Premier League legend Jose Mourinho explains why he took on 'the Tottenham project'

Brian McNally

Weekend mornings haven't been the same since the English Premier League paused its season. The EPL will be back later this month on NBC. Until then, NBC Sports Washington is devoting a week of stories to each of the Big 6 clubs in England: Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester City. Because we miss the Premier League, too. 

Our third week begins with a look at Tottenham, a club with a massive fanbase that is always near the top of the table but has not won the league since 1961. New coach Jose Mourinho, no stranger to championships, looks to change that in the coming years.  

Things never really change at Tottenham. 

For the better part of a century, the London club has been a fixture near the top of the English soccer standings. But "near" is the operative word there. Tottenham Hotspur F.C. hasn't won a title since 1961. 

That's hard to take when almost all your biggest rivals – Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City and, soon, Liverpool – have all celebrated league championships in recent years. 

Liverpool is well ahead of the pack with 82 points and is two wins away from clinching its first title since 1990 when the Premier League resumes on June 17 after months off due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Tottenham sits eighth at 41 points – exactly half of the first-place Reds, who they played for the Champions League title just last June.   

Spurs are almost never bad with top-six finishes each of the past 10 years. They finished second in 2016-17. But a slow start this season cost manager Mauricio Pochettino his job by Nov. 19. 

His replacement? Jose Mourinho, a legendary figure in the game, the self-described "Special One" who led Chelsea to three Premier League titles, Porto and Inter Milan to Champions League trophies with an unsuccessful stint at Manchester United in his recent past. 

"Of course, there are clubs where it is much easier to win," Mourinho told Arlo White in an Inside the Mind interview in February. "But I was attracted by the Tottenham project."

But Mourinho hasn't left a strong imprint on his new club yet. If Tottenham has designs on building upon Pochettino's success, it isn't there so far at 8-3-6 with 30 points in 17 games since Mourinho took over. And Spurs haven't yet played like a traditional Mourinho squad, either, with a solid defense behind an attacking midfield. They have allowed 23 goals in league play. 

"Is Jose Mourinho trying to move away slightly from that pragmatic approach given this squad, given what Spurs fans have historically liked to see?" NBC soccer analyst Robbie Mustoe asked on a May 2 edition of the Two Robbies podcast. "What we've seen so far, it's a yes. Because they're nowhere near defensively as good as we expect them to be. The other part is, if the players are good enough?"

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That remains to be seen. When the Premier League restarts, Tottenham will get back star striker Harry Kane, who had been out since January with what was supposed to be a season-ending hamstring injury. Kane had 17 goals in 25 games before his injury. Spurs are just four points behind Manchester United for fifth place with nine games to go. There's still something to play for. 

And for Mourinho, who wore out his welcome during a second stint in Chelsea after winning another Premier League title there in 2015 and then struggled at Manchester United, maybe coaching an underdog will help him turn back the clock to his days at Porto when the Portugal side won the Champions League against far bigger clubs in 2004. 

"Is part of that [struggle] that the game's moved on and his old ways are not as [strong]?" asked Robbie Earle on that episode of The Two Robbies podcast. "When [Mourinho] won the Champions League with Porto, they weren't the best team in Europe. Nowhere near. But he found the system and worked with players who were not as good as the Real Madrid players and the Barcelona players. His Inter Milan team [in 2009], experienced players and a bit of know-how, they weren't the best team in Europe. But he found a way to get it. That's what he used to do. That's what he's got to do with this group. It might not be Manchester City's quality of player, but this guy in the past has done it with a level below."

Mourinho has Kane, one of the world's great strikers at age 26, and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, 33, a World Cup winner with France. Deli Ali, 24, is a strong attacking midfielder. There is talent here. But Spurs needs to find a quality central defender during the transfer window later this summer and likely a holding midfielder, too. It's a work-in-progress, but one Mourinho was eager to take on after a year away from the game. 

"I am in a club that we can say is an outsider in every competition that we play," Mourinho said. "But we know that we have the potential and we have the mission and we have the happiness. And this last word is very important to me: Happiness. Very important to be happy, very important to love the club that you work with, the players. And when I'm happy I know that I can influence the people that work with me to follow me. I like it."

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Premier League legend Jose Mourinho explains why he took on 'the Tottenham project' originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington