On April 25th, Tottenham Hotspur will play against Manchester City in the League Cup final. For Pep Guardiola and City, this is almost routine. For José Mourinho, it is a chance to change the mentality of one of the most underachieving teams in Europe.
Thirteen. The widely recognized number of bad luck and one that Tottenham Hotspur fans are very accustomed with. Thirteen years ago, Spurs beat Chelsea 2-1 to win the League Cup. They have not won a trophy since. Under Mauricio Pochettino they came close but could not get over the line.
Now, with a ‘serial winner’ at the helm in José Mourinho, Spurs have an opportunity to put past failures behind them and end their 13-year drought. By doing so, they may be able to push on to bigger and better things.
The very word “bottlers”, or “bottle-jobs”, has become synonymous with Spurs over the years. Thank to finishing third in the 2015/16 Premier League season, even though they looked like Leicester City’s closest challengers during their miraculous title win, as well as completely choking on the biggest stage during their 2-0 defeat in the 2018/19 Champions League final.
Coupled with numerous occasions in domestic and European games where results have left them embarrassed. It has not been an easy ride for Spurs fans over the past few years. It is only right to assume that it has not been too easy for their players either, maybe even worse.
The mental strain of continually getting within inches of silverware, only for it to be catastrophically swiped away every single time must be immense. Particularly after that Champions League campaign in 2018/19.
With dramatic wins against Manchester City and Ajax, it truly seemed like it was Spurs’ time. Pochettino even said that he might leave Spurs if they were to win the tournament. This was it. The 2015/16 title race was the learning curve and now they would right their wrongs. But they did not. They completely folded in a drab final. The outcome was nowhere near the expectation. The developing culture of defeatism and constant losing was cemented that night in Madrid. So, what is the cure for a team that can’t win? Get a manager that can’t lose.
Many were surprised when José Mourinho became manager of Spurs, but they may have been a match made in heaven. Mourinho thrives on being the underdog. Chelsea would not be the club that they are without him, and the fact that Porto have a Champions League star and Inter Milan are the only Italian side to win the treble despite their underdog status when he took over, speaks volumes. Spurs are a big team in England, but the feeling of defeatism is there and Mourinho can home in on that and use it to his own advantage.
However, the pressure is on Mourinho to produce a trophy as well. He has made a habit of winning a trophy in his first two seasons at each club that he has been to. Technically, this is his second season over Spurs. If the players are to believe in his system, then the best way to gain their trust is by proving that you can bring them silverware. A team lacking a winning mentality turning things around with one trophy is nothing new. The most recent example is Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
The Klopp Effect
Klopp became manager of Liverpool in 2015. At the time of his arrival, Liverpool’s most recent trophy had been the 2011/12 League Cup. They had not won a domestic league title since the 1989-90 season. They pushed for the title in 2013/14, but their title hopes fell apart in catastrophic fashion. The heartache continued in his second season when they lost in the Europa League final. It seemed as if trophies would always evade them, but Klopp began to form a stronger team and his “heavy-metal”, approach was beginning to work. However, a manager is only judged on the trophies he wins and still Klopp had not brought any to Anfield.
In the 2017/18 season they came within touching distance of the pinnacles of English and European football. Finishing runners-up to “The Centurions”, in the Premier League and then being swept aside by Real Madrid in the Champions League final. The effects of such high-stakes losses were huge on the side, however they managed to return to the Champions League final the following season.
This time they were the favorites. Klopp had brought them to another final, with all of their lessons learned from the previous year’s defeat. It was theirs to lose. That win in Madrid proved to the players that they were capable of winning and that the manager’s system was worth believing in. We all saw what happened next. Liverpool were finally crowned champions of England after a thirty year wait. The “mentality monsters”, were born after a group of players that had never won anything finally got a taste of victory. This is the task ahead of Mourinho.
To compare the League Cup to the Champions League would be foolish, but the weight of this final for Spurs is like no other. A chance to prove to the media, the fans and most importantly, themselves, that they are capable of being winners. They are going up against a Manchester City side that have made a habit of winning this tournament. Looking at the lineups that both teams played in their semi-final matches, this cup is not being taken lightly. And the final will be no exception, particularly for the managers.
Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho’s rivalry has defined the teams that they have managed. Rarely does the feud between the managers of Real Madrid and Barcelona overshadow El Clásico itself. Same goes for the Manchester Derby. Not only is Mourinho’s reputation for being a winner on the line, but his pride is too. To get one over his old foe in a cup final would be bittersweet.
Never has a League Cup had so much potential to be a catalyst for a group of world class underachievers. Regardless of whether the League Cup is meaningful or not, a win for Spurs on April 25th could have a huge impact on the mentality of the players. On current form you could argue that City look like they might be too much for them, but a lot can change from here until April. Both teams may be back in a title race, or their focuses may have turned toward the continent.
But two things will be unchanged come April 25th. One, is the fact that there is no way José Mourinho will allow his side to lose a cup final to Guardiola. However the second, most important, fact that will remain come April 25th is that Spurs have not won a trophy in thirteen years. Never has a team needed a trophy as much as they do.