Dele Alli can be Jose Mourinho's X factor at Tottenham
LONDON -- Jose Mourinho was almost sheepish as he walked onto the London Stadium pitch to applaud the Tottenham supporters, after his new team marked his first game in charge with a 3-2 victory over West Ham.
Throughout a largely impressive win, the Spurs fans had not chanted his name, which was perhaps unsurprising considering that a sizeable section of the club's fan base is unconvinced by his appointment to replace the sacked Mauricio Pochettino.
But winning matches always helps to prevail in any managerial popularity contest and, by the end of this one, Mourinho was being serenaded by those who had earlier proved reticent. The doubters and sceptics could not have asked for much more from their new manager, however.
"The most important thing was to win; it did not matter how," Mourinho said. "The boys are happy and that's what I really wanted.
Mourinho always starts well -- he also won his first Premier League games in charge of Chelsea (twice) and Manchester United -- but a comfortable win against a local rival is as good as it gets and this victory went beyond merely announcing his arrival with three points.
Victory was clearly the top priority and Mourinho ticked that off with ease, but this was also Tottenham's first away victory in the league since January: "Eleven months without music in the dressing room," Mourinho said. Ending that run was another major positive, especially because their next away game is a trip to Old Trafford on Dec. 4.
Conceding two late goals to Michail Antonio and Angelo Ogbonna will not have pleased Mourinho, but it highlighted the softness of his new team and, if nothing else, he should eradicate that weakness quickly.
That this win was inspired by Dele Alli was another big plus. The 23-year-old's performances for Spurs so far this season have been so disappointing that he has lost his place in Gareth Southgate's England squad and Mourinho took him to one side on his first day at training to ask whether he was the real Dele Alli or if it was his brother acting as an impostor.
The pep talk certainly worked, with Alli involved in Tottenham's first two goals. His pass to Son Heung-min for the opener was Alli's first league assist of the season, but he surpassed himself seven minutes later by keeping a ball in play in the touchline with a sliding flick that allowed Son to break forward and cross for Lucas Moura to double the lead.
Alli's contribution for that goal came directly in front of Mourinho and the manager was quick to praise the midfielder, shouting "you're the man" from the touchline.
"The piece of skill was amazing," Mourinho said about Alli after the game. "I am happy with him. I spent a few minutes with him in training and outside the pitch. And we were saying that the best Dele Alli has to be back. He's too good to not be one of the best players in the world and not playing with the national team."
How Mourinho handles his stars will be interesting, perhaps even a key indicator as to how well he will do as Spurs manager. In his last two jobs, at United and during his second spell at Chelsea, a heavy-handed, tough love approach to top players proved detrimental and damaging to results and morale.
His final game at United saw Paul Pogba dropped to the bench in a 3-1 defeat at Liverpool and he chose the same fate for Christian Eriksen in this fixture. With Alli, though, Mourinho put his faith in a talented but inconsistent performer and, initially, was repaid handsomely.
If Mourinho can trigger a return to form for Alli, he will have a goal-scoring midfielder worth more than 20 goals a season in the past, whether scoring himself or creating for others. Beyond him, the new manager knows he has a squad capable of challenging for a top-four finish, plus silverware in the FA Cup and even Champions League this season.
Taking his original Chelsea team from the mid-2000s as a blueprint, Mourinho already possesses similar building blocks at Spurs.
He has two commanding centre-halves in Toby Alderweireld and Davinson Sanchez (and Jan Vertonghen to back them up) while Harry Kane, who scored Tottenham's decisive third, provides the goals and traditional centre-forward skills of Didier Drogba and other strikers around whom Mourinho has built teams in the past.
Moussa Sissoko and Eric Dier are Mourinho-style defensive midfielders, while Son and Lucas Moura offer width and pace similar to Arjen Robben and Damien Duff. The X factor might be whether Alli can become a new version of Frank Lampard by delivering goals from midfield.
Tottenham have winnable home games against Olympiakos and Bournemouth before they face United, so Mourinho has the opportunity to build momentum and re-ignite the team that came so close to achieving great things under Pochettino.
Time will tell whether he can work his old magic, but day one could not have gone any better.