EPL preview: Jose Mourinho slowed Spurs' slide, but can he turn them back around?

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Early on in the new “All or Nothing: Tottenham Hotspur” docuseries on Amazon Prime, which followed Spurs through what turned out to be a hugely disappointing 2019-20 season, there’s a moment when Jose Mourinho half-listens to the TV on his office wall.

He has been appointed as the new Spurs manager after Mauricio Pochettino’s stunning Nov. 19 sacking. The Portuguese, one of the most successful coaches in the game’s history but also five years removed from his last piece of major silverware, arranges his things in his new desk as the pundits drone on about the team’s outlook following the disastrous start to the season.

Finally, one of them says something that makes Mourinho look up.

“Mourinho is past it.”

Mourinho unlooses a choice two-word epithet. Something to do with lovemaking. He walks over to the TV and turns it off.

He doesn’t get enough credit for his performance last year, for winning over the skeptics like the ones who’ve appeared in this space. When Mourinho took over, Spurs had won three, tied five and lost four Premier League matches under Pochettino. After 12 rounds, they sat in 14th place, just six points above the relegation zone and already an enormous 11 points out of the four coveted Champions League berths at the top of the table. Under Pochettino, Spurs had collected a paltry 1.16 points per game. Mourinho would earn 1.65 points per game as the team rose to a much-more-respectable sixth place, going 13-6-7 and losing just one of their last 10.

Tottenham Hotspur has slowly been declining domestically since 2017. Is Jose Mourinho the right man to reverse that trend?  (Photo by RICHARD HEATHCOTE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Tottenham Hotspur has slowly been declining domestically since 2017. Is Jose Mourinho the right man to reverse that trend? (Photo by RICHARD HEATHCOTE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Here's another stat for you: In Spurs’ glorious 2018-19 season, the one with the first-ever run to the Champions League final that burnished its reputation, it lost 13 league matches. In 2019-20, it lost 11. The delta between those campaigns, of course, was the 11 draws last season versus only two the year prior.

While Spurs made that miraculous push to the Champions League final, the Premier League campaign was already going off the rails. They won just three of their last 12 games, losing an insufferable seven. All the while, they upset Manchester City with a topsy-turvy, VAR-assisted 4-4 aggregate victory in the quarterfinal. Then they stunned Ajax with a three-goal comeback in the semifinal second leg that wasn’t completed until Lucas Moura’s 96th-minute dink. They were outplayed by Liverpool in the Champions League final, which Spurs lost 2-0.

In a way, getting to that final was counterproductive. There was a lot of prestige and money it. It elevated Pochettino into the managerial elite. Spurs, along the way, arrived as a major European club. The players’ reputation grew. But it also raised expectations of a team that had run into trouble. It perhaps allowed for complacency to creep into a side that had been together for a long time and was probably at the end of its cycle anyway.

Tottenham’s slide didn’t begin last season. The club peaked in 2016-17, when it earned 86 points and placed second. The following years, it slipped to 77, 71 and 59 points, respectively. The Champions League success papered over cracks that had been deep and gaping for a long time, obscuring a team that never addressed its inconsistency and couldn’t arrest its slow spiral.

This is the trouble with optics. They deceive.

The 2019-20 campaign merely continued the trend that had begun in the stretch run of the prior season, or that had arguably started two seasons prior. It was just that Pochettino was held accountable for it this time around, without the Champions League to deflect attention from league form.

Spurs suffer from long-term problems, not recent ones. And so it’s hard to predict where it stands ahead of the 2020-21 season. Mourinho remains in charge. Lately, he has tended to flame out at clubs fairly quickly — his spells with his last two employers, Chelsea and Manchester United, lasted just two and a half years apiece. It’s hard to say for how long the squad will follow him. Teams seem to fall out of love with his intensity quicker than they used to.

After several transfer windows in which Spurs made no major acquisitions at all, there still isn’t much turnover in the squad. Jan Vertonghen aged out and left for Benfica. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Matt Doherty have joined. On the whole, it’s the same old squad, the team in a steady regression.

Was last season an outlier?

In “All or Nothing”, Mourinho gets the high-gloss, soft-focus treatment, depicting him as a charmer and a savvy manipulator of his players’ mindsets. It’s a nice idea, that the 57-year-old provocateur has still got it, that he can coax a performance out of a new generation. But he’ll have to do it with a team that is largely unchanged year after year and a slightly worse version of itself with each passing season.

This season, Mourinho perhaps faces his biggest challenge yet.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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