FootballJose MourinhoPremier LeagueTottenham

The hallmarks of third-season syndrome are appearing in Jose Mourinho’s first full season at Tottenham

September 16, 2020

UNINSPIRING performances, rants at referees and rumours of dressing-room disharmony.

The familiar hallmarks of the kind of third-season meltdown present in the denouement of Jose Mourinho’s last three jobs are beginning to appear again for the Tottenham manager. This difference now, though, is that he is only one game into his first full season in charge.

"I'm disappointed with my team," Mourinho said after his side’s 1-0 defeat to Everton at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on the opening weekend of the 2020-21 Premier League campaign.

In his post-match comments to the press, the former Chelsea and Manchester United manager lamented a lack of fitness within his squad, railed against perceived refereeing injustices and criticised his players’ “lazy pressing” efforts.

The Spurs manager has reportedly fallen out with midfielder Dele Alli – who was substituted at half-time of the Everton loss – and it is believed there is further discontent among the rest of the group.

“Look, it’s a tough one,” began left-back Ben Davies’ measured retort to his manager’s most recent criticism. “I think everybody worked hard. Me personally, I gave it my all. I wouldn’t doubt that everybody else in the team gave it their all.”

That Mourinho becomes less effective in his third season with a club – usually departing either during or shortly after that campaign, often leaving scorched earth in his wake – has become one of football’s cast-iron truisms. The fact he has never completed a fourth consecutive season with any side he has managed lends credence to that theory.

The obvious exception is his stint with Inter Milan, where he won a Treble in his second season before leaving a hero. But even then, he bequeathed an ageing squad that had been built for immediate success – his immediate success – to his successor, Rafa Benitez. The crash came, he just didn’t stick around for it.

But it used to be an equally accepted fact that he would guarantee major trophies for his clubs prior to the fallout. In hiring Mourinho, you accepted the coming meltdown in pursuit of the quick flash of significant success that was his trademark. He’s won at least one league title in every job he’s taken in the last 18 years with the exception of his time at United, where a Europa League, League Cup and second-place Premier League finish represented diminished success by his standards but success all the same.

The numbers behind his start to life at Spurs suggest the Mourinho Effect is not the sure thing it once was, though.

Mourinho has overseen 27 Premier League games since replacing Mauricio Pochettino in north London. When comparing this period with his first 27 games in charge in his last two jobs – United and his second spell with Chelsea – there is a clear downward statistical trend.

With Chelsea, Mourinho’s points-per-game average for his first 27 matches in 2013-14 was an impressive 2.22. At United, that dipped to 1.93. At Spurs, it’s just 1.67.

It terms of goals per game, Mourinho’s average thus far with Spurs (1.59) is actually a slight improvement on his first 27 league games with United (1.56) but short of his Chelsea start (1.81). It’s a similar story when it comes to the creativity of his Tottenham team, too, with an average of 16.63 total shots per game an uptick versus his United side’s performance (15.56) but lagging behind his Chelsea average (18.2).

What is perhaps most alarming for a manager renowned for his ability to drill his teams into finely tuned defensive forces is that Mourinho’s Spurs aren’t able to resists opponents as effectively as his last two teams. On average, Tottenham are allowing 13.19 shots and are conceding 1.15 goals per game. At United, those figures were just 9.5 and 0.85 respectively; at Chelsea, 10.3 and 0.78.

But while Mourinho might not be able to offer the kind of immediate impact he previously promised, there have been some positive signs at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Spurs were 10th when the Portuguese took charge, nine points adrift of the top four. Mourinho wasn’t able to bridge that chasm to the Champions League places, but, in terms of results, Tottenham were the fourth-best team in the league between his appointment and the end of last season.

Wherever he has been since he emerged as Europe’s most box-office boss in the early 2000s, Mourinho has spent big. In his first summer at Old Trafford, United broke the world transfer record to re-sign Paul Pogba while also bringing in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Eric Bailly – a total spend of almost £150m. Between the summer and January transfer windows of 2013-14, Chelsea spent approximately £105m on first-team recruits.

So far at Spurs, his most expensive arrival has been Steven Bergwijn, signed from PSV in January for £27m, followed by the modest £15m purchases of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Matt Doherty this summer.

This is why Mourinho always seemed an uncomfortable fit for Spurs – a club that doesn’t spend big and a manager who always has. If his Tottenham reign is to be a success, he’ll have to adapt to this new financial reality, two decades into one of the most successful managerial careers the game has ever seen.

Can the Mourinho Effect work in reverse, building from friction and inconsistency rather than toward them?