I remember the first time I watched a José Mourinho team, and I think that’s very much telling. Usually, you don’t really focus on the manager, no matter how good he is, when watching a game. Back then, managers were a presence that, while very much respected for their importance, weren’t the focus of the coverage, unless some controversy or special occasion arose around them. But with Porto in 2003, people rarely talked about the talent they had in Deco or Ricardo Carvalho. The focus of the broadcast at least in Poland (making it even more rare) was just this insanely young manager who was taking the UEFA Cup by storm.
Soon enough, he won it. And the next year he went on to win the Champions League, of which my lasting image is his passionate celebration as a last-minute goal pushed him past Sir Alex Ferguson’s United side. This was very much consistent with the Mourinho we saw on the sidelines for Porto. Flamboyant, engaged, aggressively emotive. Back then, in a world that hadn’t quite embraced managers as personalities, with only a few outspoken ones shining in post match interviews, in a world discovering that with a bunch of cameras on the stadium you can make a simple match look way more entertaining than it is, Mourinho became THE entertainment and THE personality.
His narrative was pretty unique in itself. Here he was, 40 years old, barely having played 100 games in his career – most of them for low-tier teams – managing a European giant, his narrative pretty similar to Arsene Wenger – with one difference. He was new, and he was storming through Europe, celebrating in the face of Sir Alex and winning everything he could’ve won on the way. Mourinho was the most exciting manager in Europe. He wasn’t an anecdote, or the guy on the sidelines, he outgrew his players (yes, even Deco) to become the symbol of that success, then he moved to Chelsea.
Mind you, a big part of the excitement around Mourinho was his personality. Understandably arrogant, he took over every room he was in. He knew he was special, and he embraced it, he rolled with it. As a young Chelsea fan (courtesy of my love for the colour blue and Gianfranco Zola) I must say that I was very excited about the prospect of the Special One of leading them to glory. Chelsea didn’t really have that much personality. It may have had a young Arjen Robben, a promising Didier Drogba, a great Claude Makélélé, but outside of Frank Lampard and John Terry it did not really have an electric, magnetic personality. Mourinho gave them one.
Despite his current reputation for defensive football, Mourinho’s Chelsea actually scored 72 goals in 2004-05, trumped only by Arsenal’s 87 that year. That’s almost two goals per game. Remind you of anything? Chelsea scored 73 goals last season, second only to City’s 83. At Mourinho’s peak, they don’t go below that mark, meaning that they attacked enough to score nearly 2 goals every game, which is pretty respectable in the ever-competitive (if not genuinely good) Premier League. At his best, Mourinho is a very balanced manager, whose teams are capable enough of scoring.
(Just look at the game against Everton at the start of last season, to see how entertaining Mourinho’s teams can be.)
So what happens in the dreaded Third Year of Mourinho’s second stint at Stamford Bridge? Why are Chelsea now on pace for 57 goals in a season? (and that’s boosted courtesy of teams like West Brom, Newcastle and HAHAHAHAHArsenal) Some will blame the team being dead tired (and that’s not a bad reason) others will blame John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic regressing to walking hunks, and Cesc Fabregas turning into a clueless joke of a midfielder (and that’s not a bad reason either). But the truth is, that despite all that, Chelsea has enough of a team to deal with it. Or at least they should have had one, weren’t it for the Special One, the master of deflecting blame and subtle trolling, who doesn’t see that the only thing stopping this team from prospering is his own fear of failure, his inability to commit to a more risky style of football that would be beneficial to his personnel.
This game week, we witnessed a Mourinho classic “the refs are against me, and I’m the best manager ever” moment, the moment where, knowing that he’s slowly approaching the abyss of another failed third year, he just has to make sure that the media, his current, and his future boss know that this is just the world against him. Just making sure he tells the world he’ll never become Sir Alex, the refs have a conspiracy against him, his players are failing him. But he, the Special One, is not to be denied. He has never made a wrong decision in his life, he has never even thought of making one.
And this, if anything, is the source of Mourinho’s biggest issue: his own myth, the myth of the greatest mind in football, whom everyone conspires against. Much like a FIFA player who goes out and complains about the game being scripted against him, his opponents being inferior despite clear evidence to the contrary, and finally, that he deserves better, his high-rated players didn’t deliver, and whatever other whiny reason he’ll find to blame anything but himself for his own losses, Mourinho seems convinced that it’s not his fault. He does everything right, it’s just Fabregas who doesn’t know how to play as a defensive midfielder. He does everything right but Eden Hazard can’t create anything when forced to play a very limited role and is double-teamed at every turn. A good manager would play around that or find some better-suited personnel.
Mourinho buys Pedro and John Stones Consolation Prize™ Papi Djilibodji, ignoring the gaping gap in the middle of the park, the dying Nemanja Matić, the ill-suited Fabregas, who I think we all can agree should be able to play further up the field to be any effective. Sure, there was a chase for Paul Pogba; Pogba wisely declined those advances.
Bad buys aren’t the end of it though. Mourinho actually managed to fill a need with one of them, Baba Rahman, a very promising left-back from Augsburg, a player that allows him to play Cesar Azpilicueta back on his more natural right side, and most importantly, get rid of Ivanović. Mourinho excuses himself, saying that the young one never learned the system, that he’s too short, that he’d be a liability on set-pieces. All of this when left wingers around the league have been turning Ivanović inside out at every turn, all while he lost every ounce of his offensive luster. He might still be a solid centre back. He’s no longer a fullback, and Mourinho has an excellent replacement rotting on the bench.
However, this refusal to incorporate new players into the team isn’t new by any stretch of the imagination. Sure, Diego Costa and Fabregas were brought right along right into the fray, but at the same time, the likes of Andre Schurrle, Kevin De Bruyne, Juan Cuadrado – all players that Chelsea needs to create right now – have been sent away for “low defensive work rate”, “doesn’t fit in” reasons. And this would be all fine and dandy, if they ever were given a chance to fit in. De Bruyne went to Wolfsburg, scored for fun, and got his ticket back to the PL courtesy of Manchester City. Cuadrado has been a catalyst for Juventus. Only Schurrle seems to have been floundering a bit (in a deep Wolfsburg team, to be fair) but with the lack of depth on the wings and at striker (I didn’t even mention Falcao in the transfer bit, because… Why would I?) he’d probably be of much more use to Chelsea than the 3-deep Wolfsburg.
But Mourinho’s successes have blinded him. Recently, Deco claimed that Mourinho is unable to trust his players the way he used to before he went to the cesspool of pressure that is Real Madrid, where he had one spat with a beloved captain already. Now, with another beloved captain being benched, you must feel like one universal Mourinho truth reveals itself.
His power must be absolute.
That’s why he did so well leading underdogs; underdogs are too hungry for success to question his power. But now that Chelsea know they should be top, and he’s still making bad moves, you kind of feel like his grasp is slipping. What seems to have slipped is Mourinho’s passion as well. I don’t think we’ll ever see him running towards his players in absolute joy, his emotions on the sidelines are slowly becoming limited to a selection of smirks. It’s no wonder that his teams seem to play with a similar, lacklustre attitude. Mourinho seems to feel that he has proven that he’s the best. And if you’ve proven everything you wanted to prove, you can’t really motivate the players to do the same.
Not by throwing excuse after excuse out you can’t.
Perhaps it’s time that Mourinho went back to a team where he can go around proving that he’s the best all over again. The Serie A is rife with teams that need his underdog Midas touch. Since this seems to be his comeback tour, why not Inter? He can go to Porto after three years there. Because every three years, his myth is going to die, and every next year, it will be reborn. Thus is Mourinho’s way, the man who outshines the competition on the pitch. The man who will not abide any credit being given to anyone but him, while he’ll always look to deflect blame. He comes, he conquers, and then he leaves as his attitude sours on everyone around him. Mourinho will stay in this vicious cycle, as long as there are teams that will indulge him in the rollercoaster of success and failure.
All the while, I find myself missing that passionate young manager running down the pitch, creating the moments that would ultimately manifest themselves in a self-destructive myth.