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18 March 2015updated 25 Jul 2021 4:35am

For José Mourinho the art of management is one part detail and two parts salesmanship

By Jonathan Liew

English football has always had a curious fixation with its managers. We seem uniquely convinced that the power of the game ultimately resides not in the 22 players on the pitch, nor in its fans and benefactors, but in the vaguely sepulchral man sitting on a nearby bench, pointing at things. Even the etymology gives it away. Whereas our European cousins refer to their coaches by more holistic terms – entraineur, técnico – we expect ours to manage: to master, coerce, enforce.

I have a theory about all this. Maybe the reason we’re so carried away by the idea of football managers as autocrats is that we have never experienced the real thing. We can indulge our latent strongman curiosities instead by sharing tales of Bill Shankly, Alex Ferguson or Brian Clough: men who – we like to imagine – asserted their ideas through a combination of animal magnetism and sheer will.

José Mourinho understands this better than anyone, which is why he has spent much of the past two decades cultivating an image of himself as a man who doesn’t mind bloodying a few noses – or poking a few eyes – in order to get things done. For Mourinho, management is one part detail to two parts salesmanship: witness the artless and painfully unsubtle ways in which he will try to shoehorn his career achievements into casual conversation, claiming triumphs as his and his alone.

His performance is catnip to English football, which has always preferred to interpret the game through the prism of personalities rather than processes. Doubtless it is part of the reason why, despite beginning his career in Portugal and passing through Italy and Spain, Mourinho has now spent more time managing in the Premier League than everywhere else put together.

As 2018 drew to a close, though, it seemed Mourinho’s schtick was beginning to wear thin. His job at Manchester United had ended in a familiar blend of needless rancour and terrible football: colourless, odourless and yet vaguely nauseating. Both tactically and tonally the game appeared to have moved on from his unique brand of snarling, iconoclastic pragmatism. By the autumn of 2019, he was 56 and had been out of the game for almost a year. His days as an elite manager looked numbered.

Yet there he was on 21 November, beaming away at his first press conference as the new manager of Tottenham Hotspur, nattering cheerily about how happy he was, what a wonderful club he’d joined and how much he’d grown in the 11 months since his previous job had ended. From his breezy demeanour you wouldn’t know whether he had just completed one of the most sensational managerial switches of the year or popped in for a cup of tea.

Of course, we’ve seen it before. Nearly all Mourinho’s jobs have begun with such abundant optimism only to end in the same staid tactics and sullen press conferences; bitter feuds; punishment droppings; transfer wrangles conducted in the full public glare. After a trophy or two, things tend to head south around the third season, culminating in an extremely costly divorce – for the club, at any rate.

Virtually everyone knows how the cycle works, and it would be fairly safe to assume this includes Tottenham’s chairman Daniel Levy. But he took the decision to sack the club’s popular manager Mauricio Pochettino and replace him with Mourinho, eschewing the numerous accomplished alternatives (Massimiliano Allegri, Julian Nagelsmann, Brendan Rodgers and Carlo Ancelotti among them).

What makes this such a jarring appointment is that it seems to make so little sense on so many levels. Tottenham is a frugally run club with a stable recent history and a strong record of bringing through young players. Mourinho is a typhoon of a manager who demands big transfers and only plays academy talent when he’s trying to make some surly, oblique point. If it goes wrong, it’s going to do so in spectacular fashion. So what on earth are Spurs playing at?

The answer can be found in some of the underlying trends. Tottenham’s success under Pochettino may have propelled them temporarily into the elite category (they reached the Champions League final last season), but in reality they are held there only by a thread. By most financial metrics, they are the sixth biggest club in the Premier League. Last year, it was revealed that when Europe’s leading clubs met to discuss a potential breakaway competition, Spurs were not invited. For all their accomplishments on the pitch, Tottenham remain a club with a deep, unshakeable status anxiety. They are unsure of their place in the world – a giant walking among leviathans.

Into the void, then, steps Mourinho, whispering sweet nothings, his very presence a sort of luxury marque providing reassurance that you still matter. His fame guarantees eyes on the team in an age when football clubs are as much an advertising space as a sporting endeavour. Like all strongmen, he promises to restore your pride, fix your house, purge impurity, rout your neighbours. A narrow 3-2 win over West Ham in his first match in charge was greeted in many parts of the media like a divine augury.

But such is English football’s cult of the manager. In a complex world, the lure of the simple, transformative solution feels stronger than ever. Deep down, I think we all know things are rarely so straightforward. But there’s always somebody who wants to believe

Jonathan Liew is a sports writer at the Guardian

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This article appears in the 27 Nov 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The English Question