It’s not especially hard to make a triumphant sports season compelling. And for terrible seasons, there’s some perverse joy in satiating curiosity about what exactly went wrong. But for seasons that amount to a confused shrug, it’s much harder to find an engrossing through-line, or even a reason for remembering it beyond the final whistle blow.
This was the problem facing the latest season of “All or Nothing,” Amazon Prime’s anthology docuseries that’s previously featured several NFL teams, the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team and the Premier League’s Manchester City. This propulsive installment, which premieres its first three episodes Aug. 31, untangles the particularly turbulent 2019-2020 season for the Premier League’s Tottenham Hotspur. Despite making it to the top 4 tier of the Champions League in the spring, Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino couldn’t build on the momentum to push them forward in the fall — resulting in an embarrassing slide to 14th place, the unceremonious firing of Pochettino and the controversial hiring of the electric, infamous Jose Mourinho. Narrated by London’s own Tom Hardy, “Tottenham Hotspur: All or Nothing” tackles a chaotic season and turns it into revealing, dynamic television about a team reinventing itself amid more turmoil than it ever saw coming.
As “All or Nothing” shows in a brief but effective montage of reactions, the Spurs’ struggles to stay afloat isn’t what the players, the club’s owner Daniel Levy or the “All or Nothing” production team expected. In their view, this season could have been the story of how this generation of the Spurs, one of England’s oldest football clubs at an incredible 137 years, tapped their potential to become one of the league’s most formidable teams. Instead, it all fell spectacularly to pieces while Mourinho’s attempts to get the team back on track were waylaid by backstage drama, several key player injuries and, oh right, a devastating global pandemic that shut the sport down for months. It wasn’t the season the team or the fans wanted, but watching the revealing first three episodes of “All or Nothing,” it’s hard to argue that it wasn’t a fascinating one. If you’re familiar with or love the Spurs, the level of access and detail will be interesting no matter what. If you’re not, the tightly edited series is smart about how it presents what’s at stake and the interpersonal dynamics at play to keep you entertained. (This makes the Spurs season a marked improvement over the Manchester City one, which somehow managed to make watching a historically successful season feel like watching a sleepy episode of “Planet Earth” with surly footballers instead of preening tropical birds.)
The first episode spends just 20 minutes on Pochettino’s part in the season — a fact many loyal Spurs fans will hate, but from a narrative point of view, it makes sense. Once Mourinho walks into the Spurs offices to the tune of a somber orchestral score that might as well be the Imperial March, the series necessarily becomes all about how the Premier League’s most notorious manager works as both a celebrated coach and a canny connoisseur of branding. Mourinho’s unique place at this intersection is a huge draw for Levy, the team owner who candidly speaks in the first episode about his grand plans for the club. As embodied in the Spurs’ enormous new stadium, which cost the franchise a cool £1 billion, Levy wants the Spurs to be on the athletic and cultural level of a club like Manchester United. The fact that it’s not, and never truly has been, isn’t just an irritant, but a genuine business failure for him. If the team doesn’t perform, he tells the camera, the livelihoods of his 600 employees are jeopardized. Levy therefore presents himself in “All or Nothing” as a compassionate pragmatist who appreciated Pochettino’s 5 years of service, but who nonetheless had to make a change when his results didn’t match the ambition of his business plan.
Enter Mourinho, a no holds barred coach with a sly sense of humor whose hiring, I have to imagine, came as welcome news to the documentary crew tasked with following his new team around.
When my obsessed roommate was first trying to sell me on the merits of Premier League football, she understood that she would be fighting an uphill battle, but that she also had a surefire way to win my allegiance in the form of Mourinho. Throughout his decades-long career, Mourinho has won allegiances and pissed people off with his signature sardonic style of coaching and speaking, punctuated by righteous bouts of being an equally sore winner and loser. He’s startlingly dry and blunt in his judgment, and doesn’t tamp it down even when he knows a camera is on him. It’s clear from the early “All or Nothing” footage that the Spurs players, accustomed to having a buddy in Pochettino, are teetering on the edge between intrigued and terrified at what Mourinho’s reign might bring even before he tells them that they have to stop being such “nice guys” and start playing like “intelligent c—ts.”
This sometimes harsh feedback hasn’t always won Mourinho favors; his many trophy wins haven’t stopped clubs from firing him when disgruntled teams stop responding to his particularly pointed methods of motivation. But Mourinho is also, as my roommate well knew as she was pitching me the idea of becoming a fan, a fantastically self-aware and compelling figure who both knows that he’s magnetic and shrugs off the ensuing attention as an annoying nuisance. One of the premiere’s funniest scenes comes after he’s methodically set up his new office and turned on the TV to see coverage of his hiring; it doesn’t take long for him to scoff at the report before turning it back off with a grumbled, “oh, f— off.” Mourinho is canny and unfiltered, which, luckily for “All or Nothing,” makes him excellent television. (There’s a reason why I ditched the Super Bowl for the Premier League this year, i.e. the Spurs were playing Man. City and Mourinho was, as he’s wont to do, leaping along the sidelines in righteous fury even as his team was winning.)
“All or Nothing” is smart about how it shows particular games, highlighting pivotal ones with admirable verve. But since the series isn’t about the games we saw on the pitch, but what happened in the lead up and fallout from it, the game replays are relatively sparse. Instead, episodes lean on the offscreen stories of Mourinho getting to know the team and vice versa, with the most interesting scenes unfolding in the coach’s office as he calls in some of the team’s most pivotal players, one by one. Seeing him shift his approach depending on who’s sitting in front of him, and not apparently care that the “All or Nothing” cameras are picking up every word, is red meat for Mourinho fans and doubters alike. When he calls in top striker Harry Kane, he acknowledges that he can’t be his friend like Pochettino was, but that he can nonetheless use his knowledge of worldwide branding to help him “explode” in status. When he approaches defender Eric Dier, whom he previously eyed when Dier played in Portugal, he switches to his native Portuguese, seemingly as both a test and show of faith. (Dier is, in fact, able to understand and answer to his satisfaction.) And when he brings in Dele Ali, a promising player who’s had trouble tapping his potential, Mourinho wastes no time telling him that he’ll regret wasting this time not trying harder to be as good as he should be.
So yes, “Tottenham Hotspurs: All or Nothing” is technically about a team of players trying to win titles and get glory, etcetera and so on. But with the addition of Mourinho and the club’s visceral struggle to right itself, the series quickly becomes something much more interesting: a comeback story without a real comeback, but with, as Mourino keeps telling his players, real potential for greatness.