Charlie Eccleshare and more
Apr 19, 2022
For football managers, their time at a club is often framed by what happens after they leave.
Did the team’s struggles continue and reveal that perhaps the now-replaced manager wasn’t the problem? Did their improvement expose the manager’s limitations? Was their subsequent collapse indicative of a legacy that wasn’t sustainable?
With that in mind, how do we look back at Jose Mourinho’s time at Tottenham Hotspur a year on from his sacking?
On the face of it, Spurs’ general good form and revitalisation under current coach Antonio Conte suggest that the allegations of stagnation and aggravation were well-founded.
But only a couple of months ago, after Conte’s meltdown following a 1-0 defeat at strugglers Burnley (which came four days after a 3-2 victory at champions and leaders Manchester City), it appeared he was suffering in a similar way to Mourinho, and that many of the Portuguese’s reservations and complaints about the current Spurs operation were being proven correct; the lack of winning mentality, too few leaders in the squad, the suggestion that the players seemed to either complain that training was too hard or too soft.
Conte though appears to have overcome some of his frustrations in a way Mourinho never quite could — save for that brief spell towards the end of 2020 that included wins over City and Arsenal and a point away to Chelsea — and, in so doing, has reinforced the notion that his predecessor was part of the problem rather than a victim of circumstance.
Though it’s possible the reality is somewhere in between.
Mourinho’s reign ended badly but he’d argue there were mitigating circumstances (Photo: Alex Pantling/Getty Images)
A year on then, how can we measure Mourinho’s legacy and assess, with a bit of distance, his time at Tottenham?
The answer lies in a combination of the anecdotal, less quantifiable areas such as contentment behind the scenes, and the more empirical — what the data shows about Spurs’ results and style of play then compared to now.
Starting with the former, the mood has certainly improved substantially from those dark days last April when, in that grim, locked-down world, morale at the club reached what felt like an all-time low.
With the latter, it’s interesting to discover that, stylistically, Tottenham aren’t all that different now from under Mourinho; they are just a lot better at that kind of football. Perceptions around the style of play were a major reason why supporters turned against Mourinho, and surely contributed to chairman Daniel Levy speaking a month after sacking him about Spurs “losing sight of what’s truly in our DNA” and of finding a replacement who would play “free-flowing, attacking and entertaining” football.
But herein lies one of the important things about Mourinho, and especially his time at Spurs. It’s not necessarily that his tactics are outdated, more that his methods when it comes to elements like fitness and man-management are considered to be out of step with the modern game. The players’ fitness levels certainly have been transformed under Conte.
Beginning with the stylistic and results-based elements, we can see some big changes and improvements from Tottenham in recent months compared to when Mourinho was in charge.
The graphic below shows their expected goal difference over time (so, accounting for the quality of chances created and conceded).
There were some good patches under Mourinho but it was generally pretty up and down. This was also the case in the brief Ryan Mason and Nuno Espirito Santo periods at the end of last season and the beginning of the current one.
But since Conte’s appointment in November, there has been a notably higher xG difference, which shows that they are consistently outperforming their opponents with chances at both ends. Overall performances at both ends under the Italian have hit levels higher than the whole of the Mourinho era — driven by a potent attack.
Our next graphic supports this:
It’s also interesting to note Mourinho’s Spurs dropped 27 Premier League points from winning positions in his 58 matches. That’s down to just five in 32 matches this season with Nuno and Conte and supports the accusation that his version of Tottenham were often guilty of sitting back on leads, surrendering the initiative and paying the price. Appropriately enough, Mourinho’s final five league matches saw 10 points dropped from winning positions. During that run, Spurs also exited the Europa League to Dinamo Zagreb, throwing away a 2-0 lead from the first leg at home.
Relatively speaking though, Mourinho’s points per game (1.6) at Spurs is not bad. It puts his Tottenham team level with Chelsea and Leicester in fourth position across those 58 matches in charge. Conte’s 1.9, incidentally, is the joint-third best in the Premier League since he took over.
Stylistically, there are several different metrics we can use to get a sense of how Spurs differed then compared to now.
Their passes per defensive action (PPDA), which is used as a proxy for pressing intensity, has decreased under Conte. This doesn’t necessarily mean Tottenham are running less as a side now, they’re just making fewer defensive actions per pass made by the opposition.
Where Spurs are more intense under Conte, compared to Mourinho, is in the way they spring forward when they attack.
Their direct attacks (possessions that start in a team’s own half and result in a shot or touch inside the opposition’s penalty area within 15 seconds) leapt up when Conte was first appointed, and although it has come down since (see graphic below) it’s still higher than it was for the majority of the Mourinho era.
Both managers set the team up to be able to break quickly in transitions, but they are doing so with more efficiency under Conte, given how much more often these moves are ending in a shot/touch in the box.
That efficiency is also shown in their percentage of possessions that end in a shot — 10 per cent under Mourinho and currently 13 per cent under Conte, which is a very healthy return. For context, the average for last season and this for Premier League teams in this metric is 11 per cent.
The theme of Tottenham not changing a huge amount stylistically from Mourinho to Conte is borne out by the next chart, though it’s interesting to see that, as the eye-test suggests, they were playing more long balls under the former.
By way of explanation of the above, field tilt is a good proxy of territorial dominance for a team — it looks at the share of passes only in each of the respective attacking thirds. The fact both are below 50 per cent suggests Spurs allow their opponents more touches in their own third, and when they do attack it’s often with efficiency rather than camping out in the other team’s half and pinning them back.
“Direct speed” shows how quickly a team typically advance the ball towards goal (in metres per second — m/s), with a higher number indicating a team who are more willing to get the ball forward quickly. The average Premier League direct speed in the past three seasons has been about 1.4 m/s, so Spurs are just below average in that regard, demonstrating that they generally haven’t been going front to back that quickly, whoever has been in the technical area.
But as the direct attack numbers showed, so far under Conte, they are more likely to get the ball into an area to shoot or get into the box when they move forward. This, coupled with the lower pressing intensity (as shown by the PPDA numbers) suggests Tottenham have more cohesion to get into shape rather than going gung-ho, before springing forward when the opportunity arises.
Looking at the types of passes Spurs are playing now, compared to under Mourinho, our next graphic shows the passing groups of a team that are most distinctive to them, compared to the rest of the Premier League.
As the above shows, the lateral passes between the half-space and the wing on the right are a Tottenham signature this season. In 2020-21 under Mourinho, the vast majority of their most distinctive pass types were either in their own half or, if they were in opposition territory, backwards.
To help our understanding of how a team attack, we can also look at possession value, which is very similar to expected threat. It calculates the average probability that a team with the ball in a certain part of the pitch will go on to score.
Looking at graphics for this season and last, we can see that Spurs are now playing more high-value passes from the wings and the half-spaces, not just trying to go through the middle.
As well as the comparative results and style of play, a big area that merits discussion is the present mood at the club.
This is surely where there has been the biggest shift in the past year. It’s been a rocky road to get here, but the picture now is far more harmonious than it was at the end of the Mourinho era, even with the disappointment of losing at home to Brighton on Saturday.
Last April, tensions were running very high, with Mourinho feeling frustrated by a number of his players and vice versa. Earlier this month Matt Doherty, whose confidence took a major hit under the Portuguese, recalled not even making the squad for the mid-March game at Aston Villa and, because of COVID-19 regulations, having to wait on the team bus rather than enter the changing room before the game. “There were kids, and that’s no disrespect to kids, on the bench,” he said. “(Mourinho) was trying to prove a point to everybody, not just for me but for the players who weren’t there either. But it was not fun.”
But it wasn’t just the tensions between Mourinho and the likes of Dele Alli, Gareth Bale and Tanguy Ndombele that clouded the mood at this time.
Part of the frustration that players and staff had were over his training methods, which they felt left the team underprepared and not fit enough.
As had been the case at previous club Manchester United, Mourinho was not big on using GPS monitors in training and his low-intensity sessions left the players feeling undercooked for matches. Some of them were genuinely worried about losing their sharpness, and there were those at the club who were dismayed that they had gone from one of the fittest teams in the league under Mourinho’s predecessor Mauricio Pochettino to one of the least fit in less than 18 months. One of the biggest transformations under Conte from a year ago is restoring Spurs’ players — take Harry Kane, for example — to their physical peaks and making them once again one of the fittest sides in the Premier League.
This is true also of how Conte has reintroduced detailed patterns of play. One of their frequent complaints this time a year ago was that this was largely absent from Mourinho’s training, leaving some of the players deeply disillusioned (a sentiment they stand by).
A common misconception about Mourinho is that he is overly strict. The reality is that he is regarded by his detractors as being too laissez-faire — believing that he shouldn’t have to spoon-feed the players, that they are elite professionals who shouldn’t need constant instructions about how to keep themselves fit and how to manage every possible in-game situation.
This may seem out of step with the micro-management of modern coaching, but it’s worth remembering many have sympathised with Mourinho’s view that the players at Tottenham seemed to either think training was too intense (under Pochettino) or not intense enough (under him and Nuno). Though the fact that the players are now responding well to and enjoying Conte’s high-energy, extremely demanding training sessions suggests there is a correct balance to be struck.
Mourinho’s view that the squad lacked leaders was also shared by some of the players, including Kane — who remained loyal to him until the end and was very vocal in his support during that famous interview with Gary Neville the month after his sacking. “Jose obviously expected us to be men and act like men on the pitch, have leaders on the pitch,” Kane said.
Spurs were briefly top of the table under Mourinho (Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)
“To be honest, that’s probably where it didn’t quite work out with Jose — we didn’t quite have enough leadership that we needed at the time.
“I had a great relationship with him. We got on from minute one. I think we understood each other, we had a similar mentality and how we saw stuff on the pitch, off the pitch and mentality in training so we kind of built that relationship.”
One theory that has emerged in the year since Mourinho’s departure is that part of his struggles was down to his choice of backroom staff. Goalkeeping coach Nuno Santos and fitness coach Carlos Lalin were never especially well regarded at the club, while, as The Athletic reported at the time, Mourinho’s assistant Joao Sacramento was generally unpopular with the squad.
Another view of Sacramento is that while he was a great analyst, and understands football and how to run a good training drill, he couldn’t put all that into practice at Spurs because he struggled to connect with the players on a personal level. This was despite him being close to them in age, only in his early 30s, and therefore thought to have more chance of developing a rapport with the squad. This could be something he develops as he gains more experience, and it may have been a question of chemistry with that group of players. Sacramento joined Roma with Mourinho last summer but left the Italian club in January.
It was also felt that whereas Pochettino’s assistant Jesus Perez had been adept at balancing out the manager and being warm and receptive if the boss was in a bad mood and vice versa, Sacramento wanted to stamp his authority and tried to mirror how Mourinho was feeling. This created a situation whereby Spurs could have not one but two angry coaches to deal with on a given day.
The situation wasn’t helped when Mourinho’s tactical analyst Ricardo Formosinho left at the end of the 2019-20 season. Ledley King, a hero and fan favourite from his playing days with the club, came in and was popular with the players, but there were times when Mourinho and his staff would be talking in Portuguese and he’d be a little isolated. Mourinho himself could be volatile and divisive but many of his colleagues appreciated his good humour and personable man-management.
In general, there was thought to be a lack of experience within Mourinho’s staff, and perhaps he would have benefitted from a Rui Faria-type figure.
At Spurs now, there is a real appreciation among the players for Conte’s staff, most of whom are stacked with experience and have been working with the head coach for some time. Gian Piero Ventrone, the demanding fitness coach known as The Marine, has been around long enough that he worked with Conte the player for the all-conquering Juventus team of the mid-1990s. The squad are enjoying working with such established figures, and in general they have responded well to the passion and drive of Conte and his assistants.
But again, it would be unfair to suggest it’s been a simple case of, with Mourinho’s departure, everything has gone from darkness to sweetness and light.
Indeed, part of the improvement in the last year or so has come about because of changes he had demanded.
Mourinho always felt that the mentality of the players simply wasn’t strong enough to make his time at Spurs a success, and this is something Conte has spoken about too. When the latter seemed to be having a blow-up every week at the start of the year and said in February that “The players have to be angry, the same way that I am angry”, it could easily have been Mourinho speaking.
Likewise, Conte’s response at the same press conference to a question asking if he had been mis-sold the job: “Maybe in my heart, mind and head, I thought to find a situation… not better but more ready to fight and to win. And instead, now I found a situation where we have to work.”
Mourinho also wanted to move on several players who have since departed. He didn’t think Moussa Sissoko, Serge Aurier, Dele and Ndombele were conducive to developing the kind of mentality he wanted, and to be fair, neither did his successors. It’s worth making the point as well that Ndombele’s best period at the club came under Mourinho, when he actually seemed to respond well to the head coach’s tough love — even if many at Tottenham felt Mourinho’s ‘confrontational leadership’ didn’t really work with the current generation of players.
Bale was another player he didn’t feel he could pick regularly based on his performances in training. It’s a view that has been shared by Carlo Ancelotti at Real Madrid this season now the Welshman is back from his loan in north London; even if the vast majority of Spurs supporters feel Mourinho wasted Bale, who could point to how strongly he finished last season under Mason as evidence that he was under-used.
Bale also ties in to the wider issue of the summer transfer window (the only one of Mourinho’s Spurs tenure) in 2020, when he felt the priority should have been signing an established centre-back, that he was well-stocked in the forward area and didn’t especially need the former Spurs star. Tottenham have since overhauled their recruitment department and their biggest and most successful signing last summer has proved to be Cristian Romero — the kind of rugged defender Mourinho was desperate for.
There are, of course, parallels here with Mourinho’s view of events from his two and a half seasons at Manchester United. The failure to sign him a centre-back in his final summer at Old Trafford has been a frustration for him ever since his sacking in December 2018, while for his view of Bale, we can more or less substitute the name Paul Pogba.
For Mourinho’s detractors, these recurring issues can be held up as evidence of the fact that, given the same situations keep repeating themselves at different clubs, surely he is the problem rather than those he has issues with?
The alternative view is that many think he was right about several issues at United, and so his opinions about what went wrong at Spurs shouldn’t be totally dismissed.
One suggestion that has been made is that the players buckled last season at the first sign of trouble — the agonising 2-1 loss away to Liverpool in mid-December that saw them lose top spot and precipitated a run of four defeats in their next eight league matches which caused them to plummet down the table until, two months to the day after going to Anfield as league leaders, they were eighth.
Though again, usually, the responsibility for this sort of fragility stops with the man in charge. Mourinho wanted to move on players such as Dele Alli (Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Ultimately, we return to the initial hypothesis: that a manager’s tenure is partly defined by what happens after he leaves.
Were we discussing this during the brief Nuno interregnum over the first three months of this season or up until things started to click for Conte last month, our framing of Mourinho’s 17 months at Spurs might be very different. There might be more sympathy for his explanation as to why things fell apart.
By the same token, our view of Mourinho at Tottenham could drastically change depending on what happens in the next year or so. At Tottenham, but also at Roma or wherever Mourinho ends up.
As it stands, his first season in Rome has been pockmarked with some of the same issues as his time in north London and Manchester. Temper tantrums, rows, some catastrophic defeats — alongside some good results and, at the moment, a respectable fifth place in Serie A.
Mourinho remains very popular at Roma, and in Italy more generally, having steered Inter Milan to the title in 2009 and the treble a year later. Roma are also into the semi-finals of the new Europa Conference League, meaning he could continue his run of, with one exception, winning a trophy at every club he’s worked for since leaving Uniao de Leiria in his homeland for Porto 20 years ago.
That only exception, of course, are Tottenham — evidence to the Mourinhoistas that they, rather than he, were the problem, especially since he was eventually sacked less than a week before their first domestic final in six years.
Mourinho’s appointment clearly failed, but it did make some sense at the time. Spurs were in a very different place from where they had been when they appointed Pochettino five years earlier, and an equivalent figure — someone such as Eddie Howe — would not have been well received by the club’s fanbase or have had the necessary clout for how much bigger the club and the job had become.
Another theory is that Levy was enticed by appointing such a big name who had previously turned down the job and appeared out of Tottenham’s league. To be fair, the idea that Mourinho’s famed winning mentality would drive a team who had come so close to lifting silverware with Pochettino over the line was shared by many at the time.
In the end, it proved to be a disaster, and to get a sense of where Mourinho’s relationship is with Spurs a year on, there is probably not a single person associated with him or Tottenham who would swap what they have now with 12 months ago.
For all parties, it still feels a bit like a bad dream.
Other contributors: Jack Pitt-Brooke and Mark Carey