It's early, but Jose Mourinho is delivering the best performance of his managerial career

Leander Schaerlaeckens
·5-min read

Going into this season, it was fairly evident that Jose Mourinho faced the toughest job of his managerial career.

He was in charge of a Tottenham Hotspur team that had been in slow decline for several seasons; from the 2016-17 season through 2019-20, its Premier League points totals tumbled from 86 to 77 to 71 to 59. But Spurs stubbornly refused to add new players that might turn things around. Mourinho had done an admirable job the prior season, taking over from Mauricio Pochettino in November and dragging the side from 14th place to sixth.

Questions lingered about his ability to adapt with the times and adjust to the modern high-pressing game when his teams traditionally hadn’t pressed much at all. In his last job, Mourinho had been fired ignominiously by Manchester United, marking his first job with a major club in which he had not won the domestic league.

And while Mourinho got a few reinforcements over the summer – Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and returned veteran Gareth Bale in midfield; Matt Doherty and Sergio Reguilon to shore up the back line – they were solid pickups yet also not the kinds of impact signings that promised to make a big difference. Spurs had the fourth-highest net expenditure out of any Premier League team in the summer market, behind Chelsea, Manchester City and, remarkably, newly promoted Leeds United, but had to spread it around to rebuild squad depth.

Rivals Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool, United and Arsenal all dropped major transfer fees on players, getting to spend more on each of them as they needed fewer signings. All the same, Spurs remain fairly thin, staring into the maw of a season with a schedule more compressed than ever.

But here are Spurs now. Here is Mourinho. Ten games into the Premier League season and with his Spurs back in first place after Sunday’s tight 0-0 stalemate at fellow contenders Chelsea, you could credibly suggest that Mourinho is delivering the best performance of his managerial career.

Jose Mourinho's work with Spurs this season has been different from his work with other big clubs, but the results have been there all the same. (Photo by Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)
Jose Mourinho's work with Spurs this season has been different from his work with other big clubs, but the results have been there all the same. (Photo by Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

Historically, Mourinho had thrown a load of money at his coaching problems. Presented with an issue, he would just buy, or demand, expensive signings, rather than developing the young world class talent in his squads. Like Romelu Lukaku, Kevin de Bruyne and Mo Salah, for instance, all of whom withered on the bench in Mourinho’s second spell at Chelsea, only to become superstars elsewhere.

In his first period with Chelsea, the club went on an unprecedented signing spree on Mourinho’s behalf. At his next job, Inter Milan bought him Wesley Sneijder, Diego Milito and Samuel Eto’o – the latter in a Zlatan Ibrahimovic swap. When he went to Real Madrid, he got to add a constellation of up-and-coming stars to a team that had just added Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo for world-record fees. When he returned to Chelsea, he brought in Willian and Cesc Fabregas – and benefited from the recent acquisition of Eden Hazard and Oscar before his arrival. Manchester United backed him with the purchase of Paul Pogba and so many others.

In fact, in 2017 Mourinho became the first manager in history to pass a billion pounds in player recruitment on his watch. Not even Sir Alex Ferguson, Carlo Ancelotti or Louis van Gaal, who had all been at the top of management for longer, had reached that benchmark before the Portuguese did.

But at Spurs, there has been relatively little money to spend.

Instead, Mourinho has improved his players.

He has rejuvenated striker Harry Kane and added dimensions to his game. He has drawn more consistency out of Son Heung-min. Tanguy Ndombele has finally come along to justify his club-record fee. Eric Dier has become the defender he always looked capable of being.

Under Mourinho, Spurs have become far more efficient. Through 12 games under Pochettino last season, they accumulated just 1.16 points per game. After Mourinho arrived, that number jumped to 1.65 through the rest of the campaign. So far this year, Spurs are racking up 2.1 points per game.

Per Opta, Tottenham’s 13 points away from home in their first five games is their best start since 1960-61 – the last time they won the league, as it happens.

Beyond that, and veering into the less quantifiable realm, this Spurs squad seems to demand more from itself than it used to.

“A draw in here, normally, is a positive result,” Mourinho said on Sunday, following the draw with his two-time former employer. “To stay top of the league with that result, is also a positive thing. And my dressing room is not happy. That’s the best thing that I take from the game – we are not happy. That for me is fantastic. It’s a complete change of mentality, a complete change of personality. That’s the thing that makes me really, really happy; we are not happy with a draw at Stamford Bridge.”

Tottenham Hotspur is largely unchanged. Yet under Mourinho, something is also different this season.

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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