Sometimes relationships are as much a matter of timing as romantic destiny. And maybe that is how it is for Jose Mourinho and Tottenham.
You can imagine the lonely hearts ad: Super-talented but ultimately brittle football squad seeks experienced and serious man to help them achieve life ambition.
Mourinho does not seem a natural candidate for the aesthetic ambitions of the club forged by the push-and-run philosophy of Bill Nicholson.
Bill Nicholson (middle of the top row) led Tottenham Hotspur to their last league title in 1961
Jose Mourinho could take Spurs back to the Premier League summit against ex-club Chelsea
And the team whose name has become an adjective to indicate footballing fragility — ‘Spursy’ — look an unlikely fit for a serial winner who despises vulnerability and cherishes solidity. But maybe they just needed each other right now.
Perhaps these players at this point in their careers are receptive to the relentless focus on results over and above style? And maybe Mourinho just needed to be loved and respected again?
‘There’s a spring in his step and a sparkle in his eyes,’ says one training ground source. ‘It’s like he has his mojo back.’
‘I think he’s happy being back in London, being with his family,’ said a separate source. ‘It couldn’t have been easy to be in a hotel in Manchester. But he seems satisfied here. I think the club have embraced him, whereas at United, there were always people who resented him being there.’
In those opening weeks of his appointment, he went out of his way to embrace staff and get to know individual names. A point often missed amid the caricature of aggressive, sulky Mourinho is that he has extraordinary charm when necessary.
But it is not as if he has changed his ways. Tanguy Ndombele and Dele Alli will testify that the same cold focus on trophies can see players brutally discarded. Yet Ndombele’s appearances this season suggest that there is a path to redemption.
‘He’s ruthless,’ said Eric Dier, recently. ‘I’m 26 now and I need to be ruthless in my performances too. When you are younger it’s a bit different, but I enjoy the way he man-manages. He’s very honest, very direct, even if you don’t like it, and I like to have that clarity.’
Hugo Lloris laughed, a little embarrassed, when reminded that the recent Amazon Prime documentary was punctuated with regular reminders from Mourinho that he wanted the team to be ‘a bunch of c****’.
Tanguy Ndombele has thrived under Mourinho this term after a poor first season in England
Lloris, captain and World Cup winner with France, is about as far from being that as can be imagined. But, eight years at Tottenham, constantly answering questions about when a trophy will come, can make a man receptive to Mourinho’s ways.
‘It doesn’t mean outside the field you are not a good guy,’ said Lloris. ‘You can be a good guy outside the field, but when you are on the field you have to do everything. And everything means also having this personality to be naughty, to get the winning taste.
‘You have to know how to win in the ugly way. And that kind of win makes you even stronger. Because you know how to win on a bad day.’
Talking to Harry Kane earlier this month, the trophy issues clearly dominate his mindset at the age of 27. A generation, such as Lloris, Dier, Toby Alderweireld, Erik Lamela and Son Heung-min, have grown up with him and were the heart of Maricio Pochettino’s team.
England international Eric Dier appreciates his ‘very direct’ manager’s clear communication
‘There’s a lot of us in this squad who have been here for a period of time and haven’t won anything, so we’re always as hungry as ever,’ said Kane. ‘We all know that it takes an awful lot to get over the line and we just need to find a way of doing it.
‘It’s not as easy as just having a good squad and winning a few games to challenge for the title.’
It is not as if it was plain sailing from the moment Mourinho arrived just over a year ago. One source who has watched the process from inside says: ‘It was always going to take some time to adapt after Pochettino left because he had five years with those players.
‘But the same players are buying into Jose because he’s a winner. And that’s what they want at this stage of their careers.’
Not everyone is happy. There were some grumbles about the Amazon documentary, which was dubbed ‘Jose goes to Hollywood’ at the training ground, such was the relentless focus on the manager. But that was a decision of the documentary team, not Mourinho.
Harry Kane is hungry for silverware at his boyhood club and has improved under Mourinho
‘The vast majority are happy at present and the spirit is there,’ says a training ground source.
It seemed evident last week in the cricket games that were posted on social media by the club. We learned that Kane has rudimentary batting technique, Dier is a passable wicketkeeper but that Joe Hart, formerly of Shropshire schoolboys, is a fine bowler. More importantly, it gave the impression of a team bonding, laughing and playing together.
Mourinho’s performances at press conferences are galvanising the club rather than dividing it, which often seemed the case at United. The training ground was abuzz with his jibe at Manchester City last week and the implication (without evidence, it should be said) that Pep Guardiola had somehow pressured Raheem Sterling into missing England’s game against Iceland.
Likewise, on Friday, piling the pressure on his former player Frank Lampard for today’s game by drawing attention to Chelsea’s spending was enjoyed. Players appreciate his ability to dictate headlines, at least when the focus is not on them.
Hugo Lloris is another Spurs player itching for glory after many seasons out of the reckoning
And Mourinho has been unusually content with his club’s transfer business. He seemed to be in his element in the summer, having to play the market with relatively limited funds, though they still got through £75million in signing Sergio Reguilon, Matt Doherty, Joe Rodon and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and bringing in Gareth Bale and Carlos Vinicius on loan.
There is huge satisfaction at the acquisition of Hojbjerg at £15m, a player Mourinho helped to identify to bring balance to the midfield. At the end of last season he was in and out of the Southampton team, but he looks key to the team sitting at the top of the table.
He is perhaps the archetypal Mourinho player. ‘I want to be the best team-mate I can be,’ he said when asked about his growing reputation. ‘For me it’s important the team is successful, that I’m trying to make my team-mates better and that I’m working hard every day to achieve the goals of my team. I promise you, it is fuel to my fire.’
There is a muscularity about their midfield when it has Hojbjerg, Ndombele and Moussa Sissoko. And ‘solidity’ is the word most often repeated at the training ground to describe the team now. Defensively, the set-up is clear and the expectations well communicated.
Some at Spurs wonder whether playing behind closed doors has suited Mourinho in these early days. Spurs fans, brought up on the wisdom of Danny Blanchflower — ‘the great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It is about doing things in style and going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom’ — would have grown restless as he refashioned the side.
Gareth Bale returned to north London in the summer and brought Sergio Reguilon with him
It has allowed him a clear space without external pressures to make his mark. And his instructions now ring out from the bench clearly heard by his players. They have quickly become a team in his image.
Yet the key to the great start has been the front three, particularly Son and Kane. Tottenham have scored 21 Premier League goals this season, 16 of them scored by those two. Ndombele is the only midfielder to score, which tells you something about the priorities of that department.
‘The front three are working their socks off,’ says the Spurs source. ‘And they like Steven Bergwijn there because he works so hard.’ Likewise Giovani Lo Celso. With Bale and Lucas Moura, they are well supported, though there is the prospect that Kane and Son will need resting at some stage.
‘I think the main change was in our mentality because I think we realise it is time to fight for a trophy and the club made very good signings in the summer,’ said Lucas Moura last week. ‘That is what we try to show in every game — that we want and have the desire to win something in the season.’
Son Heung-min and Kane are a lethal duo and have 16 league goals between them this season
After the meltdown against West Ham, when that Spursy word was resurrected after they conceded three times from the 82nd minute onwards and ended up drawing 3-3, a players’ meeting was convened to set things right. The feeling is that against Burnley, Brighton and West Brom they have now shown that resilience. And against City they showed another way to win.
Of course, there is a note of caution expressed within all of this. ‘Let’s see where we are after the next five games’ is a common refrain at Spurs. Tottenham have Chelsea (away), Arsenal (home), Palace (away), Liverpool (away) and Leicester (home) before Christmas. Title credentials will be better judged then.
And then there is the Mourinho factor. ‘History shows it could explode at any moment,’ says one source. ‘Everyone is aware of that.’ Yet, should they turn into the home straight in March and still be among the title contenders, the prospect would be intriguing. ‘Can you imagine how much he would relish that?’ says another source.
At Spurs, they have been long enough without trophies to avoid getting ahead of themselves. But they are in the League Cup quarter-finals and will have the Europa League to play for in the spring, which, as Mourinho never tires of pointing out, he has competed for twice and won twice.
There is a long winter to navigate before then. But if he can keep this team among the contenders, that alone would silence the Jose sceptics. If he could do something more spectacular, it would surely be his finest triumph yet.