There’ll al­ways be a steak on the bar­bie for José

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Soccer - Ken Early

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.

Pop­ulist riff

“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

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