Marcus White

Why Tottenham Hotspur hiring José Mourinho is no match made in heaven

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AP

Why Tottenham Hotspur hiring José Mourinho is no match made in heaven

Tottenham Hotspur sacked manager Mauricio Pochettino on Tuesday, and didn’t wait long to find his replacement.

The club announced the hiring of José Mourinho as head coach early Wednesday, less than 24 hours later. Mourinho, who has won everywhere he has managed, replaces a man who didn’t win a single trophy with Tottenham.

But the circumstances of Mourinho’s career, and those of his predecessor’s time at Tottenham, make the 56-year-old’s appointment a puzzling one.

Pochettino oversaw the club’s greatest run in decades, leading Tottenham to four straight top-four finishes and winning more games than any manager since the legendary Bill Nicholson. Tottenham also struggled throughout 2019, miracle run to the UEFA Champions League Final in Madrid aside.

Ultimately, Pochettino fell victim to his own success. Perennial Champions League contention is Tottenham’s new reality, and Spurs right now are closer to the drop than they are the top four.

Pochettino was on record saying he wanted to refresh his squad, desiring a “painful” rebuild as the Lilywhites brought in fresh blood. But clubs around the country and the continent failed to meet stingy chairman Daniel Levy’s demands, leaving the likes of Christian Eriksen, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen to run out the last year of their contracts this season.

Tottenham’s failure to purchase a single player for two consecutive windows ultimately cost Pochettino his job. Lacking subsequent reinforcements behind splash summer signings Tanguy Ndombele, Giovani Lo Celso and Ryan Sessegnon, Spurs have looked stale since the 2019-20 season kicked off, with the players reportedly tiring of Pochettino’s demeanor and demanding training sessions.

If anything, Tottenham’s troubles have highlighted just how difficult Pochettino’s job was last season in guiding a patchwork squad -- playing most of it away from its long-delayed new home, no less -- to the cusp of a European title in June.

Spurs are, unquestionably, in a better position now than when Pochettino took over in May 2014. But that position is still a step down from what Mourinho is used to, as the difficult circumstances Pochettino had to navigate through parts of six seasons illustrate.

Mourinho has managed established long-time domestic giants (FC Porto, Inter Milan), mega-clubs with massive financial might (twice at Roman Abrahamovich-owned Chelsea and most recently at Manchester United) and Real Madrid, which fits both bills. Tottenham wants to keep company with those clubs, but they aren’t there yet.

Spurs’ new stadium is Levy’s boldest step into building a sustainable contender, yet their net-spend during Pochettino’s entire tenure is much smaller than what Mourinho’s was during parts of four seasons in Manchester. Levy reportedly has long admired Mourinho from afar, but the Spurs chairman a notorious penny-pincher and Mourinho’s previous clubs have spent enough for him to dive into a pool of pennies, a la Scrooge McDuck.

There also is the matter of squad construction and tactics. Tottenham under Pochettino were associated with aggressive pressing and attacking football, living up to Spurs’ “To Dare is To Do.” The ultra-defensive Mourinho’s managerial credo might as well be “To Dare is To Don’t.”

Their fundamentally different nature makes Mourinho and Spurs the oddest of odd couples, and begs one question: Who is going to change?

Will Levy open up the purse strings in January, backing his new manager? If not, why hire Mourinho in the first place?

Will Mourinho -- who once complained of Manchester United’s lack of financial support -- accept Tottenham’s financial reality? If not, why take the job in the first place?

Mourinho, tellingly, pointed to Tottenham’s “quality in both the squad and the academy” in his hiring announcement. Given Spurs’ real inability to refresh their squad until the January transfer window at the earliest, Mourinho’s appointment feels like a decision made with their current core in mind.

There are the aforementioned veterans in the last year of their contracts, while attacking staples Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min are in their late 20s. Dele Alli is in the midst of a down, injury-riddled campaign, but the 23-year-old is approaching his peak years. Mourinho has not managed a club for four full seasons, but this Spurs squad as currently constructed surely doesn’t have four seasons left together, anyway.

“If you’re looking long-term, Mourinho doesn’t work,” a source “with links to Spurs” told The Athletic. “If you’re looking for two years, he does.”

[RELATED: Pochettino leaves proud Spurs legacy]

A short tenure would be par for the course for Levy’s leadership, as Pochettino was the longest-serving manager he hired. Mourinho’s contract lasts until 2023, and seeing it out could mark his longest managerial stint, depending upon how many matches Tottenham plays with him at the helm.

Levy is betting on Mourinho to squeeze some last-ditch glory out of an aging squad, while Mourinho is betting on Tottenham to reclaim his place as one of Europe’s elite coaches. They’ve each, essentially, wagered their reputations on this being a match made in heaven.

Yet there are plenty of signs pointing to it being anything but.

Pep Guardiola oddly defiant after Manchester City loss to Liverpool FC

Pep Guardiola oddly defiant after Manchester City loss to Liverpool FC

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola seemed primed to go off Sunday.

His squad lost 3-1 to English Premier League-leading Liverpool at Anfield, and the reigning champions fell behind early following a disputed decision.

Bernardo Silva's pass intended for Raheem Sterling in the box instead hit Liverpool right back Trent Alexander-Arnold's outstretched arm, leading to the Reds' counter-attack that Fabinho capitalized on with an outside-the-box screamer.

Guardiola took issue with the call, and another handball much later in the match. Both appeared to be on his mind when he, uh, passionately thanked the referees after the match.

But the Spaniard insisted during his post-match interview with Sky Sports that he was not being sarcastic with the officials.

"No way," Guardiola told Sky Sports. "I congratulated them. I'm so polite. I didn't say anything here [either]."

Indeed, in Guardiola's interview and post-match press conference with reporters, he didn't take the bait when asked about Alexander-Arnold's handball, which VAR subsequently upheld as not a foul on a check of the goal. Guardiola told Sky Sports to "ask the referees" about the decisions and instead focused on his own team's performance.

"We tried to do our job," Guardiola said. "I would like to talk about our performance, it was so good. So, I know when teams come here and the way they play [with respect for] Anfield, and from the opening, with the problems we have in the squad, the way we played was awesome. One of the best performances we have played. We played in the way, the reason we are back-to-back champions. That is the point.

"At the end, there's still seven months, and if Liverpool win, I will be the first to congratulate them because we cannot deny how good they are."

Guardiola's side trailed 2-0 at halftime, despite controlling possession and out-shooting Liverpool in the first half. But the Reds were clinical, scoring on each of their first two shots of the match. 

Liverpool's first-half performance reminded Guardiola of Manchester City's UEFA Champions League quarterfinal loss at Anfield two seasons ago, when the Cityzens dug a 3-0 first-half hole in the first leg at Anfield. Guardiola was happier with his squad Sunday, pointing to City's various injuries as Leroy Sané, Aymeric Laporte and Oleksandr Zinchenko all have missed significant time this season.

"What happened today, we showed why we are the champions," Guardiola said. "In this stadium, the way we played was incredible. So, I'm so proud of my team more than ever. [An] incredible performance in this stadium against the strongest team in Europe, and the way we played ... I am so proud. So proud. We played so good."

[RELATED: USMNT star Pulisic scores again for Chelsea but injures hip]

Perhaps Guardiola was just trying to be positive following some very visible outbursts, and the frustration stemming from both calls -- or, lack thereof, if you're a City supporter -- is understandable. But as strong as City looked, Guardiola's comments ring of moral victories and are oddly defeatist, especially considering where he and the club stand in global soccer's pecking order.

Guardiola arguably is the greatest club manager of all time, and oil money-backed City has the kind of financial might that only a handful of clubs in the world can match, let alone exceed. City trails Liverpool by nine points in the Premier League table, but don't mistake them for underdogs.

Watch Liverpool FC's Fabinho, Mo Salah score early vs. Manchester City

Watch Liverpool FC's Fabinho, Mo Salah score early vs. Manchester City

In the English Premier League's biggest match of the season to date, Liverpool FC got on the front foot early in a 3-1 win over Manchester City. 

The league leaders led 2-0 within the first 15 minutes Sunday at Anfield, thanks to Fabinho's sixth-minute screamer from outside the box and Mo Salah's 13th-minute header.  

Liverpool opened the scoring while Manchester City was slow to defend the Reds' counter-attack, disputing the referee's decision to not award a handball on Trent Alexander-Arnold. City controlled the early portions of the match, and Bernardo Silva's pass in the box hit Alexander-Arnold's outstretched arm with City attacker Raheem Sterling running in behind. 

The Premier League's rule changes reflecting the International Football Association Board's "Laws of the Game" this summer called for a foul when a player has made their body "unnaturally bigger," but the referee appeared to determine that Alexander-Arnold's outstretched arm was natural.

Alexander-Arnold surely earned himself additional ire from the City faithful with his wonderfully weighted pass on Liverpool's second goal. The right back switched the ball to left back Andy Robertson, whose subsequent cross to Salah left the ball on a platter for the Egyptian striker's run. 

[RELATED: Why Steve Kerr admires Jurgen Klopp's passion, joy]

Liverpool's offense runs through their flanks, as Alexander-Arnold and Robertson have been the Premier League's most productive passers this calendar year.

You'd have to go back to April 2017 to see the last time Liverpool lost at Anfield, and that streak continued Sunday. Sadio Mané put the game out of reach with a 51st-minute goal, but Liverpool's two quick goals ultimately proved to be too much for City.