Jose Mourinho loves to play the numbers game when he has a point to prove. An empty Stamford Bridge on Sunday will deny the Tottenham manager the opportunity to wave three fingers at home supporters, signifying his three Premier League titles as Chelsea boss, but you can guarantee that he will mention his previous success.
When the pace of his progress at Manchester United was being questioned early in the 2018-19 season, Mourinho demanded “Respect, Respect, Respect” for those three title wins, before storming out of a news conference after a 3-0 Old Trafford defeat against Spurs. He insists his trophy haul still places him among the elite.
The Portuguese may have endured the least successful period of his 20-year managerial career since being sacked by Chelsea five years ago, winning just the Carabao Cup and the Europa League. His overall record still stands up against the very best and there is a genuine sense that Mourinho has rediscovered his mojo at Spurs, and that he believes he can win trophies again.
Tottenham are in a month-long stretch that will tell us just how realistic it is to suggest Tottenham can win the league title for the first time since 1961. Having beaten Man City last weekend, Sunday’s trip to Chelsea is followed by a North London derby at home to Arsenal seven days later, while a tricky encounter with Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park is quickly followed by the ultimate test of a visit to Liverpool on Dec. 16.
In the past, that kind of fixture schedule has forced Spurs to trip up, but Mourinho’s team has already beaten United, City and high-flying Southampton this season, so they are showing the mental strength required to overcome their rivals. The progress is clear to see, and Spurs still have room to grow and improve.
After taking charge of FC Porto in 2002, Mourinho won the league title in his second season at every club he has managed since, with the exception of United where he finished second.
At the time, Mourinho said that guiding United to runners-up spot behind Manchester City was one of the greatest achievements of a career that includes two Champions Leagues and eight domestic league titles — but he was accused of trying deflect from criticism that his career was on the wane.
Hindsight suggests Mourinho may have been right after all, with United finishing sixth and a distant third in the two seasons afterwards. United’s loss is certainly proving to be Tottenham’s gain, and year two at Spurs might just turn out to be as successful as it was at Porto, Chelsea (twice), Real Madrid and Inter MIlan.
Mourinho inherited a talented squad from Mauricio Pochettino, but it was in need of a tougher mentality and he has slowly developed that harder edge. The desire of the players to learn and kick on has also rubbed off on the 57-year-old, who seems energised by the opportunity to work with a hungrier and more unified group than he had at Old Trafford.
Spurs fans were split at the time of Mourinho’s appointment, with his Chelsea connection and pragmatic style of play jarring, but there are few doubters among the fan base now because they can see how he has turned them into contenders. Since he took charge just over a year ago, only Liverpool and City have won more Premier League points.
The summer signings of right-back Matt Doherty from Wolves and defensive midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg from Southampton may not have generated the headlines that greeted Gareth Bale’s return from Real Madrid, but both players have been crucial in adding that toughness and reliability that define all of Mourinho’s best teams.
They are Mourinho players rather than Spurs players, in the traditional sense, but with Doherty and Hojbjerg in the team, Spurs have the best defensive record in the Premier League this season.
With the team becoming solid at the back, the goals of Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min are now counting for more because Spurs don’t need to score heavily to win, even though they have put five past Southampton and six past United already this season. Only Chelsea have scored more, with Frank Lampard’s team one ahead on 22 goals. But with the best defence and second best attacking output, Mourinho is clearly on the right track.
Bale will add goals and assists once he is fully fit, while Dele Alli could be another top-quality attacking addition if Mourinho can find a way to kick-start the 24-year-old’s faltering Spurs career.
Keeping Kane fit and ensuring the England captain does not succumb to fatigue or injury will be a big priority, but right now, the future looks bright for Mourinho and Spurs.
He has been written off as yesterday’s man, but Mourinho is showing he might just be special again.