If you super, super simplify it, appointing a new manager is a club’s admission of what it would like to be. For instance: Tottenham are pretty bad right now, and would like to be better.
Currently, Spurs sit 14th in the Premier League with just three wins on the season, having taken 14 points from 12 matches, which is bad. And if you broaden the sample size to include the latter half of last season’s campaign, they’ve taken 28 points from 25 matches which, in the course of a single Premier League season, would have put them in the regulation zone. When Spurs traveled to Brighton in early October after suffering a 7-2 drubbing at the hands of Bayern Munich in the Champions League, they were down two within the first half hour, and Seagulls fans—who rarely, if ever, have anything to cheer about—got to sing “we want seven” at last year’s European finalists. Brighton won 3-0.
The start to this season has been the team’s worst run of form since Mauricio Pochettino took over in 2014, and on Tuesday, it resulted in his dismissal. You’ll have read by now that José Mourinho has been hired as Pochettino’s successor, and I’m here to tell you how you should feel about that, but first, let’s acknowledge what Pochettino accomplished. He didn’t win any silverware in five years, but he transformed the club, changing its identity and setting new expectations for what it was capable of achieving. Prior to Tottenham’s recent awfulness, it had been a while since anyone said the word “Spursy,” a slur used to cast teams or performances as maddeningly wasteful, self-defeating, or otherwise close, yet comically far away from success. On Pochettino’s watch, Tottenham joined the Premier League’s upper echelon, becoming one of the most watchable sides in Europe and a fashionable pick for a neutral fan looking for a team to adopt, or perhaps a second team, if you’re the kind of fan who has second teams. They contended with Europe’s überelite despite vastly disproportionate resources. After two years of spending nothing in the transfer market, the roster was deformed, lovable, and—having just missed out on last year’s Champions League trophy—overachieving. Spurs attacked with decisiveness: spring the trap, then stretch the field vertically, and when Son Heung-min finally finished off the blindingly quick counterattack with his left foot and a giddy smile, well, you’d have to be a monster not to feel a kind of warm, parental gratification.
When Mourinho was announced mere hours after Pochettino was sacked, the jokes sort of wrote themselves. This is the same manager who two years ago turned his nose up at a young, fearless Ajax team playing beautiful, attacking soccer, saying that “it is beautiful for me not to give the opponent what he wants.” Imagine Ajax’s creativity like a gushing faucet; traditionally, Mourinho prefers it at a drip, for his teams to play with restraint. This isn’t always pleasing to watch, and it opens Mourinho’s style to charges of joylessness or of being “anti-football.”
So what would “anti-football” look like at Spurs? A bunch of people on Twitter, in their mind’s eye, saw Mourinho repurpose Son as a left back, pick Eric Dier in the first team every week, and play Moussa Sissoko in the number 10 role. But the thing is—this Tottenham side actually has the makings of a good Mourinho team. At Spurs, he arguably has what he lacked at his last job at Manchester United: Harry Kane, for starters; forwards like Erik Lamela who are willing to press high up the field; a healthy and established back line (whose tackling could use some work) that currently includes Toby Alderweireld, whom Mourinho tried to sign at United 18 months ago.
The Pochettino sacking, and the subsequent Mourinho hire, is a statement of intent. Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy seeks to complete the club’s transition from plucky upstart to actual, genuine, serious title contender. In comments to the press, Levy has pointed to the Portuguese manager’s history: three Premier League titles, four major European trophies. “He has a wealth of experience, can inspire teams, and is a great tactician,” Levy said. What this means is that Tottenham’s progress had been arrested under Pochettino. Levy can’t fire the players, and Tottenham need to level up this year, so here we are. The club opened their new billion-dollar stadium, have just recently broken their club transfer record, and now have a manager who, in theory, should lead them into the promised land of the top four in the Premier League.
Still, it’s tough to say why this should turn out any differently than Mourinho’s last coaching job. The circumstances are more or less the same as when he became Manchester United manager in 2016: He’s taking over a club in crisis, albeit one with considerable talent and led by an executive whose bottom line regularly informs his footballing decisions. To make things even dicier, he’s replacing the best and most beloved manager in Tottenham’s history, not Louis van Gaal. There is every chance that Tottenham rejects such a staggering change like a body would a virus, or that Mourinho arrives at the Season 3 stage early: It’s one thing to be told there is no money for transfers, the frustration of actually having no money for transfers is a different thing entirely. Then again, Tottenham could win away at West Ham on Saturday, then blank Bournemouth at home, and roll over Manchester United, Burnley, and then Wolves. I hate to say it, but there really is no telling whether this will be the dawning of a new era or an unmitigated disaster.
Welcome to the Mourinho experience, Spurs fans.