Football’s intangibles will be forever debated because it’s almost impossible to come to a resolution or sometimes even a compromise when the arguments are so antithetical. ‘Desire’ is definitely one such intangible in this category.
‘Lads, it’s Tottenham’, Alex Ferguson famously said of Spurs. But that was at least fifteen years ago, and probably more like twenty years ago. Our players have turned over five or six times since then, our managers more.
There are a group of fans who will see a player charging into tackles as a representation of desire, but that is an outmoded view and far from the discussion that I want to have here.
I have spent a lot of the last 24 hours tweeting about Jose Mourinho’s latest press conference, in which he said ‘I believed in the evolution of the team and I thought that by a desire point of view, they [Sheffield United] put more than us. That’s something that disturbs me. It’s something that I feel, I don’t know, that’s my way of being – it’s something that destroys me a little bit on the inside because I think the last thing in football is when you have the feeling you could, you should do more.’
He thought Sheffield United beat us because they tried harder than us. They wanted it more. In explaining this, he also distances himself from what happened on the pitch. The players had shown ‘commitment and professionalism’ on the training ground, so why wouldn’t he trust them out there? They’d tricked him into believing that they cared, those little scamps! And, yet, when it mattered, they let him down.
As you can tell, I have an issue with this, but first I’ll explain why I’ve discovered that it’s problematic to even have this conversation.
When I tweeted about this it was met with a bunch of absolutely dumbfounded responses for a few reasons:
- People said that our ‘pampered’ (a word that came up a lot) players needed calling out, that they’ve been ‘mentally weak’ (another phrase that was used a lot) for years;
- Jose Mourinho has had a lot of success and therefore he knows best;
- This strategy has worked for Mourinho before.
I’d also note that ‘Mourinho fans’ – and my goodness is that a thing, there are a rather large group of people who support him and not his teams – are next-level.
It is really difficult to debate points 2 and 3 because, at least on some level, the statements are correct. I have a feeling that things have changed since Mourinho had success using this method. My gut tells me that when you’re at a club with almost limitless resources, you can afford to be brutal with players because if you alienate them, you just sell them and move on to the next. Spurs won’t be able to do that. But they are correct; Mourinho does (did?) tend to bring success to wherever he goes. He wins trophies, he is able to point to record books and say ‘I did that’.
But I take issue with the first point, and here’s why: for every single example you can think of where our players showed ‘weak’ mentality in the past five years, I can show you two where they showed the opposite. Spurs in peak Pochettino mode were famous for punching above their weight. We did not have the resources of the bigger clubs and yet we were right there on their coat-tails, and sometimes they were even on our coat-tails. Has this already been forgotten simply because we’ve been rubbish again for a bit?
In the seasons 2014/15, 2015/16 and 2017/18, Spurs – noted bottle jobs, a gutless set of lily-livered little boys (judging by my Twitter mentions) – completed more comebacks than any other team, earning 47 points from conceding the first goal in a match. I’m pretty convinced that that wasn’t *just* because of those famous winners, Kieran Trippier and Christian Eriksen.
There we have Roy Keane in October 2017 saying ‘them [sic] days are over’, ‘very brave, showed a lot of courage’. Alllllll the intangibles.
There is absolutely no doubt that this deteriorated in 2018/19 as Pochettino’s Tottenham started to crumble. As Pochettino started to crumble, in my view. And yet, even then, we saw some of the most miraculous come-backs in football history in our historic Champions League campaign.
Mourinho may want to ‘separate the boys from the men’ as the rather toxic cliché goes, but we only need to look at Mo Salah, Kevin de Bruyne and Paul Pogba as examples of players he famously culled who came back to prove that they did have winning mentality after all and, not just that, truckloads of talent.
I’m not saying that Mourinho doesn’t know what he’s doing – quite the opposite, I’m sure this is very targeted, very considered. What I am saying is that it seems ill-judged at a club like Spurs, where we’re not going to be able to buy a whole new squad of ‘winners’. He needs to work with these players. He needs to foster a sense of togetherness and get them all on the same page – as they clearly were in that period under Pochettino – and I personally don’t believe that this is the right way to achieve that.
And finally, in separating himself from the concept of the players lacking in motivation is a dereliction of duty. It is his job to ensure that the players are motivated. He thinks the players threw the towel in against Sheffield United. Well, so did he. In his own words ‘I feared that in the second half we wouldn’t be strong enough to cope’. Judging by the second half performance, one can assume this came through in his half-time team talk.
It’s fine for fans to scream intangibles at the pitch if that makes them feel better, rather than look objectively for possible reasons why a particular game is going wrong (bad defending with Serge Aurier playing right-back and Moussa Sissoko in defensive midfield is hardly a shock, is it?), but for the manager to join in is an admission that he has failed in some way (whilst reflecting responsibility).
As Spice put it in response to me on Twitter, on one hand you’ve got people shouting “Poch lost the dressing room, couldn’t motivate the players, had to go!” and now those same people are saying that the players should be self-motivated. So which is it?
Jose Mourinho has forgotten more about football than I’ve ever known, and who am I to tell him how to do his job? But I think a more appropriate starting point for analysing that Sheffield United game is looking at the team selection, tactics, use of substitutes and failure to adapt to their style.
I’m not absolving the players of responsibility, by the way. We have some bad players who are playing badly and making mistakes. I don’t think telling them they’re mentally weak is going to make them any better, though. And it might alienate our good ones.