“What is there about my life that would be worth making a movie about?”
Jose Mourinho once pondered that question during his first stint at Chelsea when the Premier League was under his spell. “The only thing they could do about me is a DVD of about one hour with the titles I have won, the best images, the biggest controversies.”
There have been many ups and downs in the decade and a half since that statement but Mourinho is on top again. Nine games into the Premier League season and Spurs lead the rest. After ending Chelsea’s 50-year wait to be champions of England, he is now threatening to take Tottenham to the title for the first time in 60 years.
Seasoned Mourinho observers have long been convinced that the Portuguese sees his whole life in cinemascope. It helps to explain why he took to the documentary about his first season at Spurs so easily. Well, now he has a narrative worthy of his name. After being written off as yesterday’s man, could it really be time for Jose’s redemption song?
The mood music is certainly changing. “I think it will ramp up the more that Jose sits near the top of the league and feels like he is competing with Pep,” Gary Neville told Sky Sports.
He was referring to the rivalry Mourinho stoked up before his side’s game against Manchester City – insinuating that Pep Guardiola’s team might have benefited from favourable treatment during the international break regarding Raheem Sterling’s withdrawal from the England squad. “Maybe Mourinho is a doctor,” wondered Guardiola.
Even Sterling’s omission from the City starting line-up was not enough to stop Mourinho’s agitations. Another jibe came in the pre-match interview, delivered with a trademark smirk.
He may see himself as centre stage once more but Mourinho has always seemed happiest in the underdog role. From there, it is easier to cultivate the siege mentality on which he thrives – selling the idea to his side that they are battling against the odds and the system.
But Mourinho has found himself so outgunned in recent years that his role has been peripheral – watching from the studio just over a year ago as others chased silverware.
His grumbles during the latter stages of his career at Manchester United could be seen as a lament to a career gone awry. This is the longest that he has gone without winning a trophy.
But there is a growing sense that the mischief making comes from a position of strength once more. Mourinho is back in the argument. Still the underdog but this dog is in the fight.
How has it happened?
Tottenham were in the bottom half of the Premier League and on a five-game winless streak when Mourinho arrived last November. The fear was that this was a tired team that had been taken as far as it could go under Mauricio Pochettino. The cycle had come to an end.
Those fears are gone. Four consecutive Premier League wins to extend Spurs’ unbeaten run in the competition to eight games, the longest of any team, have brought renewed belief. It feels like there is everything to play for again. Tottenham are in this title race.
It has taken time and money to turn it around. Gareth Bale and Sergio Reguilon have arrived from Real Madrid with the latter making a swift impact at left-back. The hugely impressive Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg has been excellent, providing much-needed stability in midfield.
But the more striking change under Mourinho has been in the performances of the key players already at the club. Heung-Min Son is the top scorer in the Premier League. Harry Kane has become even more complete than before. Tanguy Ndombele has turned it around.
The assimilation of Ndombele, Tottenham’s club-record signing, is a major accomplishment for Mourinho because had he failed to make this work it would have been interpreted as further evidence that his particular brand of man-management no longer worked.
His trial-by-fire methods had become viewed as outdated, apparently no longer resonating with the modern player. For all the talk of a new Mourinho, and he has taken on younger staff, the suspicion was that he would not be able to reinvent himself. The die was cast.
On the pitch, the game had moved away from his more reactive brand of football. Pressing was not only integral to the success of the best teams in the land but had become the norm.
The irony is that it is not so much that Mourinho has changed but that the game has changed again. Wait long enough and things come back in fashion. In this instance, perhaps circumstances have conspired to shift the balance of power back in Mourinho’s favour.
Fitness is an issue in these fraught times. Teams are tired and fluid attacking movements are more difficult to perfect. Pressing is proving harder to sustain amid a congested fixture list and shorn of the intensity provided by a baying crowd. This is an environment in which the strategy of contain and counter makes more sense. Mourinho is the master of that game.
Consider some of the underlying numbers. Manchester City and Liverpool, the Premier League’s outstanding teams in recent years, still lead the way in shot-ending high turnovers. They are still the teams out there trying to win the ball in the final third.
As a result, City and Liverpool are still starting their attacks closer to the opposition goal than any other team in the league. Spurs rank in the bottom half on both of these metrics. It is not that Mourinho is suddenly playing their game. He is making his own game work.
Perhaps it has even helped that Spurs’ tough schedule has brought greater clarity that this was the approach to take. They have sat in when appropriate, being outrun in seven of their nine games so far. But when the moment has come to attack they have done so.
Rapier-like counter-attacks have exposed opponents. High lines have been breached. Spurs rank ninth for possession but have won every game – and won well – when the opposition have had more of the ball. No team in the Premier League has had as many direct attacks.
There will still be complications and there are no guarantees that this will last. The injury to Toby Alderweireld places yet more demands on a squad that is already being tested by a punishing schedule that saw Spurs in action again against Ludogorets on Thursday evening.
Still, it is tempting to think that Mourinho is best placed to capitalise on the uncertainty that provides the backdrop to this whole season. While Guardiola favours order, who better than the man who thrives on conflict to navigate a path through these treacherous waters?
This extraordinary season demands an extraordinary story. As he prepares for the cameras on his return to Stamford Bridge this Sunday, Jose Mourinho might just be able to provide it.
Pitch to Post Preview: Are Chelsea and Spurs title contenders? Plus Man Utd ‘leader’ Bruno Fernandes, Arsenal’s creativity problems, and more!
This week on the Pitch to Post Preview Podcast, Peter Smith is joined by Michael Bridge and Charlotte Marsh to look ahead to a blockbuster London derby between title hopefuls Chelsea and Tottenham. James Cooper explains how Bruno Fernandes has become Man Utd’s leader, and we analyse Arsenal’s creativity problems.
Plus, Tim Thornton has the latest from Leeds and Sheffield United – including the story of how the Blades almost signed Diego Maradona! Charlotte then makes her bold Pitch for what she thinks will happen in this weekend’s Premier League action…