The dog of war has not lost his bark

Typical Mourinho: Just when it seems safe to bury him, he shows there’s life in the old dog o’ war yet.

The narrow north London derby win over Arsenal was a throwback to his old cussed defiance – with a hint of a mugging.

Well, of all people, he was never going to go gentle into that good night.

But there was no rage either. No touchline sprint in an overcoat (Old Trafford, 2004) at the Spurs stadium on Sunday night.

Nor was there a knee-slide in an Armani suit (The Bernabeu, 2012). And no poke in the eye for the opposition’s assistant manager (Tito Villanova, Nou Camp, 2011).

No, the shirt-sleeved Spurs manager eschewed the more infamous gestures in his post-match repertoire to content himself with fist pumps and smiles.

He basked in a victory unexpected by both the media and fans who, late last week, thought they’d detected a shutting down of the vital signs. The reviving Gunners had been expected to deliver the coup de gras.

The endgame was predicted after a nil-nil at Bournemouth so abject that Spurs did not manage a shot on goal. Harry Kane did not touch the ball in the Bournemouth box until the end, and fan sites were drawing up lists of managers who might take over.

Mourinho used a technical glitch in his press conference to take off his headphones and escape a media crucifixion.

At that point, Spurs were looking like they’d miss out even on a Europa League place a year after reaching the final of the Champions League.

The decline was vertiginous and, besides, players had violated lockdown rules, were fighting with each other, wanting to fight with fans.

Recent performances looked like he’d lost the dressing room; the magnificent new stadium looked more eery than most and the coffers were empty. It seemed the club was going nowhere.

But there’s nothing like putting one over your hated neighbours to change the mood and, like the Special One of old, the erstwhile Grumpy One had the last laugh.

Besides the local bragging rights, by keeping Spurs in with a chance of European football he has bought himself time.

He won the tactical battle, outfoxed a bright young manager in Mikel Arteta and got a tune out of players who had not only gone flat but appeared to want out.

The question now is whether it could spark a genuine turnaround or just be a stay of execution.

There are ominous parallels with when he took over an already-declining Manchester United – and a couple of lesser trophies apart – he couldn’t slow it down.

He has been sacked from his last three jobs and has become a good deal grumpier.

There’s an increasing belief that managers, like players, have a limited lifespan, and he’s found that parking the bus is no match for the high presses of Pep Guardiola’s and Jurgen Klopp’s teams.

He also admits problems in communicating with younger players.

Now 57, it’s so long since he won anything worth winning that Generation Z might need to be told who he was.

Once upon a time, he was the bee’s knees, the New Statesman’s Man of the Year (2005), had charisma oozing from every pore and a quip for every occasion.

He had the British press eating out of his hand like no one since Princess Diana. And, seemingly, he’d had a hand transplant from Midas.

Everything he touched turned to football gold. He was the first manager in history to win every domestic title, the league championship, FA Cup and its equivalents, super cup, and league cup (if applicable) in four European countries.

Every club wanted him. He was box office but even in his pomp, his personality was more attractive than his results-at-all-costs style of play – which earned him the title “enemy of football”.

In recent years, the trophies have dried up, the silver has turned to rust, and the fine Portuguese wine has become a little sour.

Some critics claim he peaked at Inter in 2010. Although he did finally eclipse Guardiola’s Barcelona at Real Madrid in 2012, his stay there ended in a dressing room so divided it was ready to restart the Spanish Civil War.

His second coming at Chelsea also ended in bitterness although he had declared himself the “Happy One” at his unveiling.

And he did win the Premier League again and the League Cup. At Manchester United, he never seemed right, never left his hotel, lived out of a suitcase. It was as if the baggage he brought was to be kept under wraps.

On Sunday night he got the tactics right and was a bit lucky – Arsenal controlled much of the game, but Spurs pounced ruthlessly on defensive mistakes.

Arteta learned a valuable lesson and so did we – underestimate him at your peril. Lower your guard and he can still mastermind a mugging.

Only four clubs have picked up more points since he was appointed and after the victory, he was still defending his record like a polar bear does her cubs: “I know I could look at in a selfish point of view and say since I arrived, if the championship started in that moment, even with all the problems we had I think we would now be fourth or fifth in the table.

“In my career I only played Europa League twice, and I won it twice. It would not be bad to play it a third time and to win it a third time.”

The old dog o’ war has not lost his bark.


The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

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