The last goal of Mauricio Pochettino’s reign at Tottenham Hotspur was scored by George Baldock which, it is safe to say, was not what he had in mind when he mused about depart in the glow of making Tottenham officially Europe’s best team. Eight months later, it felt as though Sheffield United had provided further finality for Spurs and dashed more dreams. Last season concluded in a Champions League final. This, surely, will not end with Tottenham in the Champions League places.
It would amount to a year of failure. In particular, it would reflect badly on the ultimate short-term manager who has proved incapable of executing his short-term objective and a normally hard-headed chairman, in Daniel Levy, who seemed blinded by stardust in appointing him. He did not pursue a project or a philosophy. He appointed a manager who came with the promise of a good time, not a long time.
Jose Mourinho inherited a team in 14th and his return of 31 points from 20 games is an improvement on Pochettino’s record this season. It is not Mourinho-esque, however, not in the way we knew it. It is Mourinho-esque in that he took 30 from his last 20 in charge of Manchester United. He left them in sixth and Chelsea in sixteenth. Now Tottenham are ninth. He has never finished a season that low down the standings.
A 3-1 defeat at Bramall Lane had the hallmarks of many a late-period Mourinho loss. There was the sense his team were less than the sum of their parts and that, in some cases, they had performed more for other managers. There were the pointed snubs in selection, with Dele Alli and, predictably, Tanguy Ndombele overlooked so the winger Steven Bergwijn could play as a No. 10. There was the lack of intensity and identity. There was the porous defending overseen by a man who constructed the most watertight rearguard in the history of English football.
They were unlocked by underdogs: Chris Basham got his first Premier League assist for nine years. Enda Stevens, a graduate of the League of Ireland and League Two, set up Sheffield United’s second. Oli McBurnie, formerly of Chester and Newport and Barnsley, scored the third. Chris Wilder assessed his starting line up and noted four of them were free transfers.
Mourinho was beaten by a younger manager but it is not merely the ageing process that means he often is. Wilder is only four years Mourinho’s junior, but his career is on an upward curve and the Portuguese’s is on a downward trajectory. The Yorkshireman has traits Mourinho used to exhibit. Wilder has the capacity to take players to new heights, the evident bond with them, the feeling his tactics are very topical. Like Julian Nagelsmann and Ralph Hasenhuttl and Jurgen Klopp, others to have beaten Spurs in 2020, Wilder has captured the Zeitgeist. It comes in part from mood. United feel a band of brothers, Mourinho a bitter grandfather complaining he doesn’t understand the youth of today.
He was critical of his team’s mental strength at Bramall Lane; in particular for their inability to respond to the disappointment of seeing Harry Kane’s ‘equaliser’ controversially chalked off. “We have to be mentally stronger, to cope with what happened during the game,” said Mourinho.
Not for the first time, it was someone else’s fault; once again, he compared others unfavourably with himself. “It is very easy to motivate myself because it is my nature,” he said. “When a professional player needs an external motivational source then he is in trouble. Motivation is directly related to professionalism: respect for the club, for the fans, for the job. Clearly if these boys don’t care about the results and the end of the season, there will be big trouble for the future.” It was a tacit admission a campaign is in effect over.
Mourinho is paid £15million a year to organise and galvanise, not deflect the blame but, at a third consecutive club, he gives the sense he feels the players are letting him down. The common denominator, at Chelsea, United and Spurs, is him, seeking to recreate his past and escape from it.
He cited the attacking line-up he named – with Kane, Bergwijn, Heung-Min Son, Lucas Moura, Giovanni Lo Celso and Moussa Sissoko all starting – yet they mustered two shots on target, plus Kane’s three disallowed goals. The one that stood was made and scored by players, in Son and Kane, who might have missed the remainder of the campaign had it finished on its scheduled dates. It highlights how football’s sudden break afforded Tottenham a second chance to salvage their season. They failed to take it. In February, when he was feeling sorry for himself, Mourinho said he wished it could be 1 July. Perhaps he does again because on 2 July, Spurs’ campaign came an anticlimactic end.