Jose Mourinho was watching on as a Sky Sports pundit at the Emirates Stadium during the last north London derby in September. His analysis, either side of a chaotic 2-2 draw, included a dissection of Arsenal’s attack and a word of caution on the changing chemistry at Tottenham.
“Maybe some of the boys want something different,” he surmised. His comments proved prescient as Tottenham’s season started to unravel. But even he could not have predicted that he would inherit those problems himself only a few weeks later, and that he would be taking his seat in the dugout, rather than the studio, the next time the two sides met.
Tottenham are little closer to the Champions League places than they were when Mourinho took over in November. They have only won two of their last eight Premier League games. Thursday’s goalless draw with Bournemouth was just the latest performance to invite scrutiny.
They will need to show considerable improvement on that laboured showing at the Vitality Stadium when Arsenal visit the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Sunday, but an embattled Mourinho is a dangerous one and it is for precisely that reason that this could be his kind of game.
The derby, however daunting given recent form, is an opportunity for Mourinho to quieten his critics and perhaps even puncture the optimism around what Mikel Arteta is doing at the other end of the Seven Sisters Road. Rivalries have often brought the best out of Mourinho’s teams and the significance of this one is not lost on him.
“When I am in a club, I like to be one of them and I like to feel what my people feel,” he tells Sky Sports. “It’s a new feeling for me when I move from club to club, but I learn that feeling very, very fast. I would say that the moment I put my foot in a club for the first time, I learn it automatically.
“So yes, I am one of them. In this case, one of us, which is Tottenham people. What is important for the fans is important for me. “When I go to a derby as Inter manager, I know what it means for them. When I go as Real Madrid manager, I know what it means for them. And when I go as Tottenham manager, I know what it means for them.
“They can count on me to have exactly the same feelings, the same desire and the same passion that they have. When you are a player or a coach of a certain team, it cannot just be a job for you. You must have a sense of duty and a responsibility towards the people who love your club.
“For me, my club, my passion, my love, is the club where I am. In this moment, if you ask me if I know how important it is for Tottenham fans to look at their biggest rivals, then, of course, I know it and of course I share it.”
It is worth remembering ahead of Sunday’s game that, while Tottenham’s recent struggles have offered little encouragement, some of Mourinho’s most memorable victories have come in derbies played in similar circumstances.
You only have to look back to Manchester United’s 3-2 win over Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium in April 2018 for the most recent example. But it was his first derby as a manager, a 3-0 win for Benfica over Sporting Lisbon in December 2000, that shaped his attitude towards them.
“It was a moment where Benfica was really living a difficult moment and Sporting were the champion,” he says. “We were going to the match with the whole country thinking that the champion would dominate the derby, but we won, and we won in such a fantastic way.”
He would leave his post days later – only three months after his appointment – when Benfica’s recently-elected president rejected his demand for a new contract, but Mourinho departed having learnt how to galvanise a dressing room, how to triumph in the face of adversity, and how to harness the emotion surrounding a derby.
It set the tone for the managerial career that has followed, but 20 years on at Tottenham, he is yet to bring the same win-at-all-costs mentality to a club which, for all its undoubted progress under Mauricio Pochettino, has not tasted silverware in over a decade.
Mourinho said he was “disturbed” by Tottenham’s lack of desire in their capitulation against Sheffield United last week, and while he saw signs progress in their 1-0 win over Everton, describing the on-pitch altercation between Hugo Lloris and Heung-Min Son as “beautiful” afterwards, there was little to like about the performance at Bournemouth.
What, then, does he want to see from his players against Arsenal? “My mentality,” he answers. “I want the team to be a reflection of what the coach is. When that happens, that’s when you feel, ‘This is really my team.’
“This is something that is not a finger click. It’s a process. But if you have that feeling that it is your team even when you lose matches – because you will always lose matches – then that is when you are really happy.”