“THE problem is – when things do not go well for Mou, he does not follow the club’s line. He follows José’s line.”
That’s not a line uttered in the last few weeks, as Jose Mourinho’s Old Trafford fortress starts to crumble. It’s from a 2014 anecdote provided by an executive at Gestifute, his agent Jorge Mendes’s agency, for an explosive book by journalist Diego Torres – The Special One: The Dark Side of Jose Mourinho – written in 2014.
Manchester United’s executives initially avoided the risk of going for Mourinho to replace Sir Alex Ferguson, fearing the fact that according to The Special One, no institution is bigger than he is. But the sense of crisis, and urgent pang to re-claim silverware and keep pace with Manchester City, saw them take a gamble appointing him to replace Louis van Gaal, despite all the warnings.
The problem is, right on cue, in Mourinho’s second year, the flames are burning outside his castle – but he hasn’t claimed the requisite Premier League or Champions League crown that usually makes the end justify the means.
Manchester United’s desire to reclaim a high octane, aspirational brand of football has been compromised, and the club is arguably now being overshadowed by the man himself.
It’s one of football’s great throwaway lines, that Mourinho’s intense, siege mentality, conspiracy fuelled and tactically pragmatic tenures tend to galvanise squads for early success, before burning out late in the second or into the third season – upon which, Mourinho starts to change the public narrative to position himself favourably against the club.
It’s a risk United knew they were taking. The warnings were there.
At Real Madrid, blessed with attacking talent to die for, he set himself up as the anti-Pep Guardiola, driven by the incendiary motivation of tearing down the success of the beautiful Barcelona side that had emerged thanks to the Catalan hero, who got the job at a time Mourinho coveted it for himself.
In the Spanish capital, he was obsessed with what became known as his Trivote; before Juan Mata, Kevin de Bruyne and Mohamed Salah were dispensed with at Chelsea, Mourinho had made Brazil icon Kaka expendable in Madrid, so he could accommodate three defensively minded, industrious midfielders in big games.
Sound familiar? Nemanja Matic, Scott McTominay, Marouane Fellaini?
Even the Portuguese central defender Pepe got a run in midfield! At Real Madrid! Rumour has it that the club’s Sporting Director Jorge Valdano called the football being played at the fabled club thanks to Mourinho: “s*** on a stick”.
With the mood shifting at United, his recent behaviour is all part of the Mourinho package, the game plan – a strategy that keeps his stocks high when, inevitably, Paris Saint-Germain come calling to save him from England. It helps explain his extraordinary recent outbursts.
After the Champions League exit, he reminded everyone of his track record. He made it personal.
After scrapping past Brighton & Hove Albion in the FA Cup, he turned on his players.
“He should be improving them,” explained Stewart Robson on The Times’ The Game podcast, of complaints about his squad’s capabilities after two years, in light of the Shaw saga.
“When he can’t get things right on the training field, he tries to manage through the press … he’s out of touch with modern football.
“He can’t find a creative system to play, he can’t get the best out of his attacking players.
“What made him successful many, many years ago … football’s moved on.”
He added: “He’s trying to manage the club through the press, the club through the press – and all he’s doing is trying to protect himself.”
Even when Chelsea won the league three seasons ago, Mourinho immediately made it about him, by invoking his rivalry with Guardiola.
“I took a risk,” he said. “I am so, so happy because I won another Premier League title 10 years after [my first] in my second spell at the club. I was champion at every club I coached. I came to Inter [Milan], Real Madrid and Chelsea. Every title is important. To win the title in Spain with 100 points against the best Barcelona ever was a big achievement that I enjoyed so much. Maybe in the future I have to be smarter and choose another club in another country where everybody is champion. Maybe I will go to a country where a kitman can be coach and win the title. Maybe I need to be smarter but I still enjoy these difficulties. I think I’m at the right place. I’m here until Abramovich tells me to go.”
After a loss to Leicester that preceded his axing, he accused his players of “betraying him”.
Earlier in the season, he’d launched a seven-minute tirade, much like last weeks. At Chelsea, he erupted: “I want to make it clear … 1) I don’t run away; 2) If the club wants to sack me, they have to sack me because I am not running away from my responsibility, my team … 3) Even more important than the second, I think this is a crucial moment in the history of this club. You know why? If the club sacks me, they sack the best manager this club had. And secondly, the message is again the message of bad results. The manager is guilty. This is the message, not just these players, the other ones before, they got [the message] during a decade. This is a moment for everybody to assume their responsibilities. To stick together. This is what I want.”
LISTEN: Former Newcastle Jets coach Scott Miller offers unique insight into the Mourinho debate from his time coaching in London on this week’s Fox Football Podcast with Adam Peacock and Simon Hill.
The signs were even there as early as 2007, where Mourinho, who was the hottest property in English football, managed to lose control of his first Chelsea dressing room. The Independent tells the story of his acrimonious first exit, when he told the group “I wish you and all your families good luck and I thank you. Even those of you who betrayed me”.
This is also nothing new.
In 2009, his former midfield lynchpin Claude Makelele reflected on Mourinho’s time at Chelsea. He explains his willingness to tamper with the dressing room unity, and why attacking stars struggle to truly flourish under his tutelage.
“During that third complete season under his control, I was stunned to see how Mourinho forgot the value of his players and claimed all the credit for everything,” he explained.
“To him, individuals didn’t make the team work well, his methods did. At the end Mourinho gave the impression that he felt threatened as soon as a player was in the spotlight more than him.”
As acerbic and critical as the narrative in England has been over Mourinho’s deflating tactics in recent months, which has seen some wonderful players cower on the pitch, it still seems assumed that he will continue next year, and get the chance to finally prove that his methods still work.
But do they?
His stunning arrival in 2004 at Porto and then his backs-against-the-wall success at Inter Milan, which climaxed with symbolic, dogged triumphs over Guardiola’s Barcelona and his mentor Louis van Gaal’s Bayern Munich in the Champions League win in 2010, are his crowning European glories.
Using similar tactics against Rostov, Anderlecht, Celta Vigo and Ajax in last year’s Europa League win don’t quite hold the same mystiqu. In fact, it epitomises his approach.
Pundit Chris Sutton, speaking on the Monday Night Club on BBC Radio 5 live, said overnight: “Mourinho is a changed personality from the charismatic one that first came over in 2004. He is picking silly, personal squabbles.
“Is it disastrous for Manchester United at the moment? No.
“But is this what Mourinho’s remit was, to come in and finish behind City and not push for major trophies? He is rattled.
“He looks across the city, and the style of football they and Liverpool play. This is a guy who first came on to the scene and was regarded as a genius. Now he is looking outdated in the way his team plays and the way other teams play.”
He loves power and control. In his first stint at Chelsea, and at times at Real Madrid, his recruitment centred on players linked with Mendes, his agent. When clubs curtailed his choices in the market, he looked for other ways to assert control.
That approach includes re-shaping the narrative.
His Real Madrid tenure was littered with conspiracies and poisoned by his obsession with Guardiola.
Former Real back-up keeper Jerzy Dudek told the story in his autobiography of the day Mourinho turned on his dressing room and demanded: “Where is this rat? Who is it? Who could it be?”
His final year at Chelsea, when he sensed focus was drifting from his methods, he went hard at Arsene Wenger from the start of the season, which started drifting out of control from the opening day attack on the club’s own physiotherapist Evan Caneiro.
“It was clear that Mourinho was a great coach but we thought Guardiola would be even better,” said then Barcelona CEO Ferran Soriano in the book Goal: The Ball Doesn’t Go in by Chance, talking about the La Liga club’s choice of the Spaniard over the Portuguese. “Mourinho is a winner, but in order to win he guarantees a level of tension that becomes a problem.”
That problem, right now, is Manchester United’s.