War-weary Jose Mourinho urgently needs a reinvention

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
May 29, 2018

Jose Mourinho has been trading off his past for some time. Engage one of the Portuguese’s loyalists in conversation about his present and, invariably, you will be pointed back to Inter Milan, Chelsea and Porto. Which is fine, really, because that is how history will remember him. Today’s events do not dilute yesterday’s achievement and that’s the way it should be.

Still, Mourinho finds himself slipping towards that troubling Wenger Territory, in which the past – though still decadent – should really be treated as a separate entity. Football has changed over the past fifteen years, it’s more aggressive and more bold, and yet Mourinho’s understanding of how to influence it hasn’t obviously kept pace.

May’s FA Cup final was a damp squib. It was the usual fare: two jaded teams throwing clumsy, sweaty punches in the Wembley sun. By half-time, neutral minds had wandered and social media feeds were being refreshed with increasing regularity. That was descriptive both of the occasion and the time of year: people don’t care about the FA Cup as they once did and, really, most are now just counting the days until the World Cup begins. Saturday’s final was something to get out of the way, a box to tick before the pining for Russia 2018 can start.

Upon reflection though, that indifference likely had its root in the knowledge that, at 1-0 down and with Chelsea looking newly competent, Manchester United were done. This was not the semi-final against Tottenham, when their opponent could be relied upon to create chances for them, but a win-or-bust game against a side who know how to get across the line. It’s easy to say in hindsight, but there was something thunderingly predictable about Mourinho’s inability to alter that game. United, who once overpowered teams with their greater resources, have become a sort of high-class, Pulis-era Stoke – efficient at taking what they’re given, but eternally prooccupied with exploiting weakness and defending their own fragility rather than exerting any actual strength.

In the past, Mourinho’s triumphs have been about him. He was the missing ingredient at Chelsea in 2004, and the mastermind behind those unlikely European Cups for Porto and Inter Milan. At the time, he was both a continentally elite tactician and a Tucker-esque politician, allowing him to exploit success to its maximum. People remember the signature moments from all of them, but what endures most is that he was there. The hero shot from the Bernabeu in 2010, for instance, is not Diego Milito’s second goal or even the trophy lift, but Mourinho’s reaction to his team’s triumph.

How many other finals is that true of?

It’s only fair, then, to view Manchester United’s current state as a reflection of his own, personal weakness. He plays his cards well and, as ever, has done a fine job in presenting himself as struggling middle-management within an inflexible organisation. Not without justification, because Ed Woodward is probably an over-promoted executive and the organisation’s focus is on more just sporting achievement, but not with any real conviction either. The blundering transfer policy is often presented as an obstacle, but there’s little evidence to suggest that he hasn’t been given the players he asked for – he evidently thinks a great deal of Romelu Lukaku, Eric Bailly is a very fine defender when fit, and Paul Pogba is fabulously gifted. Another summer has arrived, another outrageous budget will be handed over, and if, like this season, there are still parts of the team with which Mourinho is dissatisfied, then that’s really his fault.

Remember this, too: Mourinho’s teams are always about him because, simply, players who don’t conform to his ideals are not allowed to play. Instead, they’re spirited away in the night, locked in ideological prisons and then sold to clubs who can bear their expression.

So there’s no contamination there. The problem is with the message itself, not in the way it’s being translated and, like its author, it seems tired and out-of-date.

One of the more remarkable aspects of Mourinho’s career is its continuity. Despite its many breaks and fractures, he has held a management position every season since 2000. In a sense that’s logical, because jobs are scarce and opportunities don’t always come twice, but it’s also counter-intuitive. Mourinho is detail obssessed and attempts to seize control of nearly every aspect of club life. Given the size of those clubs and the breadth of such attempted authority, that must have placed him under enormous strain.

It also, of course, explains the growing fashion for sabbaticals. Being a head-coach is now a different, more encompassing job. It consumes men completely and burns them out. As long ago as 1960, Arthur Rowe was resigning from Crystal Palace to save his health. In the 1990s Steve Coppell did the same at Manchester City and, more famously, Kevin Keegan burnt out at Newcastle. The stress was enormous then, but much worse now. Managers need a rest – physically and mentally.

Inevitably, the parallel here is with Pep Guardiola. He and Mourinho are this era’s Menotti and Bilardo, making them inseparable in perpetuity, but perhaps the starkest contrast occurs not in their actual football, but in how they’ve chosen to manage their careers. Guardiola has plotted his steps, planning his missionary work in great detail. By contrast, Mourinho’s ideal club has always been the biggest name willing to employ him and so he has bounced from one league to another, attempting to force his will on a succession of giant institutions.

The other obvious difference is that year in New York. Weighed down and exhausted by Barcelona’s enormous gravity, Guardiola famously headed for the United States in 2012. He rented a flat in Manhattan and indulged in the anonymity. According to Marti Perarnau’s account of that period, he also clinked wine glasses with Garry Kasparov, too, swapping intellectual war stories with the grandmaster and nourishing his mind with the company.

It’s very difficult to substitute Mourinho into that anecdote; he doesn’t fit. The time off, the reflection, the light… that doesn’t seem to be who he is as a coach or a man.

Mourinho's ideal club has always been the biggest name willing to employ him and so he has bounced from one league to another, attempting to force his will on a succession of giant institutions.

The effect of Guardiola’s sojourn to the States is probably more vivid today than it ever was at Bayern Munich. The Champions League eluded him in Germany and no amount of Bundesliga titles were ever going to compensate for that. In England, though, that freshness is overwhelmingly apparent. He has seen and thought his way around all the problems that were expected to defeat him, setting half-a-dozen new Premier League records in the process. In spite of their great spending, City’s development has still been remarkable. The players inherited have nearly all improved, some well beyond their assumed potential, and that says much about Guardiola’s relationship with his squad. Footballers, like normal people, respond to infectious enthusiasm and are dependent on clarity of message. So: yes, Guardiola had the ability to turn City into the powerhouse team they’ve been threatening to become for a while, but he also had the energy and appetite for the task.

By contrast, Mourinho has that aura of fatigue. He’s the war-weary general who has seen too much bloodshed. That makes sense, too, because every line of his CV contains another layer of acrimony. When he departs a club, he creates new enemies and breeds further resentment. He sets fires and runs away, time and again, and eventually that has to take a toll. How exhausting it must be to battle a world which increasingly wants to see you fail.

Series: Pragmatism in football

Perhaps that explains why he has never stepped away from the game or attempted any sort of reinvention. If it’s accepted that winning the European Cup was the apex of his career, what has followed has been its steady downslope. Damaged by his experience at Real Madrid and chased through the door by Chelsea for the second time in a decade, his best option in these recent years has been to furiously pursue his own elusive legend.

The cost of which, most likely, is what we see before us today. The football team decorated with attacking talent who can’t score goals. The midfield which can never function properly for more than two or three games in a row. The heavy investment in a defence which is still indebted to the otherworldly abilities of David De Gea. Mourinho has never been wedded to style or panache, but his pre-eminent synonym was once efficiency – and yet, arguably, Manchester United are now the most inefficient team in the country. Stacked with pace at the top of the pitch but attacking at a crawl and unable to create a decisive angle if their lives depended upon it. There is no freshness, no new thinking – in them, or him. He used to make players, invigorate them with that curious voodoo. Now, everyone who enters his orbit seems to regress.

The seductive conclusion is that Mourinho is no longer what he was. On the evidence of these past two years, it’s certainly reasonable to conclude that his familiar tropes – the manufactured tension, the over-focus on defensive security and the belief that attacking football will just spawn from within the team – now look outmoded. Maybe the broader reality, though, is more simple. While he has been fighting those invisible enemies and attempting to finesse the world’s view of who and what he is, he has been too preocuppied to notice the creeping evolution around him.

Those advances areĀ  visible in every major league. Jurgen Klopp is heading to his second Champions League final and, elsewhere in England, Mauricio Pochettino has done marvellous things at Tottenham. In Italy, Max Allegri’s hold on Serie A continues and Maurizio Sarri’s brave, brilliant football makes him a desirable appointment for any club with a vacancy. There are risings in Germany, too, with Julian Nagelsmann surely heading for the stars and Niko Kovac about to ease behind the wheel of a powerful Bayern Munich. And, once Thomas Tuchel applies his weird science to Paris Saint-Germain, who knows what his place in the hierarchy might be.

The truth of Mourinho’s relationship with Guardiola and the duopoly it implies, is that it has become a simplification – and one, actually, which flatters the Portuguese. His past places him in that company, but his present doesn’t. He isn’t stretching the fabric of the sport and there’s little about his recent work which is actually interesting.

Read: England’s twenty years of distance.

It didn’t used to be a problem, but it is now. Everything about Mourinho – his tactics, his behaviour, his perpetual need for more transfer windows, used to be assuaged by the knowledge that, come May, he would be holding trophies aloft. For as long as that was the case, everything else faded into the background. Winning matters more than anything else in professional sport and it always will.

But now he’s empty handed. Now the ranting, raving and periodic bullying no longer seem part of a grand masterplan, but as a flailing desperation brought on by declining status. It’s a great irony. He has coveted the Manchester United job for over a decade. Old Trafford was supposed to be the crowning moment of his career. Yet now he’s here, seemingly at the top of the mountain, it shows just how far from the summit of the game he really is.

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