favorite Gareth Bale.

As unhappy as Mourinho has been about the failure to sign a new centre-back, the ingredients were there for a far more successful 2020-21 season than Tottenham have actually had.

As the reality of Mourinho’s methods became apparent, it did not take long for the Tottenham players to pine for the days of Pochettino.

Under the Argentinean, the team had a clear philosophy of play which they would work on perfecting every day. Under Mourinho, that went out of the window. 

His approach was to tailor different tactics to every single opponent, designed to exploit their own distinct weaknesses.

Players remarked that as they got closer to every match, the atmosphere was increasingly marked by fear of what might go wrong. Spurs were so fixated on what the opposition might do, they forgot to focus on their own game.

Throughout the Mourinho era, Tottenham looked unsure of what to do with the ball or how to build-up play from the back.

Tottenham forward Harry Kane

At times, they were still capable of getting good results, because any team with Kane and Son Heung-min upfront is still likely to create chances and score goals. 

But there was nothing to replace the playing identity Pochettino had worked on for so long. 

The players found themselves relying on the same attacking moves he had taught them, long after he’d left the club.

It did not take the Tottenham players to grow bored of Mourinho’s training sessions. 

They felt weighed down by the defensive focus, the hours spent working on how to defend throw-ins before facing Liverpool, and frustrated by the lack of attention to their own game. 

For years, Spurs teams of all levels had focused on building up from the back and passing the ball, but for Mourinho, that was all forgotten.

“He has sucked the culture out of the club,” said one dressing-room source, “and destroyed what Spurs have stood for years.”

The players were also struck by the lack of intensity in their training program. 

Working under Pochettino was extremely hard, and the players would complain about the number of double sessions and the lack of days off, as Pochettino and his staff, got the team fit enough to play his aggressive, pressing football.

But that same group of players then felt the opposite was true under Mourinho — that they were not being worked hard enough. 

They felt as if almost every session was either recovery from one match or tactical preparation for the next one, which made it especially difficult for the players who were not in the team to find any rhythm.

When they got what they felt was a harder week of training before the FA Cup visit to Wycombe Wanderers in January, the players were even relieved to have been worked hard. They would even joke among themselves that training at this intensity could prolong their careers.

In Mourinho’s defence, he had a uniquely difficult season to prepare the players for. 

Many of them only had a brief break between the end of the 2020-21 season on July 26 and internationals in early September, and Spurs’ progress in the Europa League, including three preliminary rounds, and Carabao Cup meant they have played two games each week almost all season. 

By the end of this compressed season, Tottenham will have played 58 official games.

The fact they have escaped with relatively few injuries could be taken as proof that Mourinho has managed that workload well.

There is also a sense at the club that the players must bear some real responsibility for the struggles in recent years. 

The fact that the same squad has made the opposite complaints about Mourinho as they did about Pochettino has not gone unnoticed, nor has the way that the players’ form tailed off at the first sign of trouble.

The debate about whether the players or the manager deserve the blame for what has gone wrong has dominated this season, and often been driven by Mourinho’s own attempts to deflect the blame onto his squad. 

But ultimately it is a manager’s job to get the best out of the players, something Mourinho clearly failed to do.

The players’ frustration with the coaching staff was not limited to their uneasy relationship with Mourinho. Ever since he managed Porto, Mourinho had worked with Rui Faria as his assistant.

But six months before Mourinho was sacked by Manchester United in 2018, Faria wanted a new challenge, and to try being a head coach himself. Faria did not join Mourinho at Tottenham, as he was managing the Al Duhail club in Qatar.

That meant Mourinho needed a new assistant and he decided to appoint Joao Sacramento, a gifted 30-year-old analyst and coach, who had been a protege of Mourinho’s old friend Luis Campos at Monaco and then Lille.

Sacramento was meant to provide an update to Mourinho’s methods and a link to the players at Spurs. 

But in reality, he proved just as unpopular as Mourinho. 

Multiple sources report that the players struggled to connect with him, saying he lacked the emotional intelligence to deal with a squad of established Premier League stars.

Rival coaches also picked up on Sacramento’s lack of experience, especially in comparison to Faria, with one even remarking to The Athletic how little authority he seemed to have on the touchline, barking tactical instructions to uninterested players.

“Sacramento takes a good role in team shape and opposition analysis,” said a more sympathetic source. “But Jose was clearly boss.”

When Mourinho was appointed by Tottenham, he arrived as a figure bigger than the club itself. 

His first few weeks were a media sensation and he relished his image as a serial champion who had come to teach them how to win. When he spoke to the players, they listened.

Just before the start of this season, Eric Dier told The Athletic how much of an impact Mourinho could make with a well-placed comment.

“He’s incredible in the way that he pokes you with his words to get the best out of you,” he said. “He’ll say things to you and nudge you, with the idea of triggering you to want to do better, to want to improve or to prove him wrong.”

Dier told a story about the build-up to Spurs’ trip to Selhurst Park, the last game of the 2019-20 season. 

He had been suspended for the previous four games but was eligible to play in this one. 

Mourinho walked up to Dier in training and said: “You’ve been shit in training since your suspension, do you want to play this weekend?”, then walked off. 

Dier took this as a “kick up the arse” and played well against Crystal Palace, as Spurs got the draw that sealed sixth place for them.

Tanguy Ndombele is maybe the best example of the success of Mourinho’s methods. 

When Spurs drew 1-1 at Burnley last March, just before the coronavirus stoppage, Mourinho had hooked Ndombele at half-time and hammered him in public afterwards, saying that with him on the pitch Spurs did not have a midfield. 

But Ndombele responded well to the challenge and significantly improved his fitness and his performances this season.

But one of the stories of this season was the collapse and ultimate failure of Mourinho’s tactics of “confrontational leadership”, of trying to criticize the players to provoke the right response. 

What started as a clever trick to keep the players on their toes soon started to grate. Especially when Mourinho made his criticisms in public rather than private.

The players felt, as the season wore on, that whatever went wrong they would be blamed for it, and that Mourinho was happy to throw them under the bus. 

Ahead of the line-up being announced for the game against Manchester United recently, one club source remarked, “I wonder which lambs will be sent out to slaughter this week.”

It was not always this way. After Spurs lost 3-1 at Sheffield United last July, Mourinho criticized his players’ mentality and the way they caved after a VAR decision went against them. 

But the players rallied, took 14 points from their remaining six games, and got back into Europe.

This season, though, Mourinho’s barbs have made things worse rather than better. Early on, his anger was at least targeted and appropriate. 

Of course, it helped that, for the first half of the season, Spurs were doing well, scoring goals and, for a few weeks, were top of the table. When Mourinho went after his players, it felt like a one-off.

When Tottenham lost 1-0 at Royal Antwerp in a Europa League group game in October, Mourinho hooked Dele Alli, Carlos Vinicius, Giovani Lo Celso and Steven Bergwijn at half-time. 

He said afterwards that his team selections would be “very easy” from then on, given how his fringe players had performed. 

But Spurs won their next five games in all competitions and that was swiftly forgotten.

When Spurs went to Crystal Palace on December 13, they were 1-0 up at half-time, before dropping back over the course of the second half and conceding a late Jeffrey Schlupp equalizer. 

At the time, it felt like an unlikely result. In retrospect, it looks like the turning point of the whole Mourinho reign.

Afterwards, he made it clear the reason Spurs didn’t win the game was because the players failed to follow his instructions. 

“I told the players what could happen, and it happened,” he said. “I told the players not to accept that kind of game, but for some reason, we were not able to do what I asked them to do.” 

He was right and the players were wrong.

That was the moment when the players started to realize that when anything went wrong, Mourinho would blame them. 

Even when they won, the players were not safe, as Dele found to his cost when Spurs beat Stoke City 3-1 in the Carabao Cup just before Christmas.

Dele gave the ball away before Stoke’s equalizer, soon got hooked by Mourinho and afterwards was told that he should not “create problems for his own team”.

Four days after that, they drew 1-1 at Wolves in a game almost identical to the Palace draw, conceding an equalizer with four minutes left. 

Again, the players were blamed for not being good enough to execute Mourinho’s plans. “They know what I asked them at half-time,” he said. “If they couldn’t do better, it’s because they couldn’t do better.”

The start of a new year brought a new target for Mourinho’s ire: the defence. 

When Spurs threw away yet another 1-0 lead to draw 1-1 at home with relegation candidates Fulham, Mourinho snapped.

He said that it was “the same story, basically, from the beginning of the season”, in terms of the bad goals his team were conceding. 

“There are things that have to be with the characteristics of the players,” he insisted. 

“They have to do with individual skills, with individual ability. And it is as simple as that.”

Mourinho’s argument was that his defenders were simply not good enough — even though Toby Aldeweireld had been part of the best defense in the country under Pochettino, so good that Mourinho wanted to sign him for Manchester United in 2018.

Dier, another former Mourinho transfer target, was an England international and Davinson Sanchez was rated as one of the most gifted young defenders in the world when Spurs bought him in the summer of 2017.

Mourinho was frustrated that Spurs had failed to sign Ruben Dias from Benfica, who instead joined Manchester City, or Milan Skriniar from Inter Milan the previous summer and wanted to make a point.

But the problem was that Mourinho had gone far beyond the point of provoking a reaction out of the players. 

He had hammered them so many times that they lost all trust in him.

The dressing room was increasingly divided. 

There were more experienced players such as Kane, Hojbjerg and Lucas Moura, who responded well to the manager and who continued to perform even when results were falling apart in the last few months.

Kane, sources say, would have run through a brick wall for Mourinho, right up to the end. 

That much was apparent from his two-goal performances this month against Newcastle United and Everton. 

On both occasions, the England captain tried to win the game single-handedly and nearly pulled it off.

To be continued...

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Footballnus | Get the latest football news, highlights, videos, and transfer gossip: Footballnus Exclusive: The story of Jose Mourinho's failures at Tottenham - Part 1
Footballnus Exclusive: The story of Jose Mourinho's failures at Tottenham - Part 1
Footballnus Exclusive: The story of Jose Mourinho's failures at Tottenham - Part 1
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