WHEN Tottenham appointed José Mourinho in November, it was a long-term move – or as long-term as anything can be when Mourinho is involved. Daniel Levy had, presumably, already as good as written off this season: this was about next season and the season beyond. But there must also have been short-term hopes. Tottenham were 14th when Mauricio Pochettino was sacked: there may have been hope that Mourinho could lift them into the top four, but there surely wasn’t expectation.
If there was, the spate of injuries suffered by forwards, Son Heung-min now joining Harry Kane on the sidelines has surely obliterated it. And that perhaps explains Mourinho’s attitude. It is just about possible that all the stuff he came out with when he was appointed about having learned lessons and discovered a new humility is true but, more realistically, Mourinho’s sense of lightness this season, his ready smile, the overtly relaxed manner, the flickers of the self-aware charm that once enraptured the country, are all a result of his sense that none of this really matters.
Essentially this is a reconnaissance mission before the real business begins next season, and if he could steer Spurs, thanks to the profound failings of the rest of the Premier League, into the Champions League – or even enjoy a run in the competition this season, then so much the better.
Jose Mourinho says he doesn't expect Son Heung-min to play again this season
Can Tottenham sign an emergency striker like Barcelona? pic.twitter.com/7zAHKHWZkr
— Goal (@goal) February 18, 2020
As it is, Tottenham despite being broadly unconvincing since Mourinho took over, despite keeping just three clean sheets in 20 games, despite spluttering recent displays against Watford, Aston Villa and Norwich in the league and Southampton in the Cup, have elevated themselves to fifth in the table. They’re just a point behind a struggling Chelsea who have won just four of their last 14 league games. And even better than that, at least from Spurs’ point of view, fifth may be enough for Champions League qualification this season, depending exactly what happens when Manchester City appeal against their Champions League ban. No wonder Mourinho seems always to be laughing these days.
The Champions League may bring an end to that. It may not. It may be that Mourinho somehow plots a course to glory and pulls off to the least likely success in the competition since the last time the final was in Istanbul. But a team that has spent the last month struggling to scrape by sides in the bottom third of the Premier League will find RB Leipzig a different magnitude of task altogether.
The origins of the clubs and their histories are very different, but there is a sense in which Leipzig are what Tottenham were a season or two ago – a bright young side with a bright young manager, thrilled to be on that stage, still progressing, still ascending, still answering questions about just how good they could be.
Julian Nagelsmann is a coach of immense promise, but his two previous seasons in European competition, both with Hoffenheim, have gone poorly, yielding just one win in 14 games. He has admitted that he changed the team too much between league and Europe, and also believes he focused too much on the offensive side of the game. Leipzig are a stronger side than Hoffenheim anyway, but progress to the last 16 for the first time suggests he has learned and, at 32, he has plenty of time to develop.
Mourinho on if he had anything to prove when he comes up against RB Leipzig head coach Julian Nagelsmann as he was linked to the Tottenham job…
"To prove? after 20 years of career and 25 titles… to prove?" pic.twitter.com/CDRPPE2OFa
— Football Daily (@footballdaily) February 18, 2020
Leipzig began slowly after the winter break, a run of four games without a win seeing them go out of the Cup and lose the leadership of the Bundesliga, and that perhaps offers Tottenham encouragement. But Nagelsmann remains perhaps the biggest threat to Mourinho, precisely because of his age and the sense that he, and his sophisticated high press, represent a bright future that Mourinho, with his insistence on a low block and reactive football, has wilfully eschewed.
Should Tottenham lose, and not only lose but lose in a way that highlights Nagelsmann’s modernity, then the sense that Mourinho is yesterday’s man might be enhanced, not only undermining confidence ahead of the one season but potentially deterring potential signings.
But essentially for Mourinho, the Champions League is even more of a free hit than the league. There are few if any expectations and any progress that is made comes as a bonus.