When Jose Mourinho asks Daniel Levy for reinforcements to his Tottenham team this summer, he will be left disappointed. Instead of a reliable full-back, a resilient holding midfielder and a durable centre-half, he will leave Levy’s office with a set of a new training cones, a mousemat and, if he’s lucky, a protective cover for his iPad.
There’s no money, so Mourinho can forget about addressing any of his squad issues via the transfer market. It’s possible that he’ll be allowed to reinvest funds raised from any sales, but given the global situation and the doubts around some of the club’s more valuable assets, it’s difficult to see where any big fees might come from.
So, how will Mourinho react? Instinctively, with stamped feet and pouting, but what would really be the point? Much of that caricature was derived from the need for a performance – a made-for-the-cameras routine. Mourinho’s behaviour always has a purpose and, at previous clubs, its aim was to keep the money taps on and the elite players filing through the door. That’s not going to happen this time, no matter how much he complains.
Instead, he’s in the rare situation of knowing that what he has now is all he’ll get. He’ll also understand that if he is to reclaim his reputation in England, then he’ll have to be a success in spite of Tottenham’s limitations. He might be able to plug a few gaps with loans, swaps and a bit of bartering – my ageing defender for your one-paced ball-winner – but his future at White Hart Lane will depend on his ability to coach and to forge good personal relationships. A simple premise, but one he hasn’t embraced for a very long time now.
Potentially, it’s the basis for a fascinating third act in his career. The first stage was Porto, Chelsea and Inter – the ascension, when it was all innovation, new systems and man-management. The second was his Be Here Now era – Real Madrid, Chelsea and Manchester United – when he was just melodrama, paranoia and napalm, with an occasionally catchy chorus.
This time, events will play out on a smaller stage. Spurs are not a soap opera and nor do they provide much of a theatre for the usual pantomime. It’s a more controlled environment; it’s simpler and potentially more revealing.
Which is useful, because there’s always been a curiosity over whether the original Mourinho character was really gone for good or if, instead, it had just been consumed by some long-term, but still temporary mania. Can that person be recovered from his psychosis? If he can be, it’ll be now – at a club with which there isn’t an unending media fascination, or an attentive press gallery to entertain.
Spurs’ situation isn’t completely hopeless. In fact, it’s an oddly perfect context for Mourinho to prove himself: they’re talented enough not to require a miracle, but – at the same time – have been neglected to the extent that they need far more than just a fresh face in the technical area. They’re a substantial project requiring imaginative solutions.
Individually, there are many befuddling issues. Tanguy Ndombele is a riddle that nobody seems able to solve. Under different conditions, Mourinho might have already shrugged, directed the midfielder towards the youth team and spent heavily on a more formulaic alternative.
Ndombele has already provoked some familiar tactics, but there have lately been signs that Mourinho is prepared to make more effort than he otherwise would. The pair held their own private – and then not-so-private – training session during the lockdown and, for the moment at least, manager and player seem to have accepted an uneasy union.
They need each other. Ndombele isn’t joining Barcelona in this market and his reputation needs reinflating before that would ever become a possibility. And, unless Mourinho can show himself capable of handling complex players with vast potential, he may never be trusted at that level of the game again.
Few of the other situations are quite so complex but many combine the same themes. Key to reconfiguring the defence will be whether Mourinho can revive the form of Davinson Sanchez and do so in a way that protects the heavy legs of Toby Alderweireld. Does the answer involve a back three? Maybe with Ben Davies as an adapted centre-half and Ryan Sessegnon providing some desperately needed thrust from wing-back?
These are interesting questions for someone like Mourinho, who has lived and died by the transfer market for so long. This time, the conversation about his performance won’t depend on whether he’s able to buy an £80m player, but on whether he can coach different traits into imperfect players or cure long-term deficiencies which, for one reason or another, have become permanent states. The emphasis is on thinking rather than spending and on what he actually does rather than what he says.
There’s still value in Eric Dier, for instance, but just not in his current form. He needs to receive the ball better and rediscover all that was good about his distribution. Juan Foyth has some merits too, but they won’t be relevant without a significant reinvention or a change in position. Lucas Moura, Harry Winks, Dele Alli, Steven Bergwijn. There’s lot of ability at Spurs, it just doesn’t necessarily occur in the right positions or fit logically together.
Harry Kane. Son Heung-min. Giovani Lo Celso. This team can be much better than it is.
Most likely, no matter how many times the Rubik’s Cube is twisted and turned, it can never be properly solved. It’s a game for those with unlimited budgets and Tottenham don’t have one. But there’s still interest in seeing someone of Mourinho’s personality try to shift this needle. With all of his scheming diverted away from football’s macro issues – the transfers, the battles with chairmen and owners, the press conferences – and focused instead on the training pitches and the team, isn’t there at least the capacity for a clever trick or two?
Can Spurs become a sugar-in-the-gas-tank side, like the one he built at Inter Milan? Maybe they can become horribly cynical. Porto-esque, even – a team full of cheats, bastards and brilliant ball-players.
The transition towards that kind of change – just the attempt – feels like something the world has waited to see. It may not be a situation which will lead to any ultimate success, but it might answer the question of whether Mourinho still has a mind worth studying. After the years of bluster and subterfuge and the many, many complexes, can he reinvent himself as a compelling strategist?
For better or worse, with Tottenham’s need to improve from the inside out, this will be the situation that informs us.