An underappreciated factor in the many successes Jose Mourinho has had is that he was always such a hot commodity in the job market that he could choose ascending teams to manage. Then he’d put the finishing touches on a core of standout players approaching their prime and claim the spoils.
This is the prerogative of the super-manager. Much like Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp will probably never again settle for a job that doesn’t position them for immediate success, there is a self-fulfilling prophecy in this cycle. Super-manager takes over a budding super-team; collects a bunch of prizes; raises his stature even further; ensures that he’ll only work for super-teams, and so on.
The trouble is that when Mourinho took over Tottenham Hotspur in November, he was happy just to have a job with a big Premier League club at all. His stock had plummeted after yet another unhappy end with Chelsea and a disappointing spell with Manchester United. Therefore he couldn’t be quite so choosy.
So this time, he had to settle for a team that had already peaked with last year’s surprise run to the Champions League final – losing to the same Liverpool Spurs faced Saturday, a team that has now set a record for most points through 21 matches in the history of Europe’s top five leagues – before falling precipitously in form this season.
What’s more, Mourinho wouldn’t be getting much money, if any, to plug the many holes in the team he’d inherited from Mauricio Pochettino, who was himself driven to despair by the lack of investment.
Yet in spite of Saturday’s 1-0 home loss to runaway league leaders Liverpool, Mourinho deserved substantial credit for Tottenham’s performance. Even if Klopp’s Reds increased their lead to a staggering 16 points while Spurs fell to eighth place – below Wolves and, more painfully, Sheffield United.
Mourinho, for his part, has now won just one of 11 head-to-head matchups with Klopp, losing five times. It was also his eighth career loss to Liverpool in 29 matches. In his personal rivalry with Liverpool, which dates back to a mid-2000s feud with its then-manager Rafa Benitez and apparently originated with the Reds passing Mourinho over for a job, the Portuguese’s best days had seemed far behind him.
He once shushed the Liverpool fans as his Chelsea stormed back for a win and then, years later, celebrated wildly when his Blues derailed Liverpool’s best hope for a title since 1990 with a win on Steven Gerrard’s slip in 2014. But in his last job with United, Mourinho had been unable to compete with the reigning European champions.
And in the first half, that trend seemed to be holding.
Tactically, Spurs didn’t exactly pack it in, putting out a lineup that suggested they wanted to take the game to the presumptive champions with several playmaking options in the squad in Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Harry Winks. But they were nevertheless pushed all the way back by a Liverpool team that was dominant in every line.
Alisson’s positioning when Lpool are in opposition half a big reason why they are so tough to hurt on the counter as he clears almost everything. Some keepers never leave the 18 yard box, but he owns his half... pic.twitter.com/UWUragE4fF— Mark Ogden (@MarkOgden_) January 11, 2020
In the first half, Liverpool claimed a staggering 82 percent of possession – away from home, no less – and forced Spurs to settle for counter-attacking. But without the injured Harry Kane, the attack lacked a reference point to swivel around in that trademark Spursian movement.
At times, it felt like Liverpool was simply toying with its host, like when Klopp inverted his world-class wing backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, just because, well, he could.
Just two minutes in, Bobby Firmino’s shot was blocked just in front of the goal line by Spurs’ Japhet Tanganga, making his senior debut. A second shot by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came off the far post. Some 20 minutes later, as the Reds were playing circles around Spurs again, Mohamed Salah’s little dink to the far post left Virgil van Dijk with a wide-open header, but it was parried by goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga.
Liverpool had so much possession in Tottenham’s third in the first half that things had to give at some point. In the 37th minute, Salah found Firmino in the box, who turned away from Tanganga and had time and space to rifle his shot home.
Salah had another look before the intermission as he won the ball and darted off but finished wide.
But Spurs made adjustments at halftime and gained much more of a foothold in a second half in which they outplayed the imperious Reds. But it took a while for the major chances to materialize.
Finally in the 75th minute, Spurs finally caught Liverpool on the ball on good work from Giovani Lo Celso. Lucas Moura teed up Heung-Min Son, but he airmailed his finish. Then, Serge Aurier sent a sumptuous ball to the far post where Lo Celso managed to get to it on a sliding half-volley but unimaginably flashed it wide of goal entirely. Mourinho sank to his knees in despair as Klopp, clearly panicked, barked at his team to shore up.
But if it felt then that Spurs deserved something from the game, they didn’t get it.
Which is all to say that Spurs have now failed to win in three straight Premier League games and four of five, losing three times. Yet the performance was also a credit to Mourinho, who is having to do more with less than at perhaps any other time in his career. No longer the super-manager, managing what is decidedly not a super-team.
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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