The manner of Tottenham’s late defeat at Liverpool on Wednesday was painful for Jose Mourinho.
However, while losing – and losing the leadership of the Premier League – was an undoubted blow, in another sense the whole match was a triumph for the Portuguese.
First versus second, everything on the line, a chance to execute a gameplan which came so close to working perfectly, and the opportunity to dominate the pre and post-match debate. It was what Mourinho meant when he talked about the dugout being his natural habitat when he took the Tottenham job in November last year.
And it was everything that seemed to be missing when he was sacked by Manchester United exactly two years ago.
For, when United issued the brief 65-word statement that signalled the end of Mourinho’s tenure as manager at 09:44 GMT on Tuesday, 18 December 2019, it seemed to be the death knell for the Premier League career of one of the most charismatic figures in the game.
Sacked by Chelsea and then United, Mourinho had been rejected as yesterday’s man, a busted flush, wedded to outdated tactics, who had not kept pace with the times.
Those assessments, evidently, were wrong.
Why the change in demeanour?
Speaking to someone who knows Mourinho well about the major difference between the misery of the end of his time at United and the joy at what is happening at Spurs now, the explanation came back “Pogba”.
The image of Paul Pogba, sitting on the United bench, unused, hood up, protecting himself from the rain as his team-mates lost 3-1 at Liverpool in what turned out to be Mourinho’s last match in charge, encapsulated the miserable position the Portuguese found himself in.
He had been fighting at United all season; for the players he wanted to sign, the ones he wanted to sell and, in his view, some recognition from the board. Both sides had grown weary of the battle.
In the end, the Old Trafford hierarchy had to choose between Mourinho and Pogba. Mourinho lost.
At Tottenham, there is no Pogba circus to deal with.
In addition, rather than work to a boss who largely operates 200 miles away in another city as United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward did, he works to a chairman who spends half his time at the training ground, where he has an adjoining office.
Mourinho gets on well with Daniel Levy and enjoys the personal relationship they are developing.
In the Amazon documentary that gave such a fascinating insight into Mourinho’s arrival, Levy called getting rid of Mauricio Pochettino “the most emotional decision I ever had to make”, but then, discussing the Argentine’s likely replacement: “There are two top coaches in the world. One is at another Premier League club and the other is Jose.”
Levy’s statement may have been accurate in 2016, when Mourinho was joining Pep Guardiola in the cauldron that is top-flight football in Manchester. But in November 2019, he had been out of work for 11 months, having left United sixth in the Premier League, 19 points adrift of then leaders Liverpool after only 17 games.
Why Levy never had any doubts
Numerous sources have told BBC Sport the idea Mourinho had lost his mojo is plain wrong.
From their very first conversation, Levy had no doubts. The energy the incoming manager had and his enthusiasm for the players he was set to inherit – better as a collective than the ones he had at Old Trafford he feels – convinced the Tottenham hierarchy they were getting a coach who still had the drive and desire to achieve success.
Mourinho’s reputation goes before him but it is a measure of his true personality that plenty of his former colleagues at Manchester United contacted him to offer good luck when he got the Tottenham job. Those who have seen him at close quarters at Spurs describe him as “chilled, relaxed, approachable”, which are not words you tend to associate with the 57-year-old.
The in-house cricket games shown on social media, it has been stressed, are an example of the positive spirit that exists among the players as they go about their work. The atmosphere in the dressing room, it is said, is better than anything that existed in the past few years of Pochettino’s time in charge, apart from the three week build-up to the Champions League final in 2019.
For a club such as Tottenham, there is another attraction. Mourinho is a magnet for attention. He is impossible to ignore. It used to be said Sir Alex Ferguson created a story every time he opened his mouth. The same is true of Mourinho.
“I have never seen so much coverage before, it’s everywhere,” whispered Harry Winks in the canteen as news of Mourinho’s appointment began to sink in.
“Get strapped in. This is big time now,” said another staff member.
However Mourinho’s time at Tottenham works out – the club’s profile will be far bigger than it was when he arrived.
Right place, right time for Mourinho?
In January 2019, when Mourinho was out of work and filling time, he did some work as a pundit for Qatar-based TV channel Bein Sports.
During a long chat, he gave a fascinating insight into what he was likely to be looking for when he decided it was time to work again.
“The time when the manager was the highest point of the club and all-powerful is over,” he said. “Now you need a structure.
“The first thing I want to speak about with a club is not the players I want to buy or the budget, it is what you have to give me in terms of structure. Then we can move.”
After leaving United, Mourinho turned down a significant number of opportunities because they were not the right fit.
He still believed the Premier League would be the place he felt most at home. Tottenham ticked all the boxes, with its fantastic new stadium, a state-of-the-art training ground, a strong chairman in Levy, a well-respected technical performance director in Steve Hitchen, a squad that reached the Champions League final less than six months earlier and a supporter base desperate for the club to start winning silverware.
Not only that, there would be no need to spend the majority of his life in a hotel, which became such a major talking point in Manchester.
He does have an apartment close to the Tottenham training ground in Enfield but home is only 17 miles away in central London.
Yet this is not the same Mourinho from Chelsea or United. This is a different one. His backroom staff has changed for a start. Only head of first-team performance Carlos Lalin and technological analyst Giovanni Cerra survive from his time at Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford. His assistant, Joao Sacramento, was still at school when Mourinho went on his famous touchline charge as Porto knocked United out of the Champions League on their way to winning the trophy in 2004.
This evolution, it is felt, exposes Mourinho to new ideas, new challenges and new motivations.
Looking back, he views his time at United as a positive experience. He was more aware of the changing dynamic of a dressing room, where old-school mentalities are disappearing. And, three times including the Community Shield, he won trophies.
New club, same old Jose?
As recently as Tuesday, Mourinho provided evidence his brilliant pettiness had not disappeared, that ability to come out with a soundbite or one-liner that has been evident since his first Chelsea press conference when he declared himself a “special one”.
Jurgen Klopp had been in charge of Liverpool for 1,894 days – or thereabouts – whereas he had had only 390 to work with his Tottenham squad. Which other manager would have gone in to that media room armed with that information, having either counted the days himself or asked someone to do it for him?
His recent manager of the month award will have been particularly satisfying as it was a source of irritation that he was nominated for it on a number of occasions at United – but never won it.
This microscopic attention to detail is a huge part of his success. If something is wrong at training, it is not missed. If the opposition has a weakness, he can spot it.
However, beyond anything, Mourinho retains the same ceaseless drive he had when he first came to England in 2004.
The difficulties England duo Dele Alli and Harry Winks are experiencing at the moment prove Mourinho can still be the “ruthless guy”, as he says he is perceived in the Amazon documentary.
“Without filter” is how he describes his preferred method of feedback.
“I push people to their limits,” he adds.
At Tottenham, he is pushing and pushing. Despite Wednesday’s defeat, they are genuine title contenders. They remain in all four competitions and hopeful of a first trophy since 2008.
With Mourinho at the helm, you would not bet against it.