There’ll always be a steak on the barbie for José
Tottenham’s victory in yesterday’s North London derby was unmistakably a José Mourinho masterclass – that is to say, a game nobody enjoyed, which was won by the Mourinho side thanks to a breakaway goal from a defensive error and a defender’s goal at a set-piece.
It was reminiscent of Mourinho’s win for Manchester United against the Spurs of Mauricio Pochettino back in October 2017. On that occasion, after snatching the win with a late Anthony Martial goal, Mourinho turned to shush the camera while the disapproving Pochettino was forced to wait in the background for his handshake.
Mourinho explained that the gesture was for the critics who were already arguing that his methods and style were never going to bring the good times back at Old Trafford. Notwithstanding the result against Spurs that day, the critics turned out to be correct and, 14 fractious months later, Mourinho was sacked.
Part of his problem at United was that even on the good days, he never gave the impression that he was really enjoying himself. This has continued at Spurs, where even in the immediate aftermath of derby victory, he was complaining about Arsenal having benefited from an extra 48 hours of rest.
“I want the team to be a reflection of what the coach is,” he said before the game this weekend, but too often his United and Spurs sides played with a joylessness that seemed to reflect their coach’s ennui.
Last week, he reacted to the news that Eric Dier had received a four-match ban for wading into the stands to confront a spectator by criticising the out-of-touch disciplinary elites who handed down the punishment.
“My feeling is that football is not protected by the people that are powerful and doesn’t belong to this world . . . Powerful people, that doesn’t belong to the tribe. And they don’t have the feelings. They don’t have the know-how, and it’s very, very difficult to lead something when you don’t have a clue about the world that you are leading.”
As he reeled off this populist riff without even trying, you were struck by how annoying it must be for him to see someone as mediocre as Boris Johnson in charge of an entire country while he, Mourinho, is stuck in the slow lane managing Spurs. Yes, he makes a lot more money than Johnson, but is football – particularly the football of today, that has changed in so many unappealing ways – really still the showcase his talents deserve? There is a sense that he believes: I’m still big – it’s the game that got small.
After losing 3-1 at Sheffield United last week, Mourinho told reporters: “If I answer I am going to be in trouble” – remixing a famous answer from years ago, playing the hits. There was a lifelessness, a feeling of going through the motions. You didn’t believe that he was really angry enough to say anything for which he might get himself in trouble. Later, arguing that referees were now just assistant referees, he said: “We are going into a direction that is really, really bad for a game that . . . is a beautiful game, is the game – or was the game – that everybody fell in love with.”
You might feel that someone who still has one of the biggest coaching jobs in the Premier League might make more effort to pretend his love affair with the game burns as brightly as ever. To be fair to Mourinho, he’s been relatively open about his disillusionment. The question is why Daniel Levy could watch what happened first at Chelsea and then at Manchester United, and still conclude that Mourinho was the right coach to oversee this inflection point in Tottenham’s history.
Mourinho is not wrong when he says that the game has changed. The story of football over the last 10 years is the story of a sport finding and being transformed by new ways to quantify and rationalise itself. New tools of measurement, tracking and analysis are changing coaching from an art, where decisions are guided by expert intuition, into a science, where decisions can be based on objective data. The truth is on the pitch – or on the training ground, or encoded in markers in the blood – and if you missed it in real time, it’s been picked up by the cameras and the GPS trackers and logged in the match data for your research team to find later.
The process of objective analysis and rationalisation of performance applies to players, coaches, medics, analysts, dieticians, marketers – it applies at every level of the club, until you get to the boardroom. The boardroom is still a black box, a privileged zone, exempt from objective
Usually these decision-makers are older men with no knowledge of current developments in the game. They have no strong convictions about why some coaches or players are good and others not, but they are strongly averse to the idea of being made to look foolish. If they are going to make a mistake then they would prefer it to be a mistake lots of their peers have also made. Hence the timeless appeal of the big name, the familiar face, the “safe pair of hands”.
This is why Premier League coaching jobs have long been dominated by a select group of long-serving managers, whose arrival at a given club seldom excites anybody, but can usually be justified with a claim like “he’s never been relegated” or even just “well, he knows the league, doesn’t he?”
In this company, a coach about whom it can still be said “he’s won things everywhere he’s been” (recently downgraded from “he’s won the title everywhere he’s been”) stands out as dynamic even when other evidence suggests he might be a dinosaur. And this is why, for as long as he wants it, the chairmen of the Premier League will always have a steak on the barbie for José.
‘I want the team to be a reflection of what the coach is,’ he said before the game this weekend, but too often his United and Spurs sides played with a joylessness that seemed to reflect their coach’s ennui
The safe pair of hands