Ah, José, it’s good to have you back. It’s been too long since we saw this version of José Mourinho, and in that decade or so it had become increasingly hard to remember exactly what we ever saw in him. How had this sourpuss with the ideological aversion to possession ever charmed us? What on earth was it about this grouch who kept demanding “respect” and his almost unwatchable teams that had made his arrival in the Premier League in 2004 seem such a vital event in the history of football in England?
But over the past couple of months, something like the old José has re-emerged. He has become funny again. No sentence he utters can be ignored in case it is building to an unseen barb. His adoption of Instagram may just be very weird, but there has been just enough of a twinkle to suggest a deadpan archness to what would otherwise be curiously well-constructed shots of overwhelming banality.
On Thursday, for instance, admitting Harry Winks hadn’t meant that chip from 50 yards against Ludogorets, he then added: “If it was me, I would have said I did mean it and won the Puskas award.” It’s not a line that’s going to win him a comedy prize, but the self-deprecation laced with self-awareness is attractive. He’s almost visibly having fun.
It may simply be that Mourinho feels more relaxed, having finally left that Manchester hotel room. More likely, it is that he is now at a club more appropriate to his style. You can play the rebel at Porto, gesturing vaguely at the power of Lisbon. You can play the rebel at Chelsea, with only one league title in their history when he arrived. You can even play the rebel at Internazionale, especially in the wake of Calciopoli, and claim that everything is stacked in favour of Juventus. But you can’t do it at Real Madrid or Manchester United.
It is not that the claims of institutional bias sound preposterous when you are the wealthiest and most successful club in the country – Alex Ferguson didn’t have a problem with that line of attack. It is that fans, players, directors and the media have certain expectations. United and Madrid cannot be the scrappy little club who win by cunning and preventing the Goliath from playing.
They are giants and the only way they can win with honour is to use their vast resources to produce football that is somehow transcendent, that can be admired by those who are not fans; otherwise it’ is just big man beats smaller man, which may be the way of the world but does little to satisfy sport’s demand for narrative romance.
But Tottenham have not won a trophy since 2008. They have not won the league since 1961. They may have the best-appointed stadium in London, but at Spurs, Mourinho is allowed to go round cheerily picking the pockets of the big clubs. He can beat Manchester City with 34% possession and four shots to 22 and nobody worries whether this is living up to some past and probably mythic golden age; if anything, they revel in the audaciousness of the scam. You can be the Artful Dodger so long as your marks are considerably richer than you. Do it when you have the world’s most expensive midfielder in your gang and it looks a little tasteless.
But the biggest factor is probably external. Football this season is not the same as it was. The game had changed from Mourinho’s heyday. Coaches such as Jürgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and Ralph Hasenhüttl relentlessly analyse opponents and set traps with their pressing. They carefully construct attacks. Mourinho has been openly sceptical of the approach, believing what is important is to instil the right mindset in his players so they make the right decisions when they improvise. He eschews the radical press as well, to the extent that recently his sides have regularly been running less than any other top-half side. When more successful teams share certain characteristics and Mourinho rejects their methods, it is not unreasonable to wonder whether the game has passed him by.
But football does not progress in a linear way. Evolution can move backwards as well as forwards. With the truncated pre-season and rat-a-tat of two fixtures a week, the complex planning favoured by that modern breed of coaches has become more difficult, which in part explains the wildness of some results in the opening months of the season. The response has been for teams, by and large, to retreat to a more basic approach, as seen most obviously in the nonevent of Manchester United’s 0-0 draw at home to Chelsea, when both sides essentially sat in their own halves and watched each other.
Football has retreated to something less complex and less cohesive and that, allied to the sense of fatigue that hangs around everybody, makes this season more of a test of will than it has been for years. And that suits Mourinho. This is his football again. In a world of attrition, he who digs the best trenches should prevail.
It is not just, though, about the defence. Mourinho also has a lethal counterattacking weapon in the relationship between Harry Kane and Son Heung-min. The extent to which Mourinho takes direct credit for Kane’s new habit of dropping deep to feed runners who go beyond him is not clear – that he tried to give some of the credit to Mauricio Pochettino felt suspicious, but it is possible it was actual magnanimity rather some complex mind-game of as yet undetermined intent. But at the very least, Mourinho is pragmatically allowing it to flourish under him, while yoking it to a defence that has offered up a league low of nine goals conceded in nine games this season.
Mourinho lost both league games against Frank Lampard’s Chelsea last season, so Sunday’s meeting will be a serious test of just how realistic is talk of a Premier League title challenge is. But for now, amid the blasted landscape of 2020-21, Mourinho looks to be enjoying himself – and for the rest of the top flight that is a dangerous sign.