So, Jose Mourinho is back in English football. This time as the new manager of Tottenham Hotspurs, taking over within a day of Mauricio Pochettino getting sacked. Just as he had quickly succeeded Louis van Gaal at Manchester United.
In his first official statement, Mourinho promised the fans: “passion, real passion. Passion for my club, that’s the way that I’ve been all my career, and I want to try, obviously, everything to bring happiness to everyone who loves the club.”
“I couldn’t be happier and if I was not as happy as I am, I wouldn’t be here.”
— Tottenham Hotspur (@SpursOfficial) November 20, 2019
By now, everyone knows what the Mourinho (usually three-year) cycle at a club looks like. Things start off well. He creates a siege mentality at the club that unifies both the fans and players. He antagonizes members of the press and managerial colleagues, sometimes referees. The team overachieves because of his tactical ability and us-against-the-world attitude. Then the attitude wears on the players, and Mourinho is eventually sacked after a falling out with both the team and the management. The whole process is its own particular, exhilarating and exhausting cycle within a sport that is already emotionally draining.
Unless Mourinho has changed dramatically in his time away from management, Spurs are sure to experience all the highs and lows of the man in the next few years. Given that, the interesting question to me, a person who loves chaos, isn’t how the team will handle the Mourinho experience, but what would be the most fun way for his tenure with Spurs to end?
The way I see it, it has to start from something small and petty, which then escalates into a full-on explosion, embarrassing both the manager and the club. It should feel like the contents of a fever dream in retrospect. The most perfect possible version of events is one where Mourinho has a falling out with fan and club favorite Son Heung-min, which then leads to the collapse of his project.
Mourinho’s first season is going well. He has Tottenham playing better than it did in the last days of Pochettino’s reign. The players seem reinvigorated. Harry Kane is scoring, and miraculously can run again (Mourinho can even fix shattered ankles!). Tanguy Ndombele is excelling and showing his world class qualities. The defense is uncompromising and compact. Spurs don’t concede goals, and win games with such energy and intensity that fans who were skeptical of Mourinho begin to fall in love with him. They finish the season well, and the next season seems promising.
The next preseason goes well and the team starts its campaign in great form. Everyone is happy. Mourinho is insulting referees and other managers, and the fans repost the clips all over social media, cheering on their manager. Then a small report comes up one day, maybe right before a Champions League game, that Son was late to training. The reason doesn’t matter. It was an accident, and Son apologizes.
Although Mourinho accepts the apology, he drops Son to the bench for the match. Of course, he and his supporters defend the decision by saying it was tactical, and because Son does sometimes come off the bench, that justification will be seen as a valid. But then the next match, Son once again doesn’t play. With the team struggling and needing help scoring goals, the striker doesn’t even make a substitute appearance. Still, there’s not too much concern. Mourinho makes a great case of believing in the players who were on the field. It seems sensible.
A few matches pass in which Son never plays more than 10 minutes if he steps onto the field at all. The team’s form begins to decline. Kane and Dele Alli struggle. Son continues not to play. It becomes clear to everyone that there’s something more to this tension than simply tactics. Reports are released, citing anonymous sources, that there’s a power struggle between Son and Mourinho. This perplexes fans and the media alike. How could this be? Son is one of the loveliest human beings. It’s unimaginable he would struggle against Mourinho for power.
This confusion will be valid. Son’s problem won’t be that he’s against Mourinho, but that he is the most prominent player who doesn’t buy into the cult of the manager. Mourinho will want everyone to be entirely loyal to him, and Son, wanting to do his best but believing that it’s bizarre to play each game as if it is a battle, will retain his independence. He wants to be happy and enjoy his football, and Mourinho will disdain him for that.
The results continue to disappoint. The fans begin chanting for Son during matches, and Mourinho starts to get annoyed at questions about the player in the pre- and post-match conferences. Now he refuses to even put Son on the bench, blaming a mysterious injury. Son, bewildered by the whole saga, casually refutes the injury claims through a small publication, which then infuriates Mourinho even more. The season ends with the team in a worse position than the year before.
The next season, the manager asks the club to sell Son and use the money to reinvest in the squad. The club refuses, because Son is still talented and valued at the club. Mourinho sees this as the club choosing the player over him. The club buys some players but they don’t satisfy the manager, who is still unhappy about Son remaining on the team and the fact the club didn’t buy all the players he requested. He begins to make public statements of his displeasure. The results worsen. Fans begin protesting loudly in the stadiums. Mourinho calls them ungrateful and defends his honor by pointing to his achievements.
Suddenly, he plays Son again in an effort to win support during the hard times. Son, because he hasn’t played in a long time, doesn’t do well. Mourinho mocks the player and everyone who called for his inclusion after another loss. Son requests a transfer before the window closes, and the club reluctantly obliges.
Son leaves thanking everyone but Mourinho. The other players are hurt by the departure and turn on the manager. They start playing badly on purpose to sabotage him. The manager begins to publicly chide his own players. The fanbase divides itself into those who support Mourinho and those who don’t. The fighting becomes so unbearable that the “One Club” song from years ago seems endearing by comparison. The results continue to be negative, and now the lifeless and pragmatic style of play becomes indefensible.
It won’t end with a bang, but there will certainly be a great Mourinho press conference in which he exalts himself while pointing out that, before him, the club has never had a true winner at the helm. He will put his trophy record against that of Spurs. He will mock the fans for not knowing how to support someone of his caliber because they have never had anyone like him. He will criticize Daniel Levy for being cheap. And eventually, his antics will become so unbearable that the club will have no choice but to put an end to his reign. Then he will leave with a wonderful severance package.
A few months later, an in-depth interview with Son will reveal the pettiness of Mourinho through their difficulties, and make it clear that the manager was trying to make an example of the player. Son’s words will be filled with regret. That regret will make fans even more angry at how he was pushed out of the club. Tottenham will spend the next few years going from one manager to another, trying to undo the damage done by Mourinho’s time there. And then Mourinho will be back on TV, giving great and nuanced match analysis, while casually mocking the stature of the club he was just fired from, joking that he had done them a favor by taking on the job.
Then he will spend the next few months advertising himself for a new job, and one day another masochistic club will inevitably offer him incredible amounts of money for the bittersweet experience. And he’ll take the job, with a promise of “passion, real passion.”