In an era of egotistical owners pulling the trigger on managers seemingly on a whim, Daniel Levy’s devotion to Jose Mourinho at Tottenham seemed set to survive whatever the weather. How much more can Mourinho now endure now?
With less than half an hour of normal time remaining in Zagreb on Thursday night, Tottenham looked on course for a forgettably successful end to a Europa League tie in which the result was crucial but the performance was not.
Not for the first time under Mourinho, Spurs could have been accused of a lack of sparkle and ambition against the Croatian champions. Whether by luck or design – and, given the caution that has characterized much of their season so far, the latter seems more likely – Spurs had shown few signs of scoring the goal that would have all-but sealed their progress following a 2-0 first-leg win, yet they were on course to unspectacularly finish the job.
Two hours later, what had looked like a routine round of 16 finale had provided such an abundant level of entertainment on and off the pitch that it felt unfathomable. Spurs imploded, Mislav Orsic scored a splendid hat-trick to complete Dinamo’s comeback in extra time and, afterwards, Mourinho and his captain, Hugo Lloris, delivered perhaps the two most unmissable interviews of the season in Europe.
José Mourinho went into the dressing Room of Dinamo Zagreb to applaud the players and congratulate them on their achievement 👏👏Great class and fair play despite the elimination. 👌❤️ pic.twitter.com/x9SYGoGANB
— FootballFunnys (@FootballFunnnys) March 19, 2021
Not since a smirking Sir Alex Ferguson played mind games with Rafael Benitez and Arsene Wenger, or Mourinho taunted all before him as an up-and-coming manager and a Premier League maverick full of dark energy, have two interviews been quite so compelling.
Mourinho, as has been the baffling recent wont of a man who built his reputation on a refined knowledge of psychology and captivating man-management, once again tore into his floundering squad, ruefully hammering their attitude while staring into the middle-distance like a man who, quite understandably, was still trying to comprehend how he had reached this new low.
A generous interpretation of Lloris’s reasoning for his suggestion of mutiny among the squad would be that the World Cup winner felt it represented a siren call display of leadership.
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) March 18, 2021
Like Mourinho, his body language and words came across much less as a considered work of kidology than near-unbridled anger and confusion, a confession of a disunited and disjointed squad over whom Mourinho has little control or influence.
Inevitably, the peep behind the curtains that Lloris provided led to thoughts of the soap opera that Spurs had already deliberately created before the start of the season.
The documentary of last season’s campaign, ‘All or Nothing’, has been used as a stick to beat Spurs with, and it is not hard to imagine what the scenes from the training ground and locker room it contained would look like now.
Just watched Lloris’ post-match interview. He completely exposes Spurs, their mentality and their management from top to bottom.I cannot believe Harry Kane actually committed his entire career to mediocrity. At least Lloris will retire a World Cup winner 😬 pic.twitter.com/uP8JukT6m1
— Aubameyang FC (@aviv_lavi) March 19, 2021
Do have sympathy for Jose, constantly being let down by his players week in week out, Hugo lloris exposing the problems inside the club..It just makes you think, same players, same issues with poch that got him sacked
— Jamie (@xthfcjamie) March 19, 2021
Perhaps most worryingly for Spurs fans – some of whom had major misgivings about the team’s soporific style even when they reached the top of the league in November – the abiding storyline of ‘All or Nothing’ seemed to be the curiously claustrophobic closeness between Levy and Mourinho.
Levy, it seemed, treats Mourinho more like a business confidante or a board member than the employee most accountable for the good, bad and indifferent results of his team.
Their chats on camera, captured at lunch while players milled around them out of earshot, were delivered in low-pitch exchanges that were almost whispered, giving them a conspiratorial air.
— Talking THFC (@TalkingTHFC) March 19, 2021
You could argue that a direct, regular line of casual communication constitutes a relief at a time when many coaches are appointed by absent owners, hearing no more from them until the day of their abrupt departure.
On the other hand, those chats will carry all the lightheartedness of small talk between divorcees thrown together at a funeral as the club’s season slumps to a standstill, the Europa League challenge that had seemed such a feasible way of rescuing the campaign now discarded on one of the worst nights in Spurs’ history.
Does Levy have the necessary distance from his manager to properly analyze Tottenham’s predicament and plot the path forward, with or without Mourinho? Does he have the perspective to be critically perceptive despite his immense admiration for this most high-profile of coaches? The answer might be yes, but the capacity for clear thinking looks as muddled as it did for Mourinho and Lloris on Thursday.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer spent tonight winning a European tie at the San Siro, while Jose Mourinho lost to a team with an imprisoned manager.There are levels to this game. pic.twitter.com/4jzTf0esqj
— Alexei (@MUFC_redarmy99) March 18, 2021
Mourinho has almost defied the old adage that no man is bigger than one club, so often trotted out when respected managers are reluctantly sacked because of results: he certainly appears to be more than a manager to Tottenham and, if he is still at the club next season, will likely have proven himself to be above traditional judgement.
Predecessor Mauricio Pochettino was axed – ruthlessly and with less forgiveness than Mourinho has had, some feel – when Spurs were on their way out of the Champions League and outside the Premier League top four with two-thirds of the season to play.
Champions League qualification, lest it need repeating, is thought to be worth up to $140 million a season for clubs, which is quite handy, prestige aside, for a club with debts of around $838 million when they last declared in 2020.
Eighth after a season littered with inconsistency since they hit the summit, Spurs will play three teams above them, including second-placed Manchester United and third-placed Leicester, among their remaining 10 matches.
Even if Mourinho and LLoris’s haunted confessions somehow serve as the driving force behind a dazzling finish to the season, Tottenham surely require snookers to overhaul fourth-placed Chelsea, who are six points above them and on a long unbeaten run after their appointment of Thomas Tuchel turned out to be an inspired managerial change.
Such a switch may not be made any time soon by Levy, who seemed to have such unshakeable faith in his manager and canteen companion that it almost seems cruel for his patience to be tested so torturously.
🤣 Tottenham won’t finish in the top 4 again this decade.
— Dobbs (@COYS41) March 19, 2021
A notoriously astute businessman, Levy knows that the calamitous fortune of a reported $48 million payoff will be required if Mourinho is sacked, comprising a contract that runs until 2023. Predictably, no break clause has been inserted.
Levy is on the rack. Mourinho and Lloris’s allusions to the rot setting deep mean that heavy investment in a squad transformation is likely to be required should Mourinho stay.
Don’t think keep sacking the manger is the problem, 1 trophy in 30 years says it all , the players are not got enough, what top 4 side would want, dire , Sanchez, Davies, sissoko, winks , lamela , Lo celso , dele , aurier , moura , .
— howard (@howard65080445) March 19, 2021
Wrong message sacking Jose before some of these players need moving on. Squad needs to understand who the boss is without question I love deli and a great talent but should have moved on yet Levi blocks it – these little things undermine the manager and breed issues
— TurningAcorner (@AcornerTurning) March 19, 2021
Assuming Levy has not wavered – and if he doesn’t question whether the object of his intense trust has failed by the end of this season, then he conceivably never will – next year could be even more expensive, compounded by the absence of much-needed money from European competition.
Three of Tottenham’s next five matches are away, with the other two coming against rampant Manchester City in the EFL Cup final and Manchester United, no doubt intent on revenge for their 6-1 thrashing at home to Spurs in October.
That will feel more like five years than five months ago to Tottenham fans now. Mourinho remains a rich entertainer to everyone except those who want him to win.
By Ben Miller