/ 15 January 2020

Does José Mourinho’s transformation have a happy ending?

Manchester United V Southampton Premier League
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 19: Jose Mourinho, Manager of Manchester United looks on prior to the Premier League match between Manchester United and Southampton at Old Trafford on August 19, 2016 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

One of the greatest ironies in world football is the credit given to José Mourinho for coining — or at least popularising — the phrase “ parking the bus”. At the time, he was bemoaning the tendency of teams arriving at Stamford Bridge and firmly jerking the handbrake, offering nothing going forward and clinging to the hope of forcing an equal split of the points. It was a perceived strategy that would be used to derisively explain away his own extraordinary success over the next decade and a half. 

In that very season he first uttered the words, Chelsea conceded an unthinkable record 15 goals. John Terry, Ricardo Carvalho and William Gallas were capable of clinging to a slight edge like no team before them — quite something with the embers of the “One-nil to the Arsenal” era still hot. The tone was set: Mourinho has demanded a certain level of defensive excellence from his players since. Those that don’t deliver it are shipped out — Juan Mata an obvious example — or ruthlessly publicly shamed (see Shaw, Luke).

John Terry (L) and William Gallas of Chelsea clear the ball from John Arne Riise of Liverpool during the Barclays Premiership match between Liverpool and Chelsea at Anfield on October 2, 2005 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Ben Radford/Getty Images)

Except maybe not anymore. The Portuguese now commands Tottenham Hotspur — the very team he first accused of bringing a transportation vehicle onto the pitch in 2004. And despite his proclivity to do the same, he has refused to do so here. If anything, the North Londoners look a little soft in the belly. Only one clean sheet has been earned under the new regime while no other team has conceded more in the league. These are not the results the scowls from the man in the suave jackets usually gets.

Maybe it’s because those scowls aren’t so pronounced anymore.

Indeed, judging by recent performances and the words that have accompanied them, Mourinho has a fundamentally different approach this go-around. 

As he made clear in December: “And then it is more difficult to do it because to play for a clean sheet and to put all the focus on the clean sheet, on the improvement of the defensive organisation and try to kill the mistakes that we make, that is not difficult to do. The difficulty is to do it with players that are the players they are, with the habits they have; the difficult thing is to put it right defensively without losing the qualities we can have offensively.”

Gone is the man that offered a choice between his way or a spot with the reserves. The dour persona has been replaced by tactical chameleon happy to flash meek, but genuine smiles of comfort.

Make no mistake- this is a monumental departure from the siege mentality that used to work so well. At his peak, Mourinho was able to spin the most alluring us-against-them narrative. He was the fearless leader you were willing to follow into battle; ready to sacrifice your body for the cause because he promised to shield you when the rest of the world pointed their spears in your direction.

But somewhere along the line the Pied Piper lost his flute. Perhaps it occured with the ignominy of being the manager who deemed Romelu Lukaku, Mohamed Salah and Kevin De Bruyne as surplus to requirements. Or maybe it dawned on him at Manchester United, where his bullish press antics and perpetual sullen mood only hastened the rate at which both his handlers and charges turned on him.

Either way, after a few months languishing in the purgatory of punditry, the Special One knew his return could not be more of the same. At least not if he hoped to escape a further sentence of discussing football with Jamie Carragher and friends all day.

That perception has been translated into his tactics on the pitch. Again, tactics that might not be producing ideal results at the moment but do follow in the Mauricio Pochetino pragmatist tradition and build on his five years of hard work instead of chucking them out into the rain. The return of Dele Alli alone is enough to prove that he is content to tick out the existing strengths of his players rather than bend them until they fit around his will.

Which is not to say their won’t still be at least some of the usual Mourinho casualties. The loss to Liverpool last weekend was the perfect example of the direct-style of football he wants to play to get the most out of industrious hustlers like Alli, Son Heung-min and, when he eventually returns, Harry Kane. The problem is that asking Toby Alderweireld to routinely look for them from the back undercuts the involvement of players like Harry Winks and Christian Eriksen. Their frustration was palpable as the long ball routinely floated over their heads — denying them the opportunity to act as a conduit for most of the attacking moves. Ultimately, the Dane, who had spent the match largely wandering aimlessly, was greeted with sneering whistles as he trudged off the pitch on the 70th minute, he and Danny Rose replaced by Giovani Lo Celso and Érik Lamela.

Ironically, that was when the coach switched to an approach that Eriksen would have favoured: quick short passes that called on midfield finesse. Spurs flourished and could consider themselves unfortunate not to have forced the equaliser. It was a closing act that demonstrated another facet to Mourinho’s gameplay — a fluid system he may increasingly roll out in the near future. Still, his words after the game are further evidence that he will not be forcing anything until he feels the team is ready. 

“If we try to play the way we did in the last 20 minutes, if we try to play that way from the beginning, I think we collapse because the players are not used to playing with this style and they are not adapted,” he reasoned.

This player-first strategy will seem foreign to anyone who followed Mourinho during the last decade. Some positive silver linings in recent evidence suggest it just might pay off. Of course he would have preferred a better start but he’d also be the first to tell you that Spurs were pretty garbage when he found them — especially in defence. That he resisted the temptation to scorch the earth and begin again on his terms is testament to the manager he has become.