Pochettino’s precious work wasted on Levy’s lust for Gollum

Date published: Wednesday 20th November 2019 3:41

Imagine being the kind of person who kept a life-size, cardboard cutout of themselves in their office.

There are probably people like that in the city. Wideboy types who refer to themselves in the third person, wear red trousers and suspenders, and spend all day trying to create their own Wikipedia entry.

Jose Mourinho? Jose Mourinho habitually keeps two cardboard cutouts of himself, apparently. Our witness for that is Diego Torres, so perhaps don’t take it to court, but he described the Portuguese’s Real Madrid office as a shrine, decorated with Mourinho’s offerings to his own ego and little tributes to Jorge Mendes.

So that’s the kind of personality that Daniel Levy has allowed – invited – into Tottenham’s building.

Levy has always been fascinated by Mourinho. He first tried to appoint him in 2007. Spurs were a very different club back then, so it was no surprise that he was unsuccessful. But, given the speed with which this deal was done, it’s clear that Mauricio Pochettino’s successor was drawn from a very short list.

So Levy has been carrying a torch all this time, which, because of how Mourinho’s career has sputtered and stuttered over the past decade, is concerning. Does he still think he’s getting the man who built that phenomenal first Chelsea side? The coach who made Porto European champions and broke through the dysfunction at Inter Milan to repeat the achievement?

Unfortunately, there is no such person. This needn’t be quite as binary as Sick Boy’s theory of life, but Mourinho’s career can still be separated into two opposing acts. The first, in which he rises to the top of the sport and sets a new managerial standard. And the second, during which he rages against the dying of his own light, furious at the game for allowing him to age and become redundant.

The irony, of course, is that if Tottenham fans were waking up in 2007, they would be excited this morning. They could just about trick themselves into believing that Mourinho was someone who could finish Mauricio Pochettino’s work. That version might have the mind, the mentality and – ultimately – the cynicism required to start filling the trophy cabinet.

But those days are gone. Whether that original Mourinho character still exists is another matter, but it’s baffling that Levy can conclude – on the evidence of what happened at Manchester United, Chelsea or Real Madrid – that this is his man, that this is logically the next step for his club. The contradictions are everywhere; they’re harder not to notice.

Tottenham have spent a fortune on improving their technical infrastructure and academy facilities. But Mourinho couldn’t be less interested in developing homegrown players.

Levy is notoriously frugal in the transfer market and loyal to his own wage structure. Yet Mourinho demands full backing at all times and has a habit of sulking in front of the press when he doesn’t get it.

But perhaps the most troubling disconnect is also the most subtle one. This squad’s greatest strength has been its culture in the past. What Pochettino demonstrated during his time at the club is that players like Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Harry Winks and Son Heung-min responded best to a calm atmosphere, in which inter-personal relationships were incubated.

And that is definitively not how Mourinho works. He is David Peace’s fictionalised Brian Clough in The Damned United. He makes enemies wherever he goes. When he runs out of people to antagonise, he constructs new adversaries in his mind. The Mourinho who first showed up in England was charismatic and handsome. Ruthless, certainly, but equipped with the kind of wicked smile and self-confidence which engendered a cult popularity. He was a villain at Chelsea, but they still loved him for it.

But now he is Peace’s Clough – or even Tolkien’s Gollum.

It’s a given also that, having been appointed, the clock is already ticking towards Mourinho’s departure. In the beginning, this will look like a smart decision. Tottenham will get better (because they can’t get worse), they will start to defend to a higher standard and, when the season ends, everyone will be broadly optimistic about what lies ahead.

And the second season, in which many of those same themes will continue. The difficulties will have begun by then. It will start as a strange mood in a press conference, perhaps as a gesture on the touchline, and then flare into full subordination over time. An FA or League Cup might be offered up as a distraction, but the course will be set by then and those would just be parting gifts.

And then, finally, the next statement will arrive, in which the club announce that they’ve had to rip him out like a disease.

The question for Levy is what happens after that? What happens when, like night following day, Mourinho flames out of the club in March 2021? He’ll leave scorched earth and smouldering wreckage at the end of the High Road, of course, but also a squad built to serve his purposes alone which, on his departure, will then have to be refitted at enormous cost.

Pochettino used to speak of Tottenham doing things in a different way and while he remained in charge that was easy to believe. To compete against clubs with more wealth, he insisted, they were going to have to be original and to tap resources which were harder to come by: continuity, team spirit.

He was never going to remain in that job forever, but his performance demonstrated the value of having such a plan and – by implication – of retaining as much of its essence as possible, even after he’d gone. So there was comfort in that strategy, even it was just a vague theory. People understood it, people accepted it as part of this team’s identity.

What Tottenham have done instead, is ignore everything they’ve learnt over the past five years. They’ve driven back to where they started this journey from and thrown away the map. As has always been Levy’s habit, he has used a head coach’s departure to ideologically overreact. As he did with Jol. As he did with Redknapp. As he did with Villas-Boas. Instead of identifying what worked and performing a renovation, he has packed the dynamite around the building’s foundations, pressed the lever down and reduced everything to rubble.

Philosophically, Tottenham are nowhere. Again.

Seb Stafford-Bloor is on Twitter

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