It is Tottenham’s end-of-season awards and there is a new prize. The inaugural manager’s player of the year is Japhet Tanganga. It might be a scene from Spurs fan fiction; it is definitely one from Jose Mourinho’s past, if you replace Tanganga with Scott McTominay and Tottenham in 2020 with the 2018 Manchester United.
A handful of games into his Spurs career and Tanganga has assumed the role McTominay did for Mourinho at Old Trafford. He is the young player a manager who struggles to understand young players likes. He is pressed into service everywhere: McTominay was used as a central defender at times while Tanganga’s first three starts for the Portuguese came at right-back, centre-back and left-back.
He is spoken of in such glowing terms that it does him few favours. McTominay felt the teacher’s pet at Old Trafford, afforded excessive praise by a manager who otherwise feels increasingly negative. Tanganga has assumed that role. “It's a pity he's not a striker. It's a pity he's not a midfield player,” said Mourinho, dreaming of a team of 10 outfield Tangangas after defeat to Liverpool. “[Sadio] Mane and [Mohamed] Salah, they know who Tanganga is now.”
All of which could serve to boost the confidence of a rookie, to make him believe he belonged in exalted surroundings. But this is Mourinho, so it rarely pays to take anything at face value. Tanganga exhibits some of the same traits as McTominay. He has the height to suit Mourinho’s demands. He is a seemingly likeable lad with a good attitude, but who few had previously been tipping for greatness.
The McTominay precedent may bode well. His progression from willing squad player to pivotal presence in the United starting 11 made him, along with Marcus Rashford, the outstanding individual at Old Trafford this season before each was sidelined. Mourinho can argue he identified potential long before outsiders saw much in McTominay. Perhaps Tanganga, too, will have staying power.
The counter-argument is that McTominay was promoted too soon, picked too often and praised too much to prove a point. He was playing games because Mourinho was playing games, often with the resident big names. The Scot was selected ahead of Paul Pogba at times. Mourinho celebrated his positional discipline and determination to do the basics.
Fast forward two years and the Tottenham manager seems to see another throwback personality in Tanganga. “He is one of those kids who is just focused on work, work, work,” he said last week to Sky Sports. Mourinho projects things on to his favourites and they tend to be the qualities he is implying others do not epitomise. Tanganga looks his new paragon of focus and professionalism.
And yet he seems to function partly as a slight to the omitted. Tanganga operated as a left-back at Watford; the sole specialist senior left-back, Danny Rose, did not even make the matchday 18. Ryan Sessegnon, a former Fulham left-back and a prospective Pochettino-style attacking left-back, was an unused substitute. He was a right-back against Liverpool, playing behind a right-back with defensive deficiencies, in Serge Aurier. If he plays centre-back ahead of Davinson Sanchez or Jan Vertonghen, it may be seen as a snub.
In one respect, there is a natural element to it; when a newcomer enters the team, someone is displaced. When a youngster breaks in, it is often at the expense of a more senior figure. Yet when Mourinho is involved, there is an added dimension. It can become political and personal, it can involve point-scoring, whether with his players or his employers. He championed McTominay in part because of what he was, but in part because of what others were not. And in the hitherto unknown Tanganga, he may have found another blank canvas where he can paint his thoughts about others.