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Succeeding Mourinho: profiling the next Tottenham manager

The sacking of Jose Mourinho is usually the content craved by fans and media alike.

It sits firmly at the top of the rolling news agendas, asking what went wrong, and where he goes next. This has been the case for over a decade now.

Since leaving Inter Milan in 2010, it is debatable whether any set of fans have been sad to see him depart.

For Tottenham, and chairman Daniel Levy, this was an epic show of rolling the dice. Mauricio Pochettino had engineered a team as good as any at the club for fifty years. However the disappointment of losing the 2019 Champions League Final (which realistically, Spurs were fortunate to be a part of) had proved too crushing for all parties. A rough start to the following campaign was enough to see the Argentine relieved of his duties.

Mourinho followed. It was a move once thought unthinkable, for so many reasons. A manager who once would have laughed at the prospect of managing Tottenham, being one. Another was the football favoured by the manager being so at odds with the club’s philosophy. A third being the lack of human touch and understanding to the modern player by Mourinho at his previous two jobs. Spurs’ squad of talented, but ultimately silverware-less, player were not a comfortable fit, and so it proved in the end.

The ultimate gamble by Levy failed. So who do they turn to next? Did the hiring of Mourinho set a precedent, with Levy now favouring coaches of experience and ‘wow’ factor? Or did it show that club identity’s are now whimsy, and that certain philosophies are more attuned to particular clubs than others?

What are we looking for?

This piece is designed to inspire and enthuse followers of Tottenham, and not linger on the shortcomings of the Mourinho tenure. However to move forward, it is important to focus on why the last appointment was so underwhelming.

For all the success and glory Mourinho has brought to his employers over the last twenty years, it is a medicine that can only be enjoyed when the results are positive. As Spurs sat top of the Premier League after twelve games, the conservative and reactionary tactics were stomachable for the results. After all, Mourinho’s billing was as a manager to guarantee trophies and a winning mindset. Something the club had been craving even throughout the Pochettino progress.

As the results fell away, starting with a defeat to Liverpool in mid-December, so to did the tolerance. This is not a club born on the backs of merciless winning. It is one of an underdog mentality, punching above their weight to mix with clubs of far greater clout. This was something Pochettino had channelled beautifully. The will for attacking football was deafening, and only added to the misery of defeat.

The next manager must bring this back. Levy assumed that bringing Mourinho in was the missing piece of the puzzle. An excellent squad that had come close in the preceding four seasons, just requiring a ruthless mindset. This proved a miscalculation. So a manager in tune with the realistic expectations of the club is essential.

Equally a proven developer of young players is important. Whilst not at Man City’s level, Tottenham’s squad is actually very good. In Son Heung-min and Harry Kane they possess the best partnership in world football. A midfield containing Tanguy Ndombele, Giovanni Lo Celso and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg is among the league’s very best. The defence is a concern, but there are the bones of a very good Champions League level team here. A coach to extrapolate that potential, whilst carefully adding to it, is highly desirable.

The final criteria is less tangible. From the moment he arrived, Mourinho’s aura was one of a saviour. He was arriving at a club that was lucky to have him, and that it was a right to grant their dreams with trophies. It was an off-putting air to carry. The next manager must appreciate what Spurs are, and also themselves feel lucky to be at a club on the rise. For all the mocking of rival fans, Tottenham is a huge club with epic potential. Mourinho’s successor must feel this responsibility and see it as their privilege to carry it forward.

  • a coach respectful of the club’s traditions, and ultimately shortcomings too
  • a developer of youth, and able to improve and elevate a talented squad
  • a coach that favours attacking football over pragmatism

Candidate 1: Ralf Rangnick

Current job: Free agent

Age: 62

Nationality: German

Arguably the most inspiring option on this list, Rangnick is a persona and brain that would transform a wounded club. His work as a manager alone can elevate a team of high potential, whilst his experience and nous as working as a sporting director ticks another need for Tottenham.

Rangnick was the face and brains of the Red Bull group . Joining the project in 2012, and with RB Leipzig in the fourth tier, he oversaw their rise to finishing second in the Bundesliga just four years later. His control over transfers, youth setup , and later as Head of Sport and Development of the entire Red Bull group, was integral to their progress.

As a manager, he counts Thomas Tuchel, Julien Nagelsmann and Marco Rose as students of his methods. After RB Leipzig parted ways with Ralph Hasenhüttl, Rangnick stepped in to manage the team for the 2018/19 campaign. In this season they finished third and reached the final of the DFB Pokal.

His theories of Kapital, Konzept and Kompetenz are pivotal to his success. Kapital meaning smart investment, Konzept being the club wide ideology that binds recruitment with playing philosophy, and Kompetenz, meaning the mindset for players to commit and enact on their talent. Recently snubbed moves to Milan and Eintracht Frankfurt have hinged on the control Rangnick would be afforded, to work as both director and manager. His record in both commands these demands, but whether Levy would be willing to hand Rangnick the keys to the castle is debatable.

One must only look at the talent recruited and then developed under Rangnick’s eye at Leipzig to see the benefits he could bring to Tottenham. A merciless attacking philosophy hinged on aggressive high pressing, and executing attacks vertically and directly, Rangnick would bring not only an ambitious philosophy but also a thrilling watch for fans that are crying out for such entertainment.

If Tottenham do not appoint Rangnick in his desired capacity, it would be a severely missed opportunity.

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Candidate 2: Erik ten Hag

Current job: Ajax (Netherlands)

Age: 51

Nationality: Dutch

Erik ten Hag’s career to date has bene one of an uphill trajectory, and taking sensibly size steps to continue his progression. Having spent four years at Ajax, now seems a good time for him to push his best foot forward once more.

Understandably his work at Ajax is what commands the biggest section of his résumé. A spectacular 2018/19 season included winning the Eredvisie and the KNVB Cup, on top of a Champiions League semi-final run. Were it not for a Lucas Moura inspired comeback for, ahem… Tottenham, in that semi final then ajax would have faced Liverpool in the showpiece event. ten Hag was also nominated for the FIFA Best Men’s Coach Award that year and finished one vote behind third placed Mauricio Pochettino.

ten Hag’s work at Utrecht is also of great interest. He was appointed in 2015 as head coach and sporting director, and in two seasons took the club from eleventh to fourth in 2016/17. Such work earned him the Rinus Michels Award for best Dutch coach in 2016 (to which he added in 2019). With Ajax twelve points clear at the top, and only four games remaining, ten Hag will have won his second league title in only three full seasons at the club.

Aside from the silverware, ten Hag is a coach that club fans would long to have. Ajax are indoctrinated to play beautiful football, and ten Hag’s Ajax have more than continued that tradition. His use of strong but technically excellent midfielders to break an opposition press, and receive the ball comfortably deep in their own half, is a particular theme. In Frenkie De Jong and Ryan Gravenberch Ajax have produced two incredible talents in this area. Lo Celso and Ndombele would thrive under such management and coaching.

Similarly his adaptation of key players to new roles is highly impressive. ten Hag has repurposed three former Premier League players to fit entirely new roles, and execute them perfectly. Dusan Tadic has been redesigned as a centre forward-come-false nine from the inconsistent winger seen as Southampton. The Serb is now in sight of the club’s top twenty all time goal scorers. Daley Blind is now a wily ball playing centre back from the slight left back seen at Manchester United. Finally Davy Klaassen has turned his career round with fourteen goals in all competitions this season, playing in both his favoured attacking midfield role but also in a deeper double pivot.

The football is a joy to watch, the players are rinsed of their potential (and even given new roles entirely), and the manager is climbing a hill towards the elite realms. Erik ten Hag would match all the requirements of the next Tottenham manager. Some will inevitably be hesitant at the supposed gap in quality between the domestic game in the Netherlands and in England. However his work at smaller clubs such as Utrecht, and his renewal of talent at Ajax without falling short on quality output, shows a smart tactician and clever man manager. He would fit the bill perfectly.

Candidate 3: Christophe Galtier

Current job: Lille (France)

Age: 54

Nationality: French

Whatever Levy and Tottenham’s conceptions are of where the team is currently, signing a marquee manager to just add the final flourish was a mistake. The squad is very good, and the infrastructure fantastic. However, the decline since that 2019 Champions League Final has shown that Spurs require a coach accustomed to building a project. Someone capable of taking an exciting, if imperfect, group and ultimately, improving them to a higher level.

There are arguably few better to embark on a project with than Christophe Galtier. The Frenchman spent eight years as manager of Saint Etienne, taking a team dwelling in seventeenth place to finishes of fifth, fourth and fifth between 2012 and 2015. Galtier left in 2017 to join Lille, who themselves were languishing in the relegation zone. Their appointment of Marcelo Bielsa had been disastrous, and Galtier was required to not only save the club from relegation, but quickly form a bond with sporting director Luis Campos to move the team forward.

Galtier would steer them one place clear of the drop in 2017/18. However, the years that followed returned incredible rewards. Second and fourth placed finishes are now being built on further, with Lille top of Ligue 1 at the time of writing. The entire project at the club is impressive. Star players are pillaged year after year, and Campos recruiting their replacements expertly. Rafael Leao, Victor Osimhen, Renato Sanches, Jonathan David and Jonathan Ikone have been signed during the Campos years at limited cost, and to replace outgoing stars such as Nicolas Pepe and Yves Bissouma. It is a remarkale operation.

All the while, Galtier has continued to produce excellent results. Galtier’s teams have never been ones to blow an opposition away with exhilarating forward play. In 2019/20, the truncated season saw a return of only 35 goals from 28 games. However this season’s 58 goals from 34 games is more reasonable, and only conceding 22 goals in this time is exceptional. In a season where even PSG have dropped silly points to dent their progress, Lille have only lost three games.

Galtier builds up his teams from the back with his central midfielders staggering to aid passing options and ball progression. Again, this would maximise the potential of Ndombele. He also sets his teams up to press and counter press aggressively. Tottenham have the tools to be a strong pressing team, with Son, Lucas and Steven Bergwijn all being hard working and aggressive pressers. Mourinho never got this out of them, instead asking his wide men to encamp themselves deep and counter when the ball is turned over. Forcing turnovers even slightly higher up the pitch could make Spurs more proactive against better teams. (for more detail into Galtier’s tactics, read this excellent article by Breaking the Lines)

At Lille, the turnover of players means Galtier has had to adjust and adapt to new personnel. This would not necessarily be the case at Tottenham, however it demonstrates the mind and eye of a great coach. It might take Lille winning the league this year to enthuse Tottenham fans about a less marketable name such as Galtier’s. However his work up to this point already warrants his inclusion in discussions. It would be an intriguing, and intelligent appointment.

Make or break for the Tottenham project

The Pochettino era ended trophy-less, but it raised the profile and status of the club higher than it had been in decades. The manager was charismatic and engaging. The players were young, talented and hungry. And the football was exciting, fast, and contemporary.

Even Mourinho’s staunchest supporters would find it hard to argue he made Tottenham better in any form. Bringing Mourinho in was the deal with the devil Levy thought was required to bring the fans and club the final missing piece; credibility earned through silverware.

It can even be argued that the depth of the squad, and overall standard of player is greater now than it was even under Pochettino. This is a squad that staggered to the 2019 Champions League Final with only two fit central midfielders in Moussa Sissoko and Harry Winks. Now this midfield is of a calibre, on paper, good enough to challenge Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool as the second best in England.

The next manager will be enthused by the tools at his disposal. Providing Harry Kane remains, he will have one of the best two strikers in world football, and in Son Heung-min has one of Europe’s best finishers. The potential is huge, and not potential that is miles down the road. It is bubbling under the surface already.

Each of these coaches has shown a propensity to improve players. Players of lesser ability than those at Tottenham too. Such a developmental tutor to this squad really could see fast results that turn the Mourinho days into a distant memory. A blip in the trajectory.

Rangnick undoubtedly poses the best chance of improvement. his record as both a coach and in an all-seeing directive capacity place him among modern football’s visionaries. The question is whether English football is ready for such a presence.

ten Hag will very soon join a club at the higher reaches of European power. He already embodies the tactical and personal traits of such a figure, and Tottenham will no doubt face a battle for his services.

Galtier is the rogue-est suggestion here. His work in France is impressive, let alone if he guides the club to a league title this campaign. It would be a brave appointment, and one that many fans would be unsure about. But clubs must take these risks if they are to ignite change and progress. Tottenham have been brave in their past employments, snapping up young and progressive coaches to mirror their ethos. It is time they again looked within. To what they are and aspire to embody, before picking their next manager.

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