Yesterday was a day unlike any other in the history of Chiesa di Totti. After starting the morning off discussing the club's official announcement that Paulo Fonseca would not be returning next season, Roma upset the entire football news cycle when it tabbed José Mourinho, The Special One, as their next manager. The dust from the Fonseca announcement hadn't even settled before they unveiled his countryman as Roma's next manager, which should make the final five matches of the season incredibly strange.
Of course, if you spent even just a few minutes on social media yesterday, you no doubt saw the incredible range of reactions to this move. From shock to disbelief to amazement to haughty derision and more sarcastic takes than you can stomach, José Mourinho to Roma definitely garnered more than a few headlines yesterday.
Part of the negative blowback from yesterday's announcement likely stems from recency bias. Mourinho's managerial resume is beyond reproach, but his most recent appointment with Tottenham didn't go so well and ended rather bitterly earlier this spring.
To get a glimpse into Mourinho's most recent managerial moves, we reached out to our friends at Cartilage Free Captain, our resident Spurs site. Dustin George-Miller, the “tyrannical overlord” of Cartilage Free Captain was kind enough to give us his thoughts on Mourinho's time with Spurs and what it means for Roma.
Spurs were the shortest stint of Mourinho’s recent career. What were the initial expectations when he was hired in 2019 and how did things change throughout his brief tenure?
Dustin George-Miller: The expectations were simple: Mourinho was going to win trophies. After the Mauricio Pochettino project collapsed, this was Spurs chairman Daniel Levy’s swing-for-the-fences appointment, the big-name guy that was going to take Spurs to the next level, establish them as a permanent member of the European elite, and finally stock the trophy cabinet with silverware. Levy had apparently wanted to work with Mourinho for years, but Spurs were never in a position to be attractive to a guy like him. So picking up Mou as a reclamation project on the back end of a disastrous spell at United felt to many Spurs fans like a brilliant move.
Not to me, mind — I was against this from the beginning, but we’ll get to that.
Following that, what exactly went wrong during his time with Spurs? Were his failings largely tactical or do Spurs have larger problems that extend beyond one single manager?
DGM: Oh Lordy, it was everything. First off, I should be fair and point out that the initial signs were positive — Spurs’ players were absolutely thrilled to be working with him, Mourinho was enthused by the talent at the club and publicly said that all they needed to push them over the edge into greatness was… well, him. It’s a pretty heady prospect.
But the thing about Mourinho, and we’ve seen this again and again in his most recent appointments going all the way back to his stint at Real Madrid, is that his appointments follow a pretty predictable pattern. It starts with initial enthusiasm, plus usually a period of good play that leads to a trophy or two, but then things start to fall apart — there are inexplicable feuds with established players, grumblings of dissent, a downturn in results, a period where Mourinho throws his team under the bus and complains about not being financially backed, and then it ends with the dressing room in open revolt and Mourinho getting sacked.
Usually, it takes about three years for the full Mourinho Cycle. At Tottenham, it lasted 18 months, and we didn’t even get the trophy.
The worst part was that Mourinho was just a terrible fit for Spurs tactically. Mou’s teams are defensively oriented with a low block that invites opposition pressure and tries to hit back on the counter. When it works, it’s pretty spectacular — his Chelsea squads were probably the most emblematic of this style. However, Spurs are a team that were built to play in possession, with a wealth of offensive talent and some suspect defenders that wilt under sustained pressure. And while here, Mourinho exiled or feuded with Dele Alli, Tanguy Ndombele, Gareth Bale, and Toby Alderweireld to the bafflement of everyone.
Now look, Tottenham are a squad that is in desperate need of a refresh and COVID-19 has not helped in that regard. But Jose turned Tottenham from an exciting, progressive team with solid talent into a toxic soup of misery that played boring, uninspiring football and divided the fanbase in the process.
God, the past 18 months have been miserable.
Was there any way to repair the relationship between Spurs and Mourinho or was it beyond fixing?
DGM: By the end, no I don’t think there was any fixing it. We had already reached “Year 3 Mou” in January, where he was losing matches in the most awful way possible (sitting on a narrow lead and conceding goals late) and then going in front of the press and talking about how it was “same coach, different players.” By March it was clear this relationship was broken — there were numerous reports of, if not outright revolt, at least two major factions in the dressing room, one pro-Jose and the other anti-Jose. I think the only thing that kept Levy from pulling the trigger before he did was the thought of having to pay a hefty severance fee to get rid of him (and Roma has now freed us from that obligation, so thanks for that!)
It seems like Mourinho wasn’t exactly a beloved figure among Spurs faithful. So, if you’re able to, can you give us the highlights of his time with Spurs? Were there any particular players who blossomed under his tutelage? Was there ever a time when it felt like Mourinho had the club moving in the right direction?
DGM: The Mourinho appointment was controversial and divisive from the beginning. I was extremely anti-Mourinho based on his past appointments and style of play, though I feel like I tried to give him a chance to prove me wrong. There were a lot of Spurs fans who were the same — they didn’t like the guy but he was OUR bastard now, so why not give him a shot? The other half thought that this was a brilliant appointment and thought Mourinho was just what the club needed to take the next step. There were ample reasons to think both viewpoints were valid, and we fought about it as a community at Cartilage Free Captain from the very beginning.
So, the good parts. Let’s start out by saying that if there’s one thing Mourinho did do is that he helped reinvent Harry Kane. It’s been reported that Kane absolutely LOVED Mourinho, and that’s represented by both Kane and Son Heung-min having career years at Spurs this season. Kane has adapted his game to be more of a deep-lying playmaker, shifting down into the hole and playing others into space, while still being a goal threat. I think it’s fair to say that Mourinho had a big role in that transition. Kane is currently leading the Premier League in goals and assists and has an outside shot of breaking the league single-season assist record. So there’s that.
Early this season there were promising signs — Mourinho had Spurs at the top of the table in late 2020 and playing some great football that in retrospect coincided with both Kane and Son having a purple patch. The wheels fell off in January and at that point, there was no fixing it, as Mourinho’s system fell apart under individual defensive errors exacerbated by the tactics.
Mourinho needs a team that is custom built to his exact specifications in order to succeed. Maybe that’ll happen at Roma. For your sake, I certainly hope so, but it doesn’t take a genius to look back at his past appointments — Tottenham, United, Chelsea, Madrid, Milan — and see a very disturbing pattern.
Finally, what should Roma fans be excited about and what should we worry about with Mourinho as our new manager?
DGM: I mean, there’s always the hope that a change of scenery could be the thing that breaks Mourinho out of this boom-bust pattern. He hasn’t managed in Italy for a while now. It’s a very different league and style of play from the Premier League, which sussed out and nullified his preferred tactics years ago. Up until Spurs, he’d won trophies everywhere he’d managed. It’s probably not unreasonable to think that he can lead Roma to a cup title, or maybe a scudetto if the initial chemistry is right and the players take to him. Maybe it’ll work! For your sake, I hope it does!
But you should be worried about your team chemistry. Mou will find a popular player or three and will crap on him and exile him from the starting lineup for no good reason because he thinks that’s how you motivate players. He’ll fight with the board if he doesn’t get funds to purchase expensive older players that fit into his system. He’ll invariably leave in a puff of brimstone with the club stuck in a morass of bad feelings and shattered confidence. And you’ll pay a lot of money for the “privilege.”
Finally, brace yourselves for an influx of itinerant new fans with Mourinho avatars on social media who follow him around from club to club and yell at you about how your club isn’t worth the managerial genius that is Jose Mourinho when things go wrong, as they inevitably will. “MouAnon” is real, and it is absolutely bizarre.
I’m going to be honest — I have a soft spot for Roma, though I wouldn’t call myself a supporter, and I wouldn’t wish this on the Roma fanbase. That said, I’m going to be keeping an eye on Roma going forward, because it’s almost certainly going to turn into a train wreck, and if there’s one unifying thing about humanity it’s that we all crane our necks to look at the traffic accident on the freeway.
I feel sorry for Roma. But this is incredible content.
Big thanks to Dustin for his time, you can catch his work and so much more incredible Spurs content at Cartilage Free Captain.