Jose Mourinho heeded his own advice at Old Trafford on Sunday, remaining seated in the dugout and wearing only the merest flicker of a smile as his Tottenham side laid waste to Manchester United.
Earlier in the week, Mourinho had reminded Chelsea boss Frank Lampard that managers should only “be the protagonists on the touchline” when their sides are losing and, true to his word, the Portuguese assumed a watching brief as Spurs dismantled United 6-1.
Afterwards, the Spurs manager remained restrained during his post-match media duties – aside from one choice dig at his critics and another at his former club – but inside he must have been singing.
Eleven long months after his appointment, the win at United was both Mourinho’s best result at Old Trafford and potentially a landmark occasion for Spurs.
Mourinho described the performance as “an honour” and it felt like one of those matches where everything neatly clicks into place for a manager, heralding the start of a new and exciting period.
In some ways, it felt comparable to Mauricio Pochettino‘s 5-3 win over Mourinho’s Chelsea on New Year’s Day 2015, in which the foundations for Spurs’ success under the Argentine were visible for the first time.
Spurs have struggled for identity since Mourinho succeed Pochettino in November last year, often eking out results without a discernible style or else taking two steps forward, followed immediately by one back.
Mourinho’s own narrative and the swirling global factors outside his control have contributed to a lingering sense that his tenure is still yet to really begin, that we are waiting for the true fruits of the manager’s labours to emerge – be it in triumph or disaster.
The restart in June and the opening-day defeat to Everton both ended up feeling like false starts but Sunday may finally prove the real beginning for Spurs under the 57-year-old.
For the first time in a big game, Spurs looked like a classic Mourinho side – albeit still too fragile defensively. They were ruthless and decisive in possession, pegging back the opposition with two attacking full-backs in Serge Aurier and Sergio Reguilon, which they have almost never done previously under Mourinho.
They continued to look menacing on the counter-attack but their approach with the ball was both clear and effective, with the full-backs, Heung-min Son and, later, Lucas Moura exploiting the wide open spaces in United’s back line, while Harry Kane orchestrating everything from a deeper No.10 role.
Erik Lamela, Moussa Sissoko and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg battled tirelessly, providing a platform for the more creative Tanguy Ndombele.
Without the ball, Spurs were equally as ferocious and pleasingly cynical, as least to Mourinho’s eyes, best evidenced by Lamela’s part in Anthony Martial’s red card.
United, admittedly, were shambolic but they were still the third best team in the country last season and effectively started the game with a 1-0 lead after Bruno Fernades converted a penalty after 90 seconds.
In should also not be forgotten that Spurs were playing a fourth match in eight days after two mid-week fixtures – and wins – against Chelsea and Maccabi Haifa.
Mourinho has been at his pragmatic best to coax three wins and a draw from his squad, and he was only denied the perfect week by a questionable handball decision against Newcastle last Sunday.
Tottenham’s win was quickly overshadowed by Aston Villa’s 7-2 victory over Liverpool – a result which seemed to confirm that the normal rules no longer apply to the Premier League, at least temporarily.
The fledgeling season has already thrown up a host of freak results, with Spurs, Leicester, Manchester City, West Ham and even the previously untouchable champions lurching from the ridiculous to the sublime and back again.
The table going into the international break speaks to the top-flight’s current madness; Everton top with a 100 percent record, Villa second and the Manchester clubs languishing just above the relegation zone.
The absence of crowds, fixture congestion, intense fatigue, the ongoing threat of coronavirus and the general feeling that the game has been knocked out of kilter by the pandemic promises to make this season one of the most unpredictable in recent memory.
Even if the table eventually levels out, it feels like it could be another anomalous campaign, like 2015-16 when Leicester won a maiden title with just 81 points.
That year and again in the 2019 Champions League, Spurs nearly capitalised on established heavyweights underachieving and this year they suddenly look well-placed to defy pre-season predictions again.
Given the simmering chaos, it is a good year to have a seasoned and experienced pragmatist in the dugout – just as Leicester did five years ago in Claudio Ranieri – and a strong squad, as Spurs have proven this week.
One potential problem with Mourinho, a manager who never talks about projects or philosophies, is that morale can become too dependent on results, and the mood could quickly shift with defeat to in-form West Ham after the international break.
For now, though, it feels like Mourinho’s Spurs have clicked, and at the perfect time.