IN these most uncertain and unfamiliar times, it is comforting to realise that, apparently, you can still bank on one trusty old inevitability: in his second season with a club, Jose Mourinho comes good.
The veteran Portuguese manager was not an unanimously popular appointment when he was chosen to replace Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham Hotspur this time last year, but dissenting voices have been hushed. When they travel to take on Frank Lampard’s Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Sunday evening – pitting Mourinho against his one-time protégé, at his former home – they will do so as Premier League leaders.
And Chelsea themselves appear poised for title contention, just two points further back, in third. Lampard seems to have inherited his former boss’ specialty for a second-season upswing.
Prior to taking over in north London, Mourinho had won the domestic league in four of the five jobs he’d held this century, taking in successes with Porto, Chelsea (twice) and Real Madrid. The only place he was not able to snare a domestic title in his second season at the helm was Old Trafford. But even there he guided Manchester United to second, behind a record-breaking Manchester City, which still represents the club’s highest league finish and points haul since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013.
1st vs 2nd
Lampard vs Mourinho
Chelsea vs Tottenham
The two leaders of the pack fight for top spot. Huge. pic.twitter.com/oXF677DK8J
— LDN (@LDNFootbalI) November 21, 2020
A strong end to last season saw Tottenham rally to finish sixth, clinching a Europa League berth. But few would have expected that Mourinho would repeat his trick of conjuring a title-challenging campaign in his second Spurs season, such had been their inconsistency throughout the term – wins over Manchester City, Arsenal and Leicester were juxtaposed with points dropped versus the likes of Norwich City, Watford, Sheffield United, Bournemouth and Crystal Palace.
But, nine games in, he is on course to do just that in 2020-21. Spurs sit top, ahead of champions Liverpool by virtue of goal difference, which in itself hints at the reason for their improvement this term.
Tottenham’s 21 goals scored gives them the Premier League’s second-most-productive attack, owing largely to the rejuvenated form of star striker Harry Kane. Amid accusations from many observers that the England captain had begun to decline over the past two years, the 27-year-old has this season displayed a more rounded and devastating arsenal than ever before.
With seven goals and nine assists already, he is averaging 1.79 goal involvements per 90 minutes in 2020-21, by far the highest of his career (his previous best was 1.21 in 2016-17, followed by 0.94 the season after). Kane is already only four goal involvements shy equalling his combined goals and assists total for last season.
The only side able to better Tottenham’s productivity in front of goal is Chelsea. The Blues spent around £200m in the summer to stock Lampard’s squad with an array of stellar attacking options, with Timo Werner, Kai Havertz and Hakim Ziyech the headline arrivals.
On the defensive end, a typical strength of Mourinho’s best sides down the years, Spurs have the best record in the division. With just nine goals conceded so far, they are the only side in the Premier League not to have shipped double figures.
“I don't think teams enjoy playing us,” said England international Eric Dier of Tottenham’s improvement under Mourinho. “I think we're physical, I think we're aggressive, I think we're determined, we've got a good attitude and the manager has definitely brought an extra edge to that.
“He's more demanding in certain areas and ruthless with you individually and as a team, so he's definitely increased that a bit as well.”
And it is Chelsea’s improved defensive record that marks them out as a serious title threat, too.
Another lesson Lampard appears to have gleaned from his time playing under Mourinho is the importance of a reliable goalkeeper. The Portuguese installed Petr Cech upon taking over at Chelsea in 2004 and built the Premier League’s best-ever defence on the Czech Republic international’s granite foundation. At Real Madrid he recognised Iker Casillas’ abilities were beginning to wane and ruthlessly ostracised the legendary Spain star. And at United he relied heavily upon David de Gea’s stop-stopping.
Lampard showed his own ruthless streak in replacing Kepa Arrizabalaga between the Stamford Bridge sticks late in the transfer window, bringing in Edouard Mendy from Lille. The 28-year-old Senegalese has conceded just once in his five league games so far for his new club.
“It would be very easy to get excited about being in a lofty position, but we are improving,” Lampard cautiously appraised. “The first port of call was to close the gap on the top two. So we can't get carried away with ourselves at this early stage. We have to try to reach the levels of consistency set by Liverpool and City. I'm just happy with where we're at now.”
And Mourinho, hailed as “the Special One” upon his arrival in English football some 16 and a half years ago, recently relabelled himself “the Experienced One”.
"Basically everything that happens to me in football now is deja vu, is something that has happened to me before,” he said. "There are jobs that you need a special fitness condition, like a football player. A 40-year-old does not have the same potential like a 20- or 30-year-old, unless you're Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
"Coaching, you just need your brain. An accumulation of experiences and knowledge can only make you better."
Master and apprentice face off at Stamford Bridge on Sunday hoping a campaign which promised only chaos and uncertainty can be tamed for sweet second-season success.