José Mourinho Has Tottenham At The Top Of The Table. But Are Spurs For Real?

Leading a team to an English Football League Cup title, a Europa League title, a second-place finish in the Premier League (and therefore Champions League qualification) and an FA Cup final in a matter of 15 months would be the greatest stretch of their careers for most managers in the history of English soccer. But José Mourinho isn’t most managers, and this run of success from February 2017 to May 2018 wasn’t enough to keep him in a job at Manchester United.

A poor start to the 2018-19 season precipitated the end of the Mourinho era in Manchester, but it was an overall perception of failure — and a perception that United wasn’t playing the way United should play under the Portuguese maestro — that was the Special One’s ultimate undoing. United doesn’t react to the tactics of other teams, and United doesn’t do second place; United imposes its will on matches, and United wins Premier League titles. Or at least that’s how the story goes.

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It’s been nearly two years since Mourinho’s sacking. In that time, United has done precious little to convince anyone it’s on the precipice of domestic greatness, finishing more than 30 points behind the Premier League champions in each of the last two seasons. On the other hand, Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur currently sits atop the Premier League table, level on points with defending champion Liverpool but ahead on goal differential.

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When Mourinho took over for Mauricio Pochettino in November 2019, Spurs sat in 14th position on the table, having won just three of their first 12 matches of the season. Through Matchweek 19, Spurs had climbed to sixth position and appeared to be legitimate contenders for Champions League qualification.

There’s a moment in Amazon’s recent fly-on-the-wall documentary series about Tottenham’s 2019-20 season when Mourinho tells his players to stop being “nice” on the pitch and start being something we absolutely cannot print here. The Lilywhites’ excellent form over the first six weeks of his tenure suggested Mourinho’s, um, direct approach was effective, but that early success was short-lived. Spurs sputtered around the holidays, going winless in four matches between Dec. 28 and Jan. 18 and dropping to eighth position on the table, 8 points adrift of the last Champion League. Another four-match winless streak from Feb. 22 to June 19 — spread across four months because of the pandemic — all but torpedoed Tottenham’s Champions League dreams.

Spurs went 13-6-7 under Mourinho’s stewardship during the 2019-20 season. Not great, but not terrible. Enough for Europa League qualification, but not enough for a spot in club soccer’s elite competition. Inconsistency, injuries to key players — both Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, Tottenham’s two best players, missed time after Mourinho took the helm…

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