Statements from football clubs don’t tend to offer much more than the essential information they wish to convey, but on 17 December 2015 Chelsea’s technical director Michael Emenalo provided an exception to the rule.
Chelsea, Emenalo said on the club website, were “in trouble” and “it was time to act”. Jose Mourinho, for the second time, was being dismissed as manager. This time, though, there was a killer phrase: “palpable discord between manager and players”.
It was his memorable and succinct wording which rang in the ears of fans and delivered a parting blow to Mourinho. The Portuguese manager had gone too far and pushed his players too hard.
At the time it seemed Mourinho’s reputation had been damaged – that his confrontational, divide-and-rule methods of management were outdated. We weren’t to know that Manchester United would offer him a way back five months later, or that he would eventually succeed Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham.
But nearly four months into his spell at Spurs, with a 1-0 first-leg deficit to overturn in this Tuesday evening’s vital Champions League last-16 tie at RB Leipzig, it is worth reflecting on Mourinho’s legacy of “palpable discord”.
Tanguy, fall guy
Tanguy Ndombele is the latest player to feel the wrath of an unhappy Mourinho, but his case is far from unusual.
Tottenham’s record signing was hauled off at half-time in the 1-1 draw with Burnley on Saturday, which made it five games without a win for Spurs. Mourinho, who has previously been critical of the French midfielder’s fitness, explained post-match why he had made the decision.
“In the first half we didn’t have a midfield,” said Mourinho. “He has to know he has to do much better and know I cannot keep giving him opportunities to play because the team is much more important.”
While Mourinho offered an apology for substituting Eric Dier 29 minutes into a 4-2 win over Olympiacos in November and showed contrition for hauling off Dele Alli in the first-leg defeat by Leipzig, Ndombele fits a precedent in the 57-year-old’s managerial career.
Mourinho’s treatment of Ndombele has not yet reached the levels achieved by the likes of Luke Shaw, Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Eden Hazard, Pepe, Iker Casillas or Joe Cole, but his actions are in keeping with his dressing room tactics.
At every previous major club he has coached – Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan, Real Madrid and Manchester United – there has been at least one fall guy. While some managers avoid conflict, Mourinho is not scared of fostering resentment among some, as long as the majority are performing.
Goalkeeper Vitor Baia was jettisoned from Porto’s squad for a month after an argument. Mario Balotelli was left out of Inter’s team for a few months following a row. Pepe was publicly slated after sticking up for the sidelined Casillas.
Of course Mourinho had success at those clubs. He won the Champions League with both Porto and Inter and won LaLiga at Madrid, despite constant friction behind the scenes. But the problem is his difficult, spiky demeanour does not lend itself to sustainability.
In his second spell at Chelsea, it was star player Hazard who bore the brunt of Mourinho’s ire. “He’s not the kind of player ready to sacrifice himself 100 per cent for the team and for his mates,” Mourinho said.
Chelsea went on to win the 2014-15 Premier League title, but the poor relationship between star player and manager eventually eroded team morale.
“He started to lose control of the squad. It’s one thing to say something internally, but it’s totally different to criticise someone publicly,” Chelsea midfielder Ramires told FourFourTwo magazine. “The atmosphere became really heavy.”
Spurs are not yet facing a similar situation. But with the squad thin on the ground due to injuries and with a daunting task awaiting them in east Germany, is Mourinho’s style really the most effective way of motivating his players?
“Even when we dominate it’s difficult to score lots of goals,” Mourinho said on Monday. “Defensively we feel that pressure and every time we make a mistake it looks like we’re punished. The boys are not silly and they understand all these frailties.”
If Spurs are to beat Leipzig and reach the Champions League quarter-finals they will have to overcome their manager’s negative outlook, as well as the 1-0 first-leg deficit.