With one swish of Gareth Bale’s left foot last Sunday, the Welshman’s season nearly changed.
Sure, he had scored a fine chop back and finish, plus an assist, three days earlier in the 4-1 defeat of Wolfsberger in the Europa League, but this was different. This was the Premier League. This was West Ham. This was to draw level at 2-2 with your London rivals and stop them going nine points clear of you in a desperate race to make the top four. This mattered.
Bale’s stunning volley thudded into the crossbar and away to safety. His 45-minute cameo was as good as the Real Madrid loanee has looked in the league this season, the old confidence and direct running returning, but still his Tottenham second coming awaited its spark six months after it began.
“I can tell you that in this moment Gareth is playing the minutes that he feels he can,” said Tottenham Hotspur boss Jose Mourinho at full-time.
That he feels he can. This is the natural progression from the one-time Special One’s pronouncements a month ago.
“When a player is consistently training at high intensity without any problems then the player is ready,” said the Portuguese. “Not to be given minutes but is ready to earn minutes and that is a different thing." Nothing to do with me, everyone. If the intensity of my sessions is too much for him to deal with, so be it.
Dele Alli, another sumptuously gifted footballer more frequently used as a desk ornament this season, also transposed a fine first-leg performance against Wolfsberger into a positive second-half showing at the London Stadium.
The reasons for the England international’s absence are similar. Not doing enough in training, his attitude criticised and when given minutes he is “creating problems for his own team”, such as against Stoke in December’s League Cup quarter-final.
Come Wednesday night’s second leg against Wolfsberger, though, Bale and Alli again performed well, the latter channelling his inner Olivier Giroud to score a sumptuous overhead kick, before setting up another two, including one for his fellow ornament-in-crime.
"We know he's got ability and tonight he proved that!"@petercrouch breaks down Dele's statement performance vs. Wolfsberger ✨ pic.twitter.com/bB4rDk2zRgFebruary 24, 2021
It all creates the impression of a pair following Tanguy Ndombele’s lead in responding to Mourinho’s coaching and proving the method beyond reproach. Though it’s undeniable Mourinho has had a positive effect on the Frenchman’s displays since his initial barrage of criticism, it’s no less indisputable that such is Ndombele’s talent, an upturn was not just overdue but inevitable.
Long gone is the early ‘us against the world’ Mourinho era where he would defend his players ad infinitum. This is purest self-protectionism and follows an increasingly familiar path. Dig out the player (usually their attitude or mentality), limit their game time, employ extensive verbal and physical gesticulation as if to say “well, you see what happens when I listen to others” after eventually affording said player excuse minutes. Should the player actually return to the mean, well, then bask in the glory of your own coaching splendour. He’s good at that, you might have noticed.
Joe Cole was on the receiving end in Mou’s wrath during his first Chelsea spell. So was Karim Benzema at Real Madrid in 2010/11, when the Portugues lamented the loss of Gonzalo Higuain to injury. “If I cannot hunt with a dog,” he winked, “then I’ll hunt with a cat.”
Dele ➡️ BaleAn emphatic first-time finish from Gareth Bale!No goalkeeper would have stopped that... 🚀 pic.twitter.com/o3ww14acKOFebruary 24, 2021
Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas were barely on speaking terms with their manager by the time he left in 2013. The former is believed to have played a vital role in persuading Los Blancos’ president Florentino Perez not to bring Mourinho back in 2018.
Eden Hazard was so sick of in Mourinho downing tools when it came to coaching attacking periods of play – his ‘guided discovery’ methods effectively becoming ‘do you what you want’ – he effectively zoned out in 2014/15.
Marcus Rashford actively regressed under Mourinho. So did Luke Shaw and Anthony Martial, the former on the end of a particularly spiteful barrage of Mourinho invective. A couple of years later, Shaw is again on the verge of the England squad and Rashford is enjoying what will be another double-digit Premier League return.
Wherever he goes, a trail of accusations surrounding a poor, small, limited squad playing above themselves only because of Mourinho’s own brilliance – Manchester United finishing second being a prime case in point – follows. The season after he leaves, things improved almost immediately. Real Madrid ended their 12-year wait for La Decima (10th European Cup), Chelsea went on a 13-game winning streak to win the Premier League under Antonio Conte in 2016/17, while Manchester United are transformed into an exciting, attacking force led by the once-maligned Rashford.
“I told my players that when we lose matches in the Premier League, it's my fault,” Mourinho said before taking on non-league Marine in the FA Cup third round, “but if we lose to them, it's not my fault, it's their fault.”
Fast-forward not even two months and the situation is markedly different. “For a long, long, long, long time we have problems in the team that I cannot resolve by myself as a coach,” he said last week. “The results are the consequences of multiple situations in football. Mine and my coaching staff's methods are second to nobody in the world.”
Of course, Mourinho could be right. It could be that Bale and Alli will come good because of their manager’s confrontational approach, but it’s just as feasible – perhaps even more so – that the four-time Champions League winner and one of the most gifted players of his generation are elite footballers who should have been playing anyway. It’s not exactly as if Spurs have swashbuckled their way through deep-lying defences with the elan of an Italian 18th-century Renaissance fencer this season.
Sure, Bale is 31 and on loan, but Alli is 24 and a transfer risk very much worth taking for other clubs. What if Mourinho has wasted six months of the season by proving a point? Unfortunately for Spurs fans, it wouldn’t be the first time.
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Andrew Murray is a freelance journalist, who regularly contributes to both the FourFourTwo magazine and website. Formerly a senior staff writer at FFT and a fluent Spanish speaker, he has interviewed major names such as Virgil van Dijk, Mohamed Salah, Sergio Aguero and Xavi. He was also named PPA New Consumer Journalist of the Year 2015.
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