The explosion of streaming services has led to an explosion in inside-sports content. Many major teams in various sports have had their inner workings and backroom activities chronicled. Mind you, most of these productions amount to less than promised. Corporate owners and individual players are way too careful about image to truly allow revealing fly-on-the wall coverage.
But there’s a new one about a soccer club that actually delivers, mainly because of the team’s manager. He’s Jose Mourinho, a legend who transcends the soccer world (he would say he bestrides it like a colossus) thanks to his extraordinary achievements in England, Spain, Italy and Portugal, and his uncanny ability to steal the limelight as a wit, a scold and a temperamental blowhard. Cocksure but entertaining, that’s Jose. Even if you know nothing about soccer, he’s a star worth watching.
All or Nothing: Tottenham Hotspur (new on Amazon Prime Video) features the Portuguese Mourinho, but it wasn’t meant to. That’s what makes this doc series weirdly compelling. The original idea was to track Tottenham Hotspur in its 2019/2020 season, as it strived to build on an immensely successful run in England and Europe. The team, lacking a trophy in decades, had made the final of the European Champions League and looked set to storm toward top status. Didn’t happen. It started losing instead.
Manager Mauricio Pochettino was fired – this happens 15 minutes into the first episode – and along comes Mourinho.
The players are nervous. Mourinho’s reputation precedes him. He’s known as a good player-manager but everywhere he’s worked, at Chelsea, Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Manchester United, there have been feuds with owners or the press and inevitably some spectacular controversy before Mourinho storms off in a huff.
Here we see him get to work, taking his first training session and sizing up the players. He needs to know names and nicknames. There’s Harry Kane and Harry Winks. Which one does he call “Harry”? Well, that’s Kane and the other is known as “Winksy.” He singles out certain players for one-on-one chats in his office. Harry Kane, star striker and England team captain, emerges as a dull but earnest chap, not the motivational firebrand needed. Mourinho shows him respect but coolly.
He takes a special interest in Eric Dier whom he perceives as underperforming and maybe a misfit. Dier spent his youth in Portugal and played for Sporting Lisbon, so Mourinho speaks to him in Portuguese. It’s hard to tell if this is respect or a test. Soon after, in a key game, he substitutes Dier after 30 minutes. The viewer sees Dier sitting shell-shocked, stone-faced and silent in the locker room as Mourinho gives his halftime talk and ignores him. Later he apologizes, sort of.
Mourinho’s management tactic looks simple enough: He comes across as fatherly, down-to-earth and concerned. He hides his temper and contempt until necessary. At first, he tells the team they are nice guys, really nice guys, but that’s an issue – they’re not ruthless enough to be contenders. After a ball-boy makes a lightning-fast decision that helps turn a game around, he invites the kid to have lunch with the team. Everybody is charmed.
But you sense there’s trouble brewing. Mourinho didn’t win 25 trophies by being a nice dad to his players and convivial with the owners.
We see him try to restrain his emotions as he brings Tottenham to Manchester United, a place he left under a cloud. He takes his new team into the visitor’s dressing room, a room he had ordered reduced in size when he was boss there, as a mind-game manoeuvre. Tottenham loses and the nice-guy thing begins to slowly unravel.
There is also the lingering problem of star player Christian Eriksen, a world-class Danish midfielder whose contract is running out and who has made it known he wants to leave Tottenham. A bit sullen and morose, Eriksen – who speaks to the camera often – is put in his place by Mourinho. The manager sticks him on the bench and leaves him there.
Always there is the sense that Mourinho is a ticking time-bomb. What annoys him most is the narrative, expressed by some fans and pundits, that he’s past his best and his glory years are over. Thing is, there is truth in that. His famously successful defensive tactics in the game have been surpassed. New, younger managers are employing the German-style of “gegenpressing,” a method of high-pressure, high-pressing soccer that is unlike anything Mourinho has ever employed.
All or Nothing: Tottenham Hotspur (three episodes available so far) is not The Last Dance of soccer documentary series. But it can be powerful, bearing witness to a strange season – thrown into chaos by a pandemic – for a fascinating team and a rogue of a manager.
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