Ken Early: Importance of bravery is lost on Mourinho

Rather than gripe, the Tottenham manager should ask why Klopp is getting the plaudits

Spurs’   head coach José Mourinho looks on as his team lose to Leicester at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Sunday. Photograph:  Andy Rain/Pool/AFP

Spurs’ head coach José Mourinho looks on as his team lose to Leicester at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Sunday. Photograph: Andy Rain/Pool/AFP

 

It was as though a third bad result in a week was too much for José Mourinho to bear; for a moment, the 57-year-old Tottenham manager retreated from the reality of a 2-0 defeat to Leicester towards the comfort of escapist fantasy.

“We could be here as the ones that broke Liverpool’s record at Anfield, getting three points at Anfield and going to this game from the high of this level of confidence and happiness,” he said. “I have to admit that probably we start this game from the low of that disappointment of not getting what you deserve in that match.”

That 2-1 midweek defeat had felt like the most significant match of the season so far, as Liverpool took back control of the title race and trampled on Mourinho’s own furtive hopes. Losing was especially painful because, for the first time in five years, the Spurs manager had started to feel like a title contender again.

For a manager who claims to be interested only in results and not in questions of “philosophy”, Mourinho spends a lot of time engaged in ideological warfare

For some years now it has seemed as though his time at the top was over, but the 2020-21 Premier League – pandemic-stricken, fixture-congested, behind-closed-doors – is not the same football that left Mourinho behind. Pressing is down by more than 20 per cent from the peak in 2018-19. The game is slowing back down – its evolution has gone into reverse. Maybe the football clock could turn all the way back to the days when Mourinhoball was cutting-edge.

But a chance that has materialised so unexpectedly might not come again soon, which is why Mourinho was so emotional in the aftermath of the loss to Liverpool, complaining that he was judged by different standards compared to other managers, and declaring sourly that “the best team lost”. It was a line he used the night in 2013 when his Real Madrid team beat Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United at Old Trafford in what would turn out to be Ferguson’s last-ever Champions League match. This time there was no pretence of magnanimity.

Results

For a manager who claims to be interested only in results and not at all in questions of “philosophy”, Mourinho spends a lot of time engaged in ideological warfare. Indeed, his barbs at the “poets”, the “Einsteins” and other frauds have provided much of the entertainment value in the less-successful latter period of his career.

“You love the word ‘possession’ and you love the stats,” he scoffed in his press conference on Friday, in the course of a lecture on how numbers can mislead. “The stats many, many times are like an incredible piece of meat or fish, but badly cooked. They don’t tell me much.” And indeed, it is silly to criticise Tottenham for having only 25 per cent possession at Anfield, when the starting point of their game plan was literally: let Liverpool have the ball.

For Mourinho the relevant statistic was: four “big chances” created to zero. Those chances fell to Son Heung-Min, who scored, Steven Bergwijn, who hit one wide and one off the post, and Harry Kane, who hit the top of the crossbar. At the other end, Liverpool scored a deflection and a lucky header from a corner and so Tottenham did not get what they deserved.

The following evening, as Mourinho digested the news that Jürgen Klopp had won the FIFA Best Men’s Coach award for a second successive year, he might have reflected on the injustice of a world where everyone crowds around to shower Klopp with praise and plaudits, while he, Mourinho, with more trophies than Klopp, suffers the indignity of being dismissed as yesterday’s man by people who have never won anything.

Maybe this is why, in his media conference on Friday, Mourinho came out to bat for the Bayern coach Hansi Flick, another man who had not got what he deserved. How could Klopp be coach of the year, when Flick’s team had won every competition they played in?

Tie-breaker

Flick had a good case, which is why the vote was so close and went to a tie-breaker. That he did not win is probably because he took over a Bayern team that was underperforming but already strong – strong enough to beat Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs 7-2 in their own stadium. Flick liberated potential that was already there, but Bayern is not his team in the same way Liverpool is Klopp’s. It’s a bit like arguing that Roberto di Matteo is the best Chelsea manager because he’s the only one to have won the Champions League. As Mourinho would be the first to point out, di Matteo was lucky that illustrious predecessors had left him such a good side.

When you think about it as spectator sport, the central importance of bravery becomes clear. Without it, you don’t have a game worth watching

Klopp acts as though he doesn’t care about these individual awards, while Mourinho acts as though he does. If he has designs on ever winning another one, then instead of resenting outcomes he doesn’t like, he should ask himself: why do people seem to prefer Klopp’s style?

The answer is very simple, and you don’t need to refer to any statistics, overcooked or otherwise. In professional sports the only thing that counts is victory, and professionals like Mourinho know this. But in spectator sports, which have been around a lot longer, the thing that really counts is not victory but bravery.

A results-oriented analysis would conclude there is no “right way” to play football. A game like last Wednesday’s is a good example. Liverpool were the proactive team, Tottenham the reactive one. Liverpool won but it could easily have been Tottenham. There was nothing inevitable about Liverpool’s victory. There was no convincing evidence that proactive football is “better”, in the sense of being more likely to lead to victory in a game like this.

Taking the risks

The observation that Liverpool’s approach was braver than Spurs’ – in that they were the side taking the risks, pushing up the field, leaving space behind, exposing themselves to danger as they chased the victory – feels like something serious professionals like Mourinho might dismiss as an irrelevance, a note on style, a detail that belongs in a separate, subordinate category, at best tangential to the serious question of how best to go about winning football matches.

But when you think about it as spectator sport rather than professional sport, the central importance of bravery becomes clear. Without it, you don’t have a game worth watching. The league awards no extra points for style, but the fans do. You only need one proactive team involved to have a chance of seeing a game: a proactive team can bring a reactive one to life. But two reactive teams adds up to nothing. We’ve seen too many of these non-games already this season: last week Manchester United 0, Manchester City 0; before that Chelsea 0, Tottenham 0; and Manchester United 0, Chelsea 0. In each match, the sides were too afraid of losing goals on the counter to take the risks necessary to win.

Liverpool’s title defence has been beset by numerous problems, but lack of bravery hasn’t been one of them. If you’re looking for a reason why Klopp and not Mourinho wins the awards these days, remember that only one of them insists on giving the spectators what they’ve come to see.

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