Dismayed by the decision to depose Louis van Gaal and, reportedly, hire one of the most divisive and manipulative managers in the game, I was at first pessimistic about the fate of José Mourinho at Manchester United just hours after the globally renowned architects of football I had come to support obliviously hoisted the FA Cup aloft following a titanic tussle with Crystal Palace. A testing season for United fans had just culminated in an achievement unprecedented since 2004, yet nobody within the inner sanctums of the club appeared to realise it; they, after hours, days and weeks of speculation, took the coward’s decision and terminated their relationship with LvG. Certainly, the playing standards under the unconventional Dutch taskmaster had fallen to depths not witnessed since, ignoring the tenure of David Moyes, the fledgling stages of (who would later become) Sir Alex Ferguson’s Mancunian escapade, but he had discovered a manner in which to grind out results, and, in turn, win trophies, which while not in the preferred ‘United’ style, was effective in firstly achieving the sole Champions League qualification in what now appears likely to be four long seasons, and the 2016 FA Cup. It was perhaps ironic then, that the primary achievement of José Mário dos Santos Mourinho Félix’s time in the Stretford quarters of Manchester was the Community Shield, overturning the threat of Premier League champions Leicester City in the opportunity presented by van Gaal’s domestic cup victory.
My stance on the mightily successful Portuguese, however, soon softened with the widespread optimism forged through his affirmations of title-winning objectives and the statements of intent that the signatures of Zlatan Ibrahimović, Eric Bailly, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba, for a world record transfer fee, presented to the footballing universe. Rather than allowing the harmful, introverted ways of Moyes, van Gaal and partly Ryan Giggs – responsibility stemming from his inability to guide the hierarchy to a successful route he once trod – to fester in Old Trafford, Mourinho appeared the proactive, respect-demanding, angelic saviour of the Red Devils, and the only manager capable of pitting his wits against the influx of unprecedented Premier League managerial talent in Pep Guardiola, Antonio Conte and Jürgen Klopp. Despite carrying baggage from his unenviable spells at Chelsea and his long-term courting from afar of United, the winner of two Champions League titles – with respective minnows FC Porto and Inter Milan – and the boaster of league titles at each club where his tenure has extended to two or more years, Mourinho has proven his credentials tenfold at the age of just 54. Providing he be supplied with the sufficient funds to make his Galatico-esque ambition a reality at United by Ed Woodward, the Glazer family and significant other investors, Mourinho was bound for success at what many argue to be the greatest club in the world; a force dormant since the retirement of its fiery caldera, Ferguson, in May 2013.
In some regards, this prophecy has become the truth – a Community Shield and League Cup double, to date, this season, is certainly nothing to be sniffed at – but regarding the visible advances made under the heralded Portuguese, have great strides seriously been made since van Gaal’s, or even Moyes’, spells? While I accept the current state of disarray overcoming United fans is purely borne down to the form of what is, in its recent guise, an injury-ravaged side heavily reliant on the – while not evident yet – waning force of Ibrahimović and the erratic flashes of Pogba brilliance, and I am most certainly not one to pan to fickle calls for heads to roll (as are evident presently in West Ham’s ranks), it is inarguable how, for a manager expected to, effectively, set the footballing world alight, Mourinho isn’t returning on his early promise.
It can be argued that his attention, periodically, is fixated on achieving Champions League qualification through victory in the Europa League, and that, resultantly, through resting key players in Premier League matches, and having to run others – Ibrahimović, Pogba, Mkhitaryan and Juan Mata – into the ground, a downturn in league results was inevitable. His FA Cup ambitions this season, admittedly, fell foul to the unavailability of a fully fit striker against Chelsea, with a despondent Marcus Rashford suffering from illness on the day, while the summation of just 14 points from a possible 24 in their last eight PL matches – against sides, barring Everton, of far inferior quality – can be partly attributed to Ibrahimović’s three-match suspension, which he picked up in a Bournemouth tie where his penalty miss proved costly.
You just wish that would be the extent of his excuse making. For a man who rarely has barbs thrown his way, testament to the respect his managerial record commands, Mourinho rarely ceases to stun with his outrageously self-righteous, manipulative and disrespectful post-match interviews in particular. It is these inconsiderate, deceitful exerts of his unfortunate persona, whether performed or not for the sheer attention they garner, that personally will never be forgivable. He may never reconcile his peace with the media, but notably, after a long-term abstention from post-match duties, Ferguson did, and for the respect he was deserved upon retirement, surely the infantile Mourinho should portion blame not solely on referees, linesmen or players, but also siphon off a share for his own head. It reflects poorly on the game for one of the leading minds behind the ‘beauty’ of it to be unflinchingly carving wounds into its credibility and encouraging, with his stage, future generations to assume such a hypercritical outlook over all but oneself. It may be in his interest, but that is where the appeal of his narcissism relents.
The FA, amongst other associations and organisations, have attempted – on innumerable occasions - to quell his thirst for recklessness, but with an invincibility to allow such fines tame his character, Mourinho has consistently reoffended to a rung of petulance unparalleled by any career criminal ever seen in British society. By my addition, he has racked up around £250,000 in FA fines alone, effectively making him the most significant benefactor to the organisation outside of their own funding structure, and while spending more time in the stands resultantly than many fans can afford to accrue in a season, the self-proclaimed ‘Special One’ must’ve considered his credibility and reputation amongst colleagues. Evident from his apparently unrelenting desire to bring integrity to the sport, or at least the ‘injustices’ it serves his self-interest, his is a world lived entirely through his own cause, with any doubters of his righteousness to the three points on any given match day clearly deluded and disposable. Whether that be in the case of his seemingly incessant feud with ‘specialist in failure’ Arsene Wenger, the extreme conflict he partook in with the late Tito Vilanova – gouging the former Barcelona boss’ eye in a post-El Clásico fracas in 2011 – or the indiscriminate slandering of referees globally, encompassing Anthony Taylor, Martin Atkinson and Anders Frisk in more high-profile examples, with the latter forced into premature retirement after receiving death threats stemming from Mourinho’s condemnation, his hell-bent streak for equality appears more than a little contradictory.
“They are trying but they are not doing well. If the referee cannot see, some official in front of a screen cannot miss it. We want to protect the integrity of the game.” An exert from an impassioned rant against a tackle made by Ashley Barnes on Nemanja Matic in a February 2015 match-up between Burnley and his beloved Blues, this speech represents his ultimate motives in developing football to suit his requirements; the introduction of VAR (Video Assistant Referee) technology. The aspect of his tirade that is questionable, of course, here is that once VAR’s are instilled into footballing culture within a matter of a season or two at best – at levels equivalent to the Premier League, it must be added – where is he going to lay his blame in the event of an exasperating and partially embarrassing home draw to, say, Burnley, Hull or Bournemouth? Once he inevitably has his wish granted, will his post-match disdain fester, or will he seek retribution amongst the footballing gods, or – considering his Roman Catholic faith - from Papa Francesco, in the manner of the Prodigal Son, rendered psychologically fixated on atoning for his previous crimes against the authority of the sport which has offered his life meaning? How his story will unfold, I’m certain, will become a footballing parable in itself.
Delivering my attention to his tactical outlook, this topic obsesses agreeably on whether, in light of his sub-par league returns in Manchester red, his once-unparalleled knowledge is being usurped by individuals, visible in two counterparts he has been outsmarted by this season in Conte and Guardiola, with superior vigour and conduct. When it comes to tactical flexibility, certainly, he has appeared about as adaptable in recent years as the ball-point with which he scribbles down opposition notes – monotonously indefatigable in a 4-2-3-1 system that has fast become the bane of United fans’ lives, ostensibly sapped of ink as its capabilities get repeatedly tested, expecting different results. Once criticised as the "enemy of football" by former UEFA refereeing chief Volker Roth and alternatively a "stain on football" by Carles Villarubí, Barcelona Vice-president of institutional areas, though more for his disruptive behaviour rather than his tactical approach, his unshakable devotion to a counter-attacking 4-2-3-1, mastered in his second spell at Chelsea in particular, is forcing United into an unfamiliar identity crisis. Employed also under LvG and, variably, Moyes, but without persistence-demanding results, perhaps United’s key players are, bluntly, tired of the system. Juan Mata, a record signing under Moyes, has suffered from being continually forced out to a position on the right wing, a station mastered under a manager undefined by his tactics - Ferguson - by Antonio Valencia and Nani, while full-back duties have regularly been undertaken by Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo, Ashley Young and Valencia, the latter of whom while emerging as a leader in his position in the Premier League, alongside his aforementioned colleagues, should never have been forced into the position in the first place. It would be acceptable if Mourinho either had a gaping lack of capable full-backs in his existing squad or a transfer budget reeling from alternative purchases, but in a position where Luke Shaw, a £30 million England international, and Matteo Darmian, a £12.7 million Italy regular, are available to the manager of who Deloitte ranked the most powerful financial footballing side in the world, what excuses does he have?
His recent treatment of Shaw particularly aggravated me into this week’s rant. Lambasting, though in his typically sly nonchalance, the 21 year-old Southampton academy graduate’s training commitment to the world’s media, and in the process tarnishing the reputation of a prospect once likened to fellow St Mary’s product Gareth Bale, it was a callous challenge of the press’ influence to announce private issues to the starkly separate world outside Carrington. Mourinho, only to accentuate his post-match comments on Tuesday evening, ruthlessly condemned even the ability of Shaw to make basic footballing decisions; deplorably suggesting the following day that “I was making every decision for him" during the 1-1 draw with Everton, in which the perennially stubble-adorned left-back, resorted to as a substitute, effectively secured United a point by earning the equalising penalty with a goal-bound last-minute volley. Contrasting to the success van Gaal had with encouraging youth – Marcus Rashford, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Jesse Lingard the recipients of first-team exposure in a manner Mourinho couldn’t imagine in his worst nightmares – the Portuguese is a staunch supporter of teams comprising established world-class individuals, dreading the inevitability of his time at United in which he has been forced into handing Rashford, Shaw and Fosu-Mensah their chances.
As mentioned in a blog last year, his anti-youth manifesto is such that of the 49 academy products to be handed debuts under his tenure, only Alvaro Morata and Casemiro have succeeded to achieve regular top-level playing time, and that under Mourinho, these two only saw highly limited action, such was his reluctance to allow such prospects to deter his philosophy. He seeks tactical assurance and intelligence, both on and off the ball, from his players in a contrived 4-2-3-1 set-up, and especially from a defence that is regarded - in any of Mourinho’s systems – as arguably the most ruthlessly aware of any to be found in club football. When many United fans, myself included, envisaged an attacking revival equal to what Ferguson’s side consistently offered or even to a Chelsea offensive quartet – Eden Hazard, Diego Costa, Willian and Oscar/Cesc Fabregas - that starred under Mourinho’s stewardship in the 2014/15 season, and began to realise these ambitions in the 4-1 dispatching of defending champions Leicester and the 3-1 dominance of lowly Sunderland as the season unfolded, everything appeared rosy for the new era. Marking the only two examples this season when home matches have returned all three points through three or more goals being scored, however, the early optimism has quickly faded to reveal, once again, a manager out of their depth in a fortress defined by one man, handily cast in bronze outside his spiritual home, in the 21st century.
Whether it is impossible to succeed where SAF plotted many a league triumph is certainly a disputed point of discussion, but undoubtedly, for the aspirations of Moyes, van Gaal and now Mourinho to have turned pear-shaped, causing rifts between fans – infamously so with Andy Tate - and managers, the media and bosses with van Gaal’s memorable months of rumour-quashing, and most recently players and head coaches in the form of Shaw and Schweinsteiger’s disputes, the Old Trafford effect has to have sapped managerial inspiration. To live up, not only to such a prestigious predecessor, but also to the cauldron of 76,000 impatient spectators, not to mention to the hundreds of millions of global Red Devils upon which an unprecedented commercial empire has been engineered, must be a burden unrivalled in any sport, other than perhaps at previous employers Real Madrid and rivals Barça, and I for one imagined Mourinho as the only man to handle it. Whether a Europa League victory, seemingly incredibly attainable for the club’s first taste of such understated continental silverware with the current draw, alongside an EFL Cup and Community Shield in 2016/17, achieving Champions League qualification in the process by likely denying Arsenal, Manchester City or Liverpool the final English spot, would be sufficient to appease the United support is challenging to ascertain, as while delivering trophies, it would hardly increase the status of a side that not so long ago was tussling with Barcelona for Champions League titles.
An unavoidable reliance on funding becomes apparent wherever you peer over Mourinho’s travels, and whether it will take another £100-£150 million worth of Glazer backing to create the squad he deems necessary for a Premier League title race and Champions League run – perhaps in the form of Antoine Griezmann as catalyst, Romelu Lukaku as the heir to Ibrahimović’s throne or the perennially linked defensive option Victor Lindelöf – remains to be seen. His demand for vast funds, vast majorities of which are often scattered for temporary flashes of success, undermine Mourinho’s entire coaching career, diverting from his undoubted tactical prowess, but now faced with competition on five fronts in the league alone – in the form of adversaries Conte, Guardiola, Klopp, Wenger and Mauricio Pochettino – just to achieve a Champions League place, let alone sustain a title charge, and with funds equalled by most of these rivals, has Mourinho finally met his match? Will he, for the first time in a glittering managerial career, be denied a league title in the tenure of a club he has spent at least two years at the helm of, come this time next year?
It is this insatiable gluttony for silverware that has always made Mourinho the vicious mastermind we appreciate. He has never shirked responsibility to deliver success to those who dare to employ such a short-fused flare of vivacious and aggressive winning desire, and part of us as onlookers has to respect that. What will forever be reprehensible about him, aside from his tyrannical advocacy of a now outdated, debunked 4-2-3-1 tactical set-up, is his underlying, irrepressible ruthlessness to win – which, naturally, many would be quick to establish the values of in such a hypercritical and economically meaningful sporting environment – but which, in my opinion, blots the copybook of an otherwise entirely admirable career in a sport so dear to his heart. In many ways reminiscent of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, Mourinho cuts the figure of a hyperactive sociopathic dependent on the thrills and spills of battle – alien to the incomprehensible pleas of obsolete, ostracised individuals and solely fixated on outwitting career-long adversaries, taking whatever step necessary to overcome their challenge, and this basic character flaw could either be his downfall, or his redeeming feature, at United; a club in desperate need of a redeemer.
He would draw himself, seemingly, to hellish rage providing his aspirations, which far exceed the Europa League and EFL Cup, were not met at a club where legends are not tested, but forged in the midst of conflict. His vision may not be clear to us mere outsiders currently, and he may prove his ultimate credibility by eventually succeeding where his forefathers flailed and crashed, even if it kills him, but currently he appears in a state of great disdain for those around him and the sport altogether, which ultimately is only damaging for those involved. There are many contradictions to Mourinho’s personality and perception, and he is certainly an easily abrasive figure to contend with, even in such privileged and exclusive climes as he frequents, but with such opportunity comes subsequent burden – harnessing the raw energy of this strain has been an aspect of career expertise for the Setúbal-born man, can he repeat such feats within the constraints of his greatest project yet? If so, will it be achieved while instigating irreparable fissures within the club, the Premier League, and the wider footballing world, or will his character flaws be his eventual stumbling block? All remains to be seen, but certainly, if he had the temperament of Jürgen Klopp, rather than Donald Trump, his career would’ve been greatly polarised; in terms of simplicity, as well as excitement…
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!