No attacking plan, awful training sessions and players fed up with being blamed for his shortcomings brought down Mourinho at Spurs
It was half-time at the Etihad Stadium on February 13. Tottenham were 1-0 down to Manchester City but had barely been in the game at all. No shots on target, no corners, 35.9 per cent possession.
Jose Mourinho walked in and was unusually positive, telling the players they were doing well and to keep it up. Some of the senior players in the dressing room were shocked that such a passive, negative approach could be right for this club. “You really think this is good?” remarked one. Tottenham did nothing in the second half and lost the game 3-0.
That one moment encapsulated the divide between the players and their head coach, the divide that has finally cost Mourinho his job. His defensive tactics, his reactive training and his repeated public criticism of the players have driven Mourinho apart from the squad, the fans and ultimately Daniel Levy.
While many of the players were pleased to hear of Mourinho’s dismissal on Monday, the only part that surprised them was the timing — six days before they face Manchester City in the Carabao Cup final, and when the rest of the world was discussing the new European Super League that Tottenham have signed up for. The decision was made over the weekend after Friday night’s 2-2 draw at Everton.
Spurs are now five points away from fourth place, a stark contrast from the optimism of November when they were top of the league.
The Mourinho reign at Tottenham has unravelled faster than anyone could have expected six months ago.
The Athletic can reveal how:
Tottenham players were left bored and untested by his training sessions
Most of squad were expecting his sacking
Tactics were so obsessed with stopping opposition that players were unsure how to attack
Mourinho’s assistant Joao Sacramento was unpopular with the squad
The club were unhappy with Mourinho’s criticism of the players and asked him to stop it
Mourinho ran out of allies at the club, on and off the pitch
Only Harry Kane was loyal to Mourinho at the end
His dismissal had nothing to do with the Super League and was based purely on results
The result is that Mourinho, 17 months after his appointment, is now on gardening leave with the rest of his coaching team.
Ryan Mason and Chris Powell will be issuing the orders from the Wembley dugout on Sunday, with chairman Daniel Levy thinking a new management team gives Spurs the best chance of a strong finish to the season. And, providing that, as a Super League club, they are not banned, qualification for next season’s European competitions.
The fact that it has ended like this, and this quickly, makes the Mourinho era one of the most costly mis-steps in Levy’s 20 years running Tottenham.
Mourinho shows his frustration in this month’s draw at Newcastle (Photo: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)
Having arrived to such high expectations, Mourinho leaves Tottenham in seventh place, and he has not won them a trophy (leaving a job trophyless for the first time since going from Uniao de Leiria to Porto 19 years ago).
The football his team have been playing has been negative and uninspiring. Spurs have not won any new fans during the Mourinho era, and have upset plenty of their traditional ones. Levy was anxious that when fans returned to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium at the end of the season, they would make their feelings about the manager known. He has spared Mourinho that indignity.
When Tottenham appointed Mourinho, Levy proudly told the All Or Nothing documentary-makers he was “one of top two coaches in the world”.
Mourinho was appointed to replace Mauricio Pochettino, Spurs’ best and most popular manager since Bill Nicholson. Levy hoped that Mourinho would build upon the progress of the Pochettino era and finally win them a trophy. He also hoped that Mourinho would build up Tottenham’s global image, star in Amazon’s behind-the-scenes show about them and attract new fans to the club. Levy had built his team a world-class training ground and stadium, and now he finally had his superstar manager to go with it. He had considered Carlo Ancelotti that autumn, but Mourinho’s winning aura swung him the job.
If it was a marriage of convenience, it worked for both parties. Mourinho had long seen Tottenham as a model club. They were ambitious, well-run and with a streamlined management structure. After his political problems at Real Madrid, Chelsea and Manchester United, this was a club with fewer decision-makers in charge. Mourinho sold them a vision that he was a changed man, that he had learned from his last few failures, and that he would bring Spurs a new era of success.
Mourinho and Levy were very close from the start. Mourinho would discuss everything with Levy, including selection issues. Some sources who know Levy thought the chairman was too close to Mourinho, too pleased with the fact that he had finally appointed one of the biggest names in football to manage his club.
It should be remember that when Mourinho took over, Spurs were 12th in the 20-team Premier League, their players looking mentally and physically drained by a year in which they had reached but lost the Champions League final before seeing the Pochettino era unravel in the early months of the next season. The squad had needed a rebuild for years and the lack of transfer activity finally caught up with them. Mourinho lost main goalscorer Kane to a serious hamstring injury six weeks after taking over, and two months after that he faced a three-month coronavirus stoppage.
Mourinho had to guide Spurs through some very difficult waters and the fact that he managed to get them to sixth by the time the season finally ended last July has to go down as a success. Then, in the summer transfer window, Mourinho got plenty of the players he wanted — Matt Doherty, Joe Hart, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Sergio Reguilon — while Levy brought ‘home’ fan-favourite Gareth Bale.
As unhappy as Mourinho has been about the failure to sign a new centre-back, the ingredients were there for a far more successful 2020-21 season than Tottenham have actually had.
As the reality of Mourinho’s methods became apparent, it did not take long for the Tottenham players to pine for the days of Pochettino.
Under the Argentinean, the team had a clear philosophy of play which they would work on perfecting every day. Under Mourinho, that went out of the window. His approach was to tailor different tactics to every single opponent, designed to exploit their own distinct weaknesses. Players remarked that as they got closer to every match, the atmosphere was increasingly marked by fear of what might go wrong. Spurs were so fixated on what the opposition might do, they forgot to focus on their own game.
Throughout the Mourinho era, Tottenham looked unsure of what to do with the ball or how to build up play from the back.
At times, they were still capable of getting good results, because any team with Kane and Son Heung-min up front is still likely to create chances and score goals. But there was nothing to replace the playing identity Pochettino had worked on for so long. The players found themselves relying on the same attacking moves he had taught them, long after he’d left the club.
It did not take the Tottenham players to grow bored of Mourinho’s training sessions. They felt weighed down by the defensive focus, the hours spent working on how to defend throw-ins before facing Liverpool, and frustrated by the lack of attention to their own game. For years, Spurs teams of all levels had focused on building up from the back and passing the ball, but for Mourinho that was all forgotten.
“He has sucked the culture out of the club,” said one dressing-room source, “and destroyed what Spurs have stood for for years.”
Players were bored by Mourinho’s training sessions (Photo: Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)
The players were also struck by the lack of intensity in their training programme. Working under Pochettino was extremely hard, and the players would complain about the number of double sessions, and the lack of days off, as Pochettino and his staff got the team fit enough to play his aggressive, pressing football. But that same group of players then felt the opposite was true under Mourinho — that they were not being worked hard enough. They felt as if almost every session was either recovery from one match or tactical preparation for the next one, which made it especially difficult for the players who were not in the team to find any rhythm.
When they got what they felt was a harder week of training before the FA Cup visit to Wycombe Wanderers in January, the players were even relieved to have been worked hard. They would even joke among themselves that training at this intensity could prolong their careers.
In Mourinho’s defence, he had a uniquely difficult season to prepare the players for. Many of them only had a brief break between the end of the 2020-21 season on July 26 and internationals in early September, and Spurs’ progress in the Europa League, including three preliminary rounds, and Carabao Cup meant they have played two games each week almost all season. By the end of this compressed season, Tottenham will have played 58 official games. The fact they have escaped with relatively few injuries could be taken as proof that Mourinho has managed that workload well.
There is also a sense at the club that the players must bear some real responsibility for the struggles in recent years. The fact that the same squad has made the opposite complaints about Mourinho as they did about Pochettino has not gone unnoticed, nor has the way that the players’ form tailed off at the first sign of trouble.
The debate about whether the players or the manager deserve the blame for what has gone wrong has dominated this season, and often been driven by Mourinho’s own attempts to deflect the blame onto his squad. But ultimately it is a manager’s job to get the best out of the players, something Mourinho clearly failed to do.
The players’ frustration with the coaching staff was not limited to their uneasy relationship with Mourinho. Ever since he managed Porto, Mourinho had worked with Rui Faria as his assistant. But six months before Mourinho was sacked by Manchester United in 2018, Faria wanted a new challenge, and to try being a head coach himself. Faria did not join Mourinho at Tottenham, as he was managing the Al Duhail club in Qatar.
That meant Mourinho needed a new assistant and he decided to appoint Joao Sacramento, a gifted 30-year-old analyst and coach, who had been a protege of Mourinho’s old friend Luis Campos at Monaco and then Lille.
Sacramento was meant to provide an update to Mourinho’s methods and a link to the players at Spurs. But in reality, he proved just as unpopular as Mourinho. Multiple sources report that the players struggled to connect with him, saying he lacked the emotional intelligence to deal with a squad of established Premier League stars. Rival coaches also picked up on Sacramento’s lack of experience, especially in comparison to Faria, with one even remarking to The Athletic how little authority he seemed to have on the touchline, barking tactical instructions to uninterested players.
“Sacramento takes a good role in team shape and opposition analysis,” said a more sympathetic source. “But Jose was clearly boss.”
When Mourinho was appointed by Tottenham, he arrived as a figure bigger than the club itself. His first few weeks were a media sensation and he relished his image as a serial champion who had come to teach them how to win. When he spoke to the players, they listened.
Just before the start of this season, Eric Dier told The Athletic how much of an impact Mourinho could make with a well-placed comment.
“He’s incredible in the way that he pokes you with his words to get the best out of you,” he said. “He’ll say things to you and nudge you, with the idea of triggering you to want to do better, to want to improve or to prove him wrong.”
Jose Mourinho, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg
Hojbjerg was one of the few consistent performers under Mourinho (Photo: Neil Hall – by Pool/Getty Images)
Dier told a story about the build-up to Spurs’ trip to Selhurst Park, the last game of the 2019-20 season. He had been suspended for the previous four games but was eligible to play in this one. Mourinho walked up to Dier in training and said: “You’ve been shit in training since your suspension, do you want to play this weekend?”, then walked off. Dier took this as a “kick up the arse” and played well against Crystal Palace, as Spurs got the draw that sealed sixth place for them.
Tanguy Ndombele is maybe the best example of the success of Mourinho’s methods. When Spurs drew 1-1 at Burnley last March, just before the coronavirus stoppage, Mourinho had hooked Ndombele at half-time and hammered him in public afterwards, saying that with him on the pitch Spurs did not have a midfield. But Ndombele responded well to the challenge and significantly improved his fitness and his performances this season.
But one of the stories of this season was the collapse and ultimate failure of Mourinho’s tactics of “confrontational leadership”, of trying to criticise the players to provoke the right response. What started as a clever trick to keep the players on their toes soon started to grate. Especially when Mourinho made his criticisms in public rather than private.
The players felt, as the season wore on, that whatever went wrong they would be blamed for it, and that Mourinho was happy to throw them under the bus. Ahead of the line-up being announced for the game against Manchester United recently, one club source remarked, “I wonder which lambs will be sent out to slaughter this week.”
It was not always this way. After Spurs lost 3-1 at Sheffield United last July, Mourinho criticised his players’ mentality and the way they caved after a VAR decision went against them. But the players rallied, took 14 points from their remaining six games, and got back into Europe.
This season, though, Mourinho’s barbs have made things worse rather than better. Early on, his anger was at least targeted and appropriate. Of course it helped that, for the first half of the season, Spurs were doing well, scoring goals and, for a few weeks, were top of the table. When Mourinho went after his players, it felt like a one-off.
When Tottenham lost 1-0 at Royal Antwerp in a Europa League group game in October, Mourinho hooked Dele Alli, Carlos Vinicius, Giovani Lo Celso and Steven Bergwijn at half-time. He said afterwards that his team selections would be “very easy” from then on, given how his fringe players had performed. But Spurs won their next five games in all competitions and that was swiftly forgotten.
When Spurs went to Crystal Palace on December 13, they were 1-0 up at half-time, before dropping back over the course of the second half and conceding a late Jeffrey Schlupp equaliser. At the time, it felt like an unlikely result. In retrospect, it looks like the turning point of the whole Mourinho reign.
Afterwards, he made it clear the reason Spurs didn’t win the game was because the players failed to follow his instructions. “I told the players what could happen, and it happened,” he said. “I told the players not to accept that kind of game, but for some reason we were not able to do what I asked them to do.” He was right and the players were wrong.
That was the moment when the players started to realise that when anything went wrong, Mourinho would blame them. Even when they won, the players were not safe, as Dele found to his cost when Spurs beat Stoke City 3-1 in the Carabao Cup just before Christmas. Dele gave the ball away before Stoke’s equaliser, soon got hooked by Mourinho and afterwards was told that he should not “create problems for his own team”.
Four days after that, they drew 1-1 at Wolves in a game almost identical to the Palace draw, conceding an equaliser with four minutes left. Again, the players were blamed for not being good enough to execute Mourinho’s plans. “They know what I asked them at half-time,” he said. “If they couldn’t do better, it’s because they couldn’t do better.”
The start of a new year brought a new target for Mourinho’s ire: the defence. When Spurs threw away yet another 1-0 lead to draw 1-1 at home with relegation candidates Fulham, Mourinho snapped. He said that it was “the same story, basically, from the beginning of the season”, in terms of the bad goals his team were conceding. “There are things that have to be with the characteristics of the players,” he insisted. “They have to do with individual skills, with individual ability. And it is as simple as that.”
Mourinho’s argument was that his defenders were simply not good enough — even though Toby Aldeweireld had been part of the best defence in the country under Pochettino, so good that Mourinho wanted to sign him for Manchester United in 2018. Dier, another former Mourinho transfer target, was an England international and Davinson Sanchez was rated as one of the most gifted young defenders in the world when Spurs bought him in the summer of 2017. Mourinho was frustrated that Spurs had failed to sign Ruben Dias from Benfica, who instead joined Manchester City, or Milan Skriniar from Inter Milan the previous summer and wanted to make a point.
But the problem was that Mourinho had gone far beyond the point of provoking a reaction out of the players. He had hammered them so many times that they lost all trust in him.
The dressing room was increasingly divided. There were more experienced players such as Kane, Hojbjerg and Lucas Moura, who responded well to the manager and who continued to perform even when results were falling apart in the last few months. Kane, sources say, would have run through a brick wall for Mourinho, right up to the end. That much was apparent from his two-goal performances this month against Newcastle United and Everton. On both occasions, the England captain tried to win the game single-handedly, and nearly pulled it off.
Mourinho Tottenham first anniversary analysis
Kane performed brilliantly under Mourinho, right until the end (Photo: Bradley Collyer/EMPICS/PA Images via Getty Images)
At the same time, more and more players were alienated by Mourinho’s behaviour. And it was not just Dele and Harry Winks, who were the two who found their playing time most cut down this season.
The performances of almost the whole team from January onwards, especially in three straight defeats to Liverpool, Brighton and Chelsea, spoke of a dressing room which had been sapped of confidence and belief by the manager’s attacks. All of the unity of the Pochettino era had been shattered.
“Four or five players absolutely hate him, four or five like him, four or five just aren’t arsed,” said another club source earlier this month. “He just splits the camp, because of what he says and how he says it.”
It was not only the dressing room who were unhappy with the way Mourinho spoke to and about the players. That dissatisfaction extended to the club as well.
Tottenham knew how much damage Mourinho was doing through his comments. Staff had been left embarrassed by how he would talk to the squad. Players such as Doherty had found their confidence shattered by the way the manager would criticise them. And while the club had told Mourinho to stop hammering the players after games, it did not always make a difference.
When Spurs went to the London Stadium to face West Ham United on February 21, they lost yet again. Mourinho again turned the blame away from himself. “I think for a long, long time,” he said in his BBC interview after the game, “we have problems in the team that I cannot resolve by myself as a coach.” Mourinho knew better than to repeat those words in his post-match press conference but yet again the players knew that their manager thought it was their fault and not his.
Mourinho was not universally unpopular. A couple of the club’s younger players, Alfie Devine and Dane Scarlett, regularly trained with the first team and felt encouraged by the manager’s approach. Mourinho stopped by at the medical when Devine joined from Wigan Athletic ahead of this season. When the midfielder clashed with Chelsea’s Danny Drinkwater, an England international and Premier League title winner, in an under-23s game in December, Mourinho subsequently sought Devine out to praise his character and courage to go up against such a high-profile opponent.
There was a brief upturn in results in late February and early March when a series of easier fixtures — and the return of Bale to the first team — offered a sense that things were improving and Tottenham might be able to leave the misery of the winter behind them. But that all evaporated in Croatia on March 18.
Tottenham’s 3-0 defeat to Dinamo Zagreb in the second leg of a Europa League last 16 tie will go down as the nadir of the Mourinho reign but in many ways it was not a surprise. Tottenham froze under pressure, looked clueless as to whether they should attack or defend and ended up losing the game, and being eliminated, in extra time. It was one of the most humiliating defeats of Mourinho’s whole career.
Predictably enough, he insisted afterwards that he had prepared his players the right way, and that he had told them to try to win the game on the night rather than sitting on their 2-0 first-leg lead. He even detailed how he had shown his players goals scored by Mislav Orsic, who scored a hat-trick, to prove he had not been caught off guard, even if his players had been.
Worse was to come when Hugo Lloris, the long-standing club captain, and a man who chooses his words carefully, revealed the problems and divisions inside the camp in a post-match TV interview. Speaking of a “lack of basics and lack of fundamentals” at the club, goalkeeper Lloris implored his team-mates to “follow the way of the team”. When the players returned to London to prepare for their weekend game away to Aston Villa, sources say the atmosphere at the club was “horrendous”.
By this point, Mourinho had few allies left at Tottenham. Not only had he fallen out with the players but, according to multiple sources, many colleagues had been put off by his negative mood and demeanour. More than one source drew a contrast between the approach of Pochettino, who tried to create an inclusive environment and Mourinho, who essentially retreated into his bunker in the final months.
As results turned against him, Mourinho found almost no one was left on his side. “You always know what you’re going to get with Mourinho,” said one former colleague. “But it is still very unpleasant when you do get it.”
When things are going against Mourinho, he likes to fall back on the grand gesture. Having seemingly exhausted the avenue of criticising the players for a response, the only lever he had left to pull was team selection. So when Spurs went to Villa Park three days after Zagreb and just before the March international break, he picked one of his most surprising teams of the season, bringing back Joe Rodon, Japhet Tanganga, Lo Celso and Vinicius.
Tottenham looked shaky at first but managed to win 2-0. But when Mourinho tried to pick the same team for the trip to St James’ Park as Spurs season resumed after last month’s internationals, he could not reproduce the same shock effect. The players were increasingly inured to Mourinho’s tactics. He could keep trying to shock them but it was no longer having any impact. After seeing his team concede yet another late equaliser to draw 2-2 with Newcastle, Mourinho made his last but deepest attack on his own team, telling the BBC the difference between now and the defensive stability of his early years was a case of “same coach, different players”.
When another second-half collapse saw Tottenham beaten 3-1 by Manchester United a week later, Mourinho complained about how he was constrained, and no longer able to say what he really thought. “I can’t say what I think,” he said. “You know that. You sometimes want to bring me to deep questions, to deep analysis, but then when I go, I realise that I cannot go.”
In his final pre-game press conference ahead of Friday’s trip to Goodison Park, Mourinho boasted about how “after the (United) game you did not get from me one single negative word about the attitude and the commitment of my players.”
The message from the club had finally got through to him, but too late to save his job.
When Mourinho was unveiled as Tottenham manager in November 2019, he predicted that his team would be able to win the title in the 2020-21 season. But he also issued a warning, one that was to effectively predict his eventual failure.
Mourinho argued that football was changing faster than ever before, that players were becoming more powerful, and that coaches have to adapt to that.
“It’s modern football,” he said. “When my father was a player, before the Bosman law, the players used to play 20 years in the same club. The same player next to him, the same guy in the dressing room, the same centre-back in front of the keeper, for 15, 20 years. After the Bosman law, everything changed. In relation to us coaches, in some parts because of you (the media),we lost that stability, it’s lots of pressure.
“Even for the nature of society now, it looks like everything is fast, even the relationships are fast. Players can get tired of each other, they can get tired of the manager. Everything looks like it’s faster, so we need to change.”
The story of Mourinho’s career is that he enjoyed great success in his first decade, working with a generation of players who have now all retired: Deco, Ricardo Carvalho, John Terry, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Wesley Sneijder, Diego Milito and the rest. But the next generation of players — the millennials and Gen Z players — simply do not react well to his methods.
Players complained of a lack of an attacking plan (Photo: Neil Hall – by Pool/Getty Images)
That was true at Real Madrid, where he won the title but fell badly out with the dressing room. That was true back at Chelsea, where again he won the league before his reign collapsed in the third season amid what their then-technical director Michael Emenalo called “palpable discord”.
And it was certainly true at Manchester United, where Mourinho was not able to get through to Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford, Luke Shaw, Anthony Martial and the rest. His time at Old Trafford was not a complete failure — he won a League Cup and a Europa League — but he was not able to compete with Manchester City, and he left another toxic mess behind him, with the fans at odds with the players. Pogba’s comments to Sky Sports last week show how much more the United players enjoy playing for successor Ole Gunnar Solskjaer than they did for Mourinho.
“I like Jose, but he is disconnected from the new generation of players, and from the new generation of coaches,” says one leading coach. “But he is stuck in his ways.”
At Tottenham, Mourinho ultimately found himself trapped in the same dynamic.
His methods only produced a brief upturn in form — not long enough to win anything — before they started to alienate the dressing room. The players did not like being talked to as Mourinho talked to them, they did not enjoy his football or his training sessions.
The pattern of Mourinho’s reigns at United and Tottenham was precisely the same. The players got tired of the manager, just as Mourinho predicted himself.
(Other contributors: David Ornstein, Adam Crafton and Laurie Whitwell)