When Jose Mourinho took over at Tottenham, there were a few players who were tipped to benefit from the Portuguese’s arrival. Serge Aurier was very much not one of them, yet he’s continued to do his own thing unchallenged under the new boss.
Aurier is the opposite of ‘a Mourinho player’. The conservative Paulo Ferreira formed a big part of the coach’s Porto and Chelsea teams in the early part of the 21st century, while Antonio Valencia and Branislav Ivanovic – slightly more adventurous options – were hardly the wildcard we see in the form of the Ivorian. Even the attacking Maicon, a regular at Mourinho’s Inter, had Javier Zanetti in the same team as a reminder that things could change at any moment.
The most important thing to take from Mourinho’s first six Premier League matches isn’t that Aurier has played 530 of 540 available minutes but rather that he has done so without feeling he has to compromise on his maverick streak.
The Mourinho of old tended to value one thing above all others in his defensive players: reliability. If there’s one thing Aurier offers, it’s not that.
This is a player you wouldn’t trust to park your car, let alone play in defence against one of the highest-scoring teams in the Premier League. And, watching him play, you sense he’d have the same reservations about himself but push ahead anyway with an inherent logic of “how badly can it go?”.
Aurier gives off the air of someone who has a “what was I supposed to do” attitude about his own body, despite it being the one thing he does have control over; as if his mistakes were the inevitable takeaway from the intervention of a mysterious higher power.
And yet this determination to act on instinct rather than design can produce wonderful moments like the one inside the first five minutes of the defeat to Chelsea.
In the opening minutes of a match between two top-four contenders, you can expect a bit of calm, a sense of two sides each getting a feel for how the other is setting up.
This is especially true of a Mourinho side: the manager might allow himself a wildcard, but that individual is usually in the attacking third rather than in a position as pivotal as right-back.
When Aurier receives the ball on the right touchline, it’s a chance to see what Marcos Alonso is made of. The Spaniard is himself not known as the most defensively trustworthy full-back, so it makes sense to look to that side of the pitch immediately.
You can begin with a simple approach, driving forward at Alonso and reminding him that he’ll be pinned back in his own half to avoid more of the same. Or, alternatively, you can play a spinning backheel volley into Lucas Moura for no other reason besides “it looks sick as fuck”.
While you sense the old Mourinho would have been furious at a player going off-script like that, to the point that he might have even subbed him off there and then just to show who was boss, the new Jose is a little more forgiving.
These days there’s less hair to tear out and less time to spend getting angry when you could use that energy for self-improvement.
That’s not to say he’d have been happy to see one of his full-backs showboating at 0-0 in the fifth minute with limited cover behind him – one step at a time and all that.
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We saw a more familiar side of Aurier later on, when he was slow to close down Willian for the opening goal, but you can’t exactly name him in your team and be surprised when he delivers an on-brand moment.
If someone occupies the role of permanent curveball, you can’t cry foul when he doesn’t shoot straight.
The bigger picture, though, is what this says about third-wave Mourinho. He may yet invest in a new right-back if he’s given the funds in January, but the near-universal presence of Aurier in his games so far suggests the Spurs manager might be willingly moving out of his comfort zone.
Sure, he might currently he reflexively jolting out of his seat whenever a defender uses the outside of his boot, let alone his heel, but no one said this would be a simple process. If Mourinho wants to force himself to change, Serge Aurier is his very own immersion therapy.
Whether it works out or goes terribly, it will be one hell of a thing to watch.
By Tom Victor