Premier League Narrative (PLN) is a fast-moving, ever-changing stream from which hard certainties are continually evaporating, only to be replaced by other, equally hard, equally fleeting convictions.
Three weeks ago, few in the punditariat could see past Liverpool running away with it. A 1-1 Big-Sambush at Anfield, a 0-0 at Newcastle, and a goal-free defeat at Southampton later, and PLN has shifted course, with a “Crisis!” lurking. Four games ago, Mikel Arteta’s failure to silk-purse his Arsenal squad had him cast—in the parlance of our times—as a “fraud,” yet a trio of wins, a draw, and a slick four-pass goal at a snowy West Brom later and peak Pepball is en route to the Emirates. Following a calamitous exit from the Champions League and just one win (and only one non-penalty goal) from six home league games, with three defeats, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was a lame duck a month or so back. Now, Manchester United are clear at the top. A thin line, indeed, between hero and zero.
As ever, by far the most interesting (if not agreeable) protagonist of PLN is José Mário dos Santos Mourinho Félix, dark lord of the technical area, keeper of the time, archivist of every last slight against his persecuted soul, and architect—for it was he, not Tottenham Hotspur FC—of a 6-1 win at Old Trafford in early October. The only real downside of that victory, he may well later have reflected, was the absence of 75,000 Mancunians (and Ed Woodward) to witness it. Written off as Yesterday’s Man, peddling his cobwebbed tactics in the age of gegenpressing (“Low block and counterattack? Yeah, all right grandad”), José was back, baby!
In mid-December, after 2-0 home wins against Manchester City and neighbors Arsenal, Spurs sat atop the table. Suddenly, they were in the title race. Perhaps the possession-averse Mourinho-ball could prevail again. Perhaps we would see his assuredly modest visage back at the Premier League top table. And with “Lads, it’s Tottenham,” too!
Four games later—1-1 draws against Crystal Palace and Wolves (in which, consistent with a manager for whom siege mentality often appears to be the psychological default, the team tried to protect early leads for more than an hour and came unstuck at the death) sandwiched by defeats to Leicester (who out-counterattacked them) and Liverpool, in a game of fine margins settled by another late goal–PLN once more had them out of it. A convincing 3-0 victory over Leeds had them back in; another two points succumbed to a late Fulham equalizer and they were back out. And yet, if Spurs beat Sheffield United while United drop points at Liverpool on Sunday, they will again be within either three or four points of the summit, with Liverpool as their next opponent. Are they or are they not in this topsy-turviest of title races? Won’t someone think of the narrative!
In many ways, Mourinho’s whole presence at Tottenham is a function of narrative. After an underwhelming spell at Manchester United— albeit with a couple of trophies and a second-place finish (19 points behind Manchester City)—his appointment wasn’t obviously on brand for a club romantically attached to the aesthetics of its 1960-61 double-winning heroes and the Audere est Facere motto. For José, to dare is to leave yourself open to a counterattack. However, Tottenham had built a magnificent new stadium that formed the sexy centerpiece of a new Amazon documentary, All or Nothing: Tottenham Hotspur, and they needed some star quality to give things a sprinkling of silver-screen glamour. The casting agents came up with Mr. Mourinho.
That predictably sanitized and corporate pseudo fly-on-the-wall PR peek behind the scenes includes umpteen on-camera iterations of José telling the squad they were “too nice” (while, off camera, he doubtless explained the nitty-gritty of rotational fouling, haranguing officials, and other dark arts). But the most interesting exchange in the documentary was between Mourinho and his totem and talisman, Harry Kane, a delicious (and inevitable) display of alpha one-upmanship, of pecking orders being asserted, of reputations sketched in.
(Kane’s feelings are difficult to read at the best of times, but he could have been forgiven for thinking, or even saying: “Mate, I won the Golden Boot at the last World Cup. People know who I am.”)
The idea was that Mourinho would turn Spurs into winners. “He guarantees trophies,” chorused the pundits, misunderstanding both the complex causes behind past events and those same events’ causal power over future events (would he guarantee trophies at West Ham, at Norwich … ?). They simply reinforced the Mourinho mythology—in which those successes involving luck, error, multiple actors, historical forces, and even force majeure are transformed into something approaching the inevitable unfolding of a destiny emanating primarily from Mourinho’s genius. The cultivation of this genius has been a central pillar of his stellar career.
Leaving his “beautiful blue chair” at Porto (“first God, and after God, me”) with a Champions League title to corroborate his cast-iron confidence was possible only thanks to a wrongfully disallowed Paul Scholes goal at Old Trafford. The British press then obliged the messianism by misinterpreting a remark he made about not being table wine (“I’m not one of the bottle, I think I am a special one” became The Special One™), whereafter he disrupted the Arsenal-United duopoly thanks in no small part to the unprecedented and exorbitant largesse of an owner enriched by the Yeltsin-Putin kleptocracy. Arriving at Inter Milan amid the nerazzurris’ post-Calciopoli hegemony, which made not winning the scudetto fairly difficult, the admittedly outstanding Champions League victory was due, in part, to a timely explosion of an Icelandic volcano disrupting European air travel. And so forth.
None of which is to say Mourinho isn’t an extraordinary coach—he is clearly a magnetic man-manager and expert communicator—only that mythology must exclude these inconvenient details.
But then, for José, it isn’t the job of words to accurately or faithfully reflect reality (even he didn’t believe his line about finishing second with United). Instead, words are to shape future events. They are performative, pragmatic. Words are tools to intervene in the physical realm of things, bodies, matter, the stuff that produces the reality later knocked into shape by narrative. Like player budgets and talent rosters.
The famously thrifty Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy was thus persuaded—in the middle of a pandemic and with a huge stadium debt to pay—to buy his trophy-guaranteeing manager-star two fullbacks (Matt Doherty, Sergio Reguilón) and a DM (Pierre-Emile Højbjerg), while also bringing in Gareth Bale and Carlos Vinícius on loan.
The result is a good squad, with depth and competence in all positions: They have a rapidly improving playmaker in Tanguy Ndombele, a World Cup–winning goalkeeper, and genuinely world-class strikers in Son Heung-min and Kane (the latter has bought into Mourinho-ball to the extent that he has played like a hybrid striker-playmaker who often acts as the deep-lying pivot point in Spurs’ counterattacks). Whether or not Kane’s public profile has expanded is a matter of debate.
Is this enough for a title challenge? In recent (or sans COVID-19) seasons, no. However, Liverpool and City’s preposterous points totals will not be repeated and 80 points or fewer might be enough to win the league. All of which represents a perfect storm for a squad that, in ordinary times, realistically, would consider top four a job well done.
Signs are that Mourinho is very much in Beast Mode, and absolutely believes Spurs have a chance—assuming neither Kane nor Son (who have scored 23 of Spurs’ 30 goals, by far the highest percentage for a top-half team’s top two goal scorers) suffer the long-term injuries that turned Mourinho’s mug into a squeezed lemon throughout All or Nothing.
Before the game at Anfield, he melodramatically named Liverpool’s likely starting XI as proof that they had only one big injury, Virgil van Dijk, and certainly no injury crisis (overlooking the bench full of youngsters). Again, though, this wasn’t an attempt to faithfully represent reality. It wasn’t even aimed at Liverpool. It was aimed at his own dressing room, designed to create a situation in which Spurs couldn’t lose. Playing the Champions, unbeaten in 65 Premier League games at home: If they win, it’s a heist; if they lose, the job of picking the players up is much easier.
“We are a good team that works hard,” he continued, “but Liverpool is the result of, if I’m not wrong, 1,894 days of work with Jürgen. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong for a few days. And we are the work of 390 days. But these 390 days are fake because lots of these days were not even days of work.”
This the José we want to hear, surfing and shaping the narrative. The season needs Mourinho at the sharp end of a title race: the scowling, the scheming, the shithousery, the sanctimony, the very much speaking-about-it.
Perhaps even more, though—especially for a character whose “dimension is universal,” like Othello or Hamlet or Gus Fring—the dramatic requirements of an end-of-season finale need him to unravel, spectacularly, in the final straight (not least for the pleasure of hearing Scousers pronounce schadenfreude). Because Mourinho actually winning it—with Spurs!—might be interesting for a few hours, but would be unbearable in the morning.
Scott Oliver is a British writer covering sports and the intersection of culture and politics. He has written for The Guardian, VICE, ESPN, i-D and New Statesman, among others.