As a coach who prides himself on being at the cutting edge of new trends and ideas within the game, José Mourinho joined Instagram in February 2020. We soon learned that this would not be an account dedicated to the classic Instagram tropes of good vibes, fabulous sunsets, body-positivity and paleo-breakfasts. Instead, in among the adverts for watches and credit cards, Mourinho’s main source of content appears to be his own face, captured in various states of cheerlessness. On the team bus, looking grumpy after a defeat. On a sofa, glumly eating crisps out of a plastic tub. Forcing his staff, including a stony-faced Ledley King, to watch Formula One on a Sunday afternoon.
Even the more sincere posts carry an unnerving import. Last month, for example, Mourinho wrote on behalf of the World Food Programme, pointing out that “842 million people in the world do not eat enough to be healthy”. Curiously, though, the post was accompanied by photographs of Mourinho himself eating, as if demonstrating how it should be done. Three Premier Leagues, two Champions Leagues, one bowl of food: respect, man, respect.
Of course, like everyone else on the platform, Instagram Mourinho is simply a finely-curated character: two parts self-branding to one part smirking self-awareness. In this sense, social media is simply an extension of Mourinho’s footballing persona: one that wickedly skirts the boundaries of the real and the artificial, the text and the subtext. “My dog died, and I’m fucked,” he announces in last season’s All or Nothing documentary, to general bewilderment. You can see his players trying to work out what’s actually going on here. Is this for real? Is this a test? Was there even a dog in the first place? Was it shot trying to escape?
This is in many ways the hubris and nemesis of Mourinho: the sense of goalposts constantly being shifted, of games within games, of mirages and projections. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that Tottenham are currently second in the Premier League, and it feels wrong to write them off, and wrong to take them seriously. In large part this is down to Mourinho himself, a coach who for all the mockery and career obituaries appears fleetingly, unexpectedly, defiantly – to be swimming back towards relevance.
Why might this be? Partly, of course, this is a function of real and tangible phenomena: the flourishing of Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, the joint-tightest defence in the Premier League, the calm efficiency of Pierre-Emile Højbjerg in midfield, sound summer recruitment, the early momentum built up by cup runs. Above all, it is Kane who feels like the key component here: the team’s centre of gravity, capable of weighing the whole thing down or making it work, and currently approaching his crafty, creative best.
Partly, however, it is a function of tone, and this is where Mourinho has truly thrived. Modern coaching, exemplified not just by your Klopps and your Guardiolas but by your Potters and your Hasenhüttls, worships the process: clear ideals, a finely-miniaturised system, a tolerance of individual error. Pandemic football, meanwhile, makes a mockery of the process. Disdains your fanciful pressing machine. Besmirches your pristine plans with empty stadiums, soft tissue injuries and two games a week from now until 2024.
In this new and fearful landscape, it may just be possible for a team to scrape together 80 points and scowl its way to the title. And frankly, why shouldn’t it be Tottenham? They have a deep squad, six high-class forwards and relatively few injuries. They have a simple and unfussy game based on shape, percentages and rapid counterattacks. Perhaps this is the best way to negotiate the Covid era: football chiselled and honed and sanded down to a fine point.
Above all they have Mourinho, who quite apart from convincing Daniel Levy to open his chequebook during a pandemic feels uniquely suited to these straitened and sinister circumstances. Jürgen Klopp looks tired. Pep Guardiola looks tired. Ole Gunnar Solskjær looks glassy-eyed and a little ill, like a man addicted to cod liver oil. Mourinho, on the other hand, was born tired; indeed has made a virtue of his tiredness. This is a man, remember, who spent literally his entire Manchester United reign eating via room service. This season has already served up 15 games in two months. And so he simply pops up his hood, furrows his brow and steels himself for another day of trampling on dreams.
Diego Torres’s biography of Mourinho famously outlined his manifesto of reactive football, defined by apparent blasphemies like “the game is won by the team committing fewer errors” and “whoever has the ball has fear”. Yet read it back now and what strikes you is not how outdated it seems, but how relevant to the current climate. In a time of fear, when everyone is vulnerable, when everyone is making mistakes, Mourinho will be the last man standing, grinding you down and plundering the spoils: the looter in a world of broken windows. And ultimately, it feels churlish to dissent too strongly to any of this.
Football has never simply been an exercise in maxim and dogma, but a game of wits and adaptation. And if for the last few years English football has belonged to the ideologues and the perfectionists, perhaps its next chapter will belong to the dissemblers and the pragmatists: a game of fake crowd noise and concentration lapses and £14.95 pay-per-view fixtures. Perhaps, improbably, this is Mourinho’s true calling: a soiled man for a soiled game.