This is part two of Jonathan Wilson's article from Issue Nineteen. To read the first half, click here.
Soon after Mourinho had left Chelsea, it became apparent that Frank Rijkaard’s time at Barcelona was coming to an end. “A 5% drop in commitment at the highest level creates difficulty,” the then Barcelona CEO Ferran Soriano wrote in his book Goal: The Ball Doesn’t Go in by Chance, “and Frank didn’t know how to re-energise the group.” Barça considered appointing Mourinho in January 2008, but decided that Rijkaard should be allowed to complete the season so the new manager was coming in afresh.
Txiki Begiristain, Barça’s technical director, interviewed Mourinho, telling him that the final decision would be taken by Johan Cruyff, who held no official position but who, as the living embodiment of the Barçajax ethos, had an authority that transcended the club’s politics. Mourinho, determined to press his case, called the club president Joan Laporta and asked to speak to Cruyff. Laporta replied that the decision had already been taken: Barça were going to appoint Pep Guardiola. Mourinho told Laporta he’d made a terrible mistake.
Soriano explained that the club had set out nine criteria by which prospective candidates were judged:
Respect for the sports-management model and the role of the technical director
Promoting the right values in the first team and paying special attention to the development of young talent
Training and performance
Proactive management of the dressing-room
Other responsibilities with, and commitment to, the club, including maintaining a conservative profile and avoiding overuse of the media
Experience as a player and a coach at the highest level
Support for the good governance of the club
Knowledge of the Spanish league, the club and European competition.
According to Soriano, the decision came down to a straight head-to-head between Mourinho and Guardiola. Both fell down on point nine, but Mourinho also fell down on points two, three, six and eight. “It was clear that Mourinho was a great coach but we thought Guardiola would be even better,” said Soriano. “There was the important issue of knowledge of the club. Mourinho had it, but Guardiola had more of it and he enjoyed a greater affinity with the club. Mourinho is a winner, but in order to win he guarantees a level of tension that becomes a problem.”
Mourinho has never forgiven Barcelona.
In the summer of 2008, Mourinho joined Inter. As at Chelsea, he found a team that lacked pace in the heart of its defence and so sat his back four deep, although the full-backs, Maxwell and Maicon, were given some licence to push on. The shape at the front changed fairly regularly, but the most common system was a 4-3-1-2, with Esteban Cambiasso flanked by the industrious Javier Zanetti and Sulley Muntari, with Dejan Stankovic creating behind Zlatan Ibrahimović and one of his many partners. Inter lost just four times in winning the league by 10 points – their fourth successive title. The following season was tighter, with the title won by just two points, but that year also brought the Champions League – Inter’s first in 45 years.
The final, a 2-0 win on Madrid over Van Gaal’s Bayern, was straightforward enough, but the symbolism of Mourinho overcoming his former boss was overshadowed by the far greater resonance of the semi-final in April 2010, and Inter’s extraordinary backs to the wall triumph over Guardiola’s Barcelona, the defending champions. Mourinho had the great good fortune, of course, that the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull meant that Barça had to travel to Milan by bus, which perhaps partly explained their sluggish performance in losing 3-1. Inter lined up in a 4-2-3-1, with Cambiasso partnered by Thiago Motta at the back of midfield. Samuel Eto’o, Wesley Sneijder and Goran Pandev offered creativity behind Diego Milito, but what was noticeable was how quickly they could drop back to form a five-man midfield. Milito’s aerial ability then gave Inter an outlet.
But it was at the Camp Nou that Mourinho had his revenge on Barcelona and Guardiola. Motta was sent off after 29 minutes thanks to Sergio Busquets’s playacting, at which Inter went even more defensive than they had been previously, dropping all nine outfielders who remained behind the ball and at times seemingly deliberately giving away possession so as not to lose their defensive shape. Eto’o and Cristian Chivu, who came in for Pandev, ended up effectively playing as auxiliary full-backs. Again and again Barça swept forward and again and again they found the low block waiting for them, an impenetrable mass of black-and-blue shirts that denied them the space for their rat-a-tat flurries of passing.
Inter had one shot to Barcelona’s 15 and just 19% possession, but they held out for a one-goal defeat and an aggregate victory; in so they doing struck a blow against Barça and all they stood for, in their own stadium. When Barça turned on the sprinklers as the Inter players celebrated, Mourinho must have been even more delighted: he hadn’t just won, he’d provoked Barça into an act of pettiness and so helped dislodge their halo.
Inter only ever seemed like a stepping-stone. While his time there helped reinforce parallels with Helenio Herrera, the high priest of catenaccio who had won two European Cups in the sixties, the sense was always that Mourinho was eyeing a return to either England or Spain. That’s where the money was and that’s where the real power was – which of course made the fact he has won Champions Leagues with clubs from outside the very elite all the more impressive. And, perhaps most importantly, Spain was where Barcelona and Guardiola were.
Real Madrid had been in contact with Mourinho since 2007, when they’d signed Pepe, a fellow client of the super-agent Jorge Mendes. Manuel Pellegrini had never had the full support of the board and, as his reign drifted to its conclusion, Inter’s victory over Barcelona suggested Mourinho was the man who could topple Guardiola’s side. Such was the desperation to bring his empire down that the quibbles that had existed in the mind of the president Florentino Pérez over Mourinho’s style of play were pushed to one side. They appointed him in summer 2010.
Mourinho started out with a 4-2-3-1 with Xabi Alonso alongside Sami Khedira at the back of midfield, then Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Özil and Ángel Di María behind Gonzalo Higuaín. There were goalless draws away to Mallorca and Levante, but when Madrid went to the Camp Nou on November 29, they were a point clear at the top. This was the moment Madrid had been waiting for, the moment when Mourinho was supposed to show he could bring down Guardiola.
His plan was to do what he had done seven months earlier, to operate a low block and look to frustrate Barça. The previous season, though, Bara had had Ibrahimović up front: their front three of Pedro, Messi and David Villa presented a different, more mobile treat. Within 14 minutes, Barça were 2-0 up. Mourinho switched to a high press and then at half-time brought on Lassana Diarra for Özil, the first sighting of what became known as the “trivote” of Diarra, Khedira and Xabi Alonso – the term suggesting three pivotes, or holding players. It didn’t work, and Barça won 5-0.
Madrid only lost another three games that season, but that wasn’t enough. Barça took not only the league title but also the Champions League, beating Madrid in the semi-final. The trivote was seen more and more against high-class opposition, despite opposition form various players – or at least that’s what Diego Torres claimed in his controversial biography of Mourinho. The book is clearly written from a highly critical perspective, but equally clearly it was written from excellent – if partisan – sources within the dressing room. He suggests that Mourinho at Madrid was not motivated merely by winning – which had been almost his sole objective elsewhere – but by the desire to do so in his way, to establish himself as a tactical pioneer. Mourinho spoke repeatedly of the trivote, his triangle of aggressive, hard-tackling midfielders who could press high and, in theory, either win the ball back high up the pitch or offer an impenetrable block in front of the back four. What was baffling to Torres’s sources was partly that Mourinho seemed to portray himself as the inventor of the system when the term had been coined by Santiago Segurola in El País during the 1998 World Cup to describe Italy’s midfield three of Dino Baggio, Luigi Di Biagio and Gianluca Pesotto. More worrying was that he played it at times when, as the sources saw it, it was of limited benefit and meant playing players out of position. It was as though, the implication was, he was determined above all else to promote his own legend. Maybe that’s true, maybe it isn’t – Torres’s book isn’t the most disinterested source – but what is true is that Mourinho’s record in big games as Real Madrid coach, particularly away from home, was poor.
In the first (home) leg of semi-final against Barça, Mourinho fielded a trivote of Diarra, Xabi Alonso and Pepe, who was, predictably, sent off. Messi then scored twice as Barça won 2-0 on their way to a 3-1 aggregate triumph. The whole tie was played out in a sulphurous atmosphere, largely of Mourinho’s making. Madrid did little but spoil: even if Barça did dive and whinge, at its heart the rivalry had become about one team passing and dribbling, the other kicking and brawling; light against dark, football against anti-football. In the 17 Clásicos Mourinho was involved in in his time as Madrid manager, his side committed 346 fouls to Barcelona’s 220.
According to Torres, Mourinho laid out a simple seven-point plan for winning big games:
1. The game is won by the team who commits fewer errors.
2. Football favours whoever provokes more errors in the opposition.
3. Away from home, instead of trying to be superior to the opposition, it’s better to encourage their mistakes.
4. Whoever has the ball is more likely to make a mistake.
5. Whoever renounces possession reduces the possibility of making a mistake.
6. Whoever has the ball has fear.
7. Whoever does not have it is thereby stronger.
This is the antithesis of the Barçajax approach, a categorical rejection of the possession-based, proactive approach of Guardiola and his ilk. It was precisely how Inter had played in that Champions League semi-final but there was always a sense at Madrid that it was somehow unworthy of the club.
The only comfort came in the Copa del Rey as Madrid beat Barça 1-0 in the final; perhaps Barça were not invincible, perhaps Madrid could get under their skin. The bitterness carried over into the following season, and Barça meeting Madrid over two legs for the Super Cup. A 2-2 draw at the Bernabéu was followed by a 3-2 win for Barça at the Camp Nou, the winner scored by Messi with two minutes remaining. Marcelo was then sent off in injury time for a lunge on Cesc Fàbregas and in the brawl that followed Özil was red-carded and Mourinho poked Tito Vilanova, the Barça assistant coach in the eye from behind. It was an act of cowardice and petulance that would have profound consequences.
Still, in the short term, Madrid did break Barça’s stranglehold on the league. Playing a 4-2-3-1 for most of the 2011-12 campaign, Madrid lost just twice and finished nine points above a weary Barça. Their Champions League run was ended by Bayern on penalties in the semi-final. Guardiola, exhausted, left at the end of the season and the way seemed clear for Madrid to create their own empire.
But 2012-13 began abysmally as Madrid took just four points from their opening four games, beaten by Getafe and Sevilla. By the time they lost 1-0 at Granada in early February, the season was over and the title was Barcelona’s, despite Gerardo Martino’s struggles as manager. Players complained – as they had done in the previous two seasons — that too much time was spent practising the counter-attack and very little practising against massed defences. The Champions League brought a humbling semi-final defeat to Borussia Dortmund, who seemed quicker, sharper, better at the counter-attack that was supposed to be Mourinho’s strong point.
On 7 May 2013, Mourinho arrived alone at the Sheraton Madrid Mirasierra to prepare for a league game against Malaga, having refused to travel with his players after accusing them of disloyalty. A contingent of the Ultras Sur, who saw themselves as Madrid’s most devoted fans, were waiting for him with a banner that proclaimed their love for him. There was effectively a state of open warfare between Mourinho and the club captain Iker Casillas. That Mourinho’s fractious time at the club was coming to an end wasn’t in any real doubt. And for Mourinho, things were about to get much worse.
That night, the story broke that Manchester United were going to appoint David Moyes as a successor to Alex Ferguson. According to Diego Torres in his biography of Mourinho, the Madrid manager was appalled. He’d believed he had a special relationship with Ferguson, but the outgoing United manager hadn’t even called him to let him know of the decision. That night Mourinho was restless, fretful, constantly checking the news to see if there may have been some mistake. The following morning he called Jorge Mendes to see if it might be possible to derail the deal and reinsert himself into the picture. By the following day, Mourinho was insisting that his intention had always been to go back to Chelsea, that his wife wanted to live in London. Perhaps that was true, but perhaps he saw this as a second betrayal. Worse was the sense that this was a decision that was only indirectly related to football. “A United manager,” Bobby Charlton, at the time a United director, told the Guardian in December 2012, “would not do what he did to Tito Vilanova… Mourinho is a really good coach, but that’s as far as I’d go.” And his behaviour at Madrid had raised other doubts. “The problem is,” one executive at Gestifute, Mendes’s agency, told Torres, “when things do not go well for Mou, he does not follow the club’s line. He follows José’s line.”
By then, his options by then were limited: other than PSG, Chelsea was the only club of sufficient stature who would still have him. Not only that, but he was, at least, going back to a club where he’d been revered, where he’d announced himself as “a special one” and been loved for it, where the fans didn’t seem to mind – perhaps even relished – his pragmatic approach (whether Abramovich was so keen on it was another matter).
In summer 2013, Mourinho arrived at Chelsea for a second time promising he had mellowed, that he was now “the happy one”. With Oscar, Eden Hazard and one other (sometimes Kevin De Bruyne, sometimes Juan Mata, sometimes André Schürrle, sometimes Willian) operating behind a striker, there was even an attempt to play more spectacular football. That lasted until a League Cup quarter-final defeat at Sunderland in the December. Mourinho, looking tired and dishevelled, spoke after the game of going back to basics. He had nine days before Chelsea played again and when they did, they stifled Arsenal at the Emirates in an utterly tedious 0-0 draw. Mourinho afterwards seemed positively jolly. Chelsea conceded just four goals and went unbeaten through the following 13 league games. Surprise defeats to Aston Villa, Crystal Palace and Sunderland derailed their title challenge but they still had an outside chance when they went to Liverpool for their fourth-last game of the season.
A draw would have kept Liverpool ahead of Manchester City, but Mourinho turned to his Madrid manual for big games. Chelsea spoiled and wasted time from the off, showed little interest in the ball, had 23% of possession and won because of a Steven Gerrard slip just before half-time and a late goal on the break from Willian, as though to validate the theory that if you wait long enough, the opponent will eventually make a mistake: “Whoever has the ball has fear.”
The signing of Nemanja Matić in the January had given Chelsea extra solidity in midfield. Cesc Fàbregas and Diego Costa arrived in the summer, adding midfield guile and a tough, awkward, goalscoring leader of the line. From their opening game, a 3-1 win at Burnley, Chelsea looked like champions. They lost only three times all season, and one of those was after the championship had been wrapped up.
To those who have known him the longest, this was the same old Mourinho. “I didn’t feel any difference when it came to communication with the players,” said Maniche. “I recently did some work with Chelsea and some of the processes were the same when it came to training. The warm-up, for example, was practically the same I had in Porto.”
Costinha insists that the fundamentals have remained constant throughout Mourinho’s career. “I was lucky enough to see him work at Porto, Chelsea, Inter and a bit at Real Madrid, and the only thing that changed were the players,” he said. “All the clubs were different, and what he did was to shape the players he had at each club to his philosophy after studying each one, after understanding how he could be useful to the team.”
As City collapsed in January and Chelsea’s progress to the title became more and more certain – even though they showed signs of fatigue – the focus shifted away from who would win and towards how a champion should play. Chelsea, better than any other side in England, could close down a game when they needed to and so the question began to be asked whether they were boring. “That question doesn’t even make sense to me,” said Jorge Costa, who is now manager of Gabon. “It’s obvious the most important aspect of coaching is winning. I hated to lose when I was a player, and I still hate it as a coach. I really don’t think there was a team playing better than Chelsea last season.”
For Maniche, similarly, the question is simply naïve. “The ideal was to do what we did in Porto, which was win and play very well and attractively in practically every match,” he said. “But football has changed completely and it will be completely different again in 10 years. Those critics have no idea of what football is, apparently. Arsenal seem to enjoy having a coach who does not win titles, but ask their fans if they wouldn’t like Mourinho better, ask any team in the world if they would not have Mourinho as their coach. What would you prefer? Winning is not only part of the game, but it’s also a part of your life. You need to win, and to win, you need Mourinho.”
Mourinho himself is unapologetic about prioritising winning. “I don’t think it’s changed from one century ago… there is no kid, even playing with his cousin or his father, even in the garden, there is no kid that plays to lose,” he said. “The nature, the sense of it – doesn’t change. They play to win. I used to play a lot in my neighbourhood. And I don’t remember it ever being any other than a big fight to win. I don’t think that’s changed. And football at the highest level, that’s even more so. Because the objective is to win. What I think is people will try to disguise that. People try to create what is not true. When people talk about a new generation of coaches… what is that new generation? The generation will always be the ones that win. And the ones that win occasionally or never win will always be something else.”
That’s not how Van Gaal sees it. “He has more belief in defence than attack,” the Manchester United coach told Patrick Barclay for his biography of Mourinho. “My philosophy is always – because I believe we must entertain the public – to have attacking play. His philosophy is to win! That is the difference.” And yet there is an element there, surely, of Van Gaal playing to the gallery. Did his AZ Alkmaar side, with its compact 4-4-2, really set out always to attack? Did his Netherlands team at the 2014 World Cup with its counter-attacking 5-3-2? How attacking, really, were the United sides that started this season with back-to-back 1-0 wins over Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa?
“There is no new generation,” Mourinho went on. “What there is, is people who’ve got some idea, some philosophy, and want to create something like, ‘We build very well from the back, we have a very good ball possession, we don’t play counter-attack…’ If you don’t play counter-attack then it’s because you are stupid. Because counter-attack is a fantastic item of football. It’s an ammunition that you have and when you find your opponent unbalanced – because a counter-attack always has a connection with some losing of position because of attacking movements – and when you recover the ball, you have a fantastic moment to score a goal. So if you’re not playing counter-attack it’s because you’re stupid. Because you have to. So I think people are creating – and it has influenced some people in the public opinion. But football will never change in that aspect. Football is to win.”
The game against United in April 2015 was a perfect example of that. Chelsea, clear at the top of the table and without Diego Costa, sat deep, played Kurt Zouma alongside Matić at the back of midfield, allowed United to have the ball and, despite having only 30% possession, won 1-0. Although Van Gaal, whose side did play attacking football that day, insisted afterwards that his side had “dominated”, the truth was that Chelsea looked comfortable for the vast majority of the game. “It’s simple,” said Mourinho. “We didn’t have important players in our attacking structure. We didn’t have Diego Costa. We didn’t have the natural replacement for Diego which is [Loïc] Remy. We didn’t have depth in our attacking game. We don’t have Oscar [he came off the bench], we didn’t have a lot of our attacking potential. We needed a point – and our opponent needed three points. It’s as simple as that.
“If I don’t concede a goal my objective is there. And if my opponent needs to score a goal and their defensive structure, when they lose possession of the ball is very unbalanced – because of the positions they adopt in ball possession, with defenders very exposed, because they project the full-backs a lot and they leave one holding midfield player in front of two central defenders with a big distance in between them… then when you analyse them and you know they do that all the time, if you don’t prepare your team for that then you are not coaching.
“Coaching is about recognising the good qualities of the opponents and recognising the fragilities of the opponent. And, more than that, it’s to recognise the good qualities of my team – and the bad qualities of my team. Because my team also has bad qualities, and it’s very important that me and my players, we recognise our bad qualities. One of the secrets of good coaching is, ‘Can you hide your bad qualities from your opponents and even from the pundits?’”
Hiding the bad qualities has become harder this season. This is only the third time Mourinho has reached a third season at any club he’s been at. On the previous two occasions – at Chelsea the first time round and at Real Madrid — it’s gone horribly wrong.
It was Béla Guttmann, the great Hungarian coach, who noted that “the third season is fatal”. Like Mourinho, Guttmann was irascible and brilliant, an itinerant force of nature who fell out with a high proportion of those he worked with. His theory was that after two seasons a coach had said everything he had to say, that the style of play would become predictable, that players would no longer be motivated by the familiar calls to arms, that complacency and decline would inevitably set in. That’s the entropic imperative against which all coaches must constantly fight; only a very few – Valeriy Lobanovskyi and Sir Alex Ferguson perhaps most notably – succeed.
There is perhaps a particular issue with Mourinho in that so much of his method relies on his abrasiveness. He conjures conspiracies to forge a siege mentality, he picks fights that often exist nowhere but in his imagination and gradually it wears people down. Journalists and the public roll their eyes as he makes yet another passive aggressive claim that referees are against him, directors tire of his constant hustling and players perhaps weary of his intensity.
That, at least, is the theory. The longer the slump went on, the more significant the uneasiness that had characterised the pre-season tour of the USA came to seem. Mourinho, perhaps, had sensed then that there was something amiss, had felt the lack of hunger, had recognised that certain players had begun to doubt him. By the end of September, it was being widely rumoured that players had been disturbed by Mourinho’s attack on certain Sky Sports pundits after they had highlighted misbehaviour by Diego Costa the previous February.
As Chelsea lost to Arsenal in the Community Shield and then picked up just four points from the opening four games of the league season, Mourinho went through his familiar repertoire. He initiated a handshake spat with Arsène Wenger. He publicly berated two members of his medical staff for treating a player who it turned out was only feigning injury. Eva Carneiro, the team doctor, subsequently left the club and mounted legal proceedings against both Chelsea and Mourinho. Within a few weeks that began to see a terrible miscalculation, not just because of any wrong done to Carneiro personally, but because of her position in the dressing-room. Medical staff, bound as they are by the confidentiality of their profession, often become significant figures in a team’s dynamic. They spend time talking to players while treating or examining them and players realise they can trust them. A player may be troubled by, say, a potential problem in his calf that he doesn’t want to tell the manger about for fear of being dropped – but he will tell the doctor, who has a duty to investigate and offer advice. A discussion of personal life is often part of the diagnostic process. Issues broached will sometimes be psychological, perhaps especially in sport in which self-confidence is such a major factor. The doctor becomes a trusted outlet. Carneiro, it seems, was popular among the players; ostracising her, it seems, was politically a dreadful move.
For certain players it confirmed a suspicion that, it now appears, had begun to form in early February, when Mourinho attacked Sky for repeatedly showing Diego Costa stamping on Emre Can in the Capital One Cup semi-final, leading to a three-game ban for the striker. Leaks from dressing-rooms have always to be treated with caution but it appears the claims of a conspiracy provoked a sense of embarrassment, that at least some players felt the incident was so obvious that Chelsea should just accept the ban and move on. That is a significant revelation for two reasons: firstly, because it suggests the failure of Mourinho’s familiar circle-the-wagons tactic; and secondly because it has such an obvious parallel in the Torres book, which details player rebelling at being asked to back up Mourinho’s claims that the fixture list was biased against Madrid.
As the transfer window drew to a close and it turned out Chelsea’s only signings were a reserve goalkeeper, a reserve striker, a reserve centre-back and a promising but unproven left-back, he began to offer veiled criticism of Chelsea’s recruitment policy. "You say if you stand still you get worse,” he said after the opening draw against Swansea. “It's right.” After the defeat to Crystal Palace, the jibes had become more overt. “I gave my club the report of the season projection on April 21,” he said, the clear implication being that he had done his job in highlighting targets – John Stones and Paul Pogba most notably – and he could hardly be blamed if others hadn’t done theirs. It was very reminiscent of what Mourinho had said in that small room off the tunnel at Adams Park and, to his critics, a classic case of Mourinho promoting his own rather than the club’s interests.
And why, it seemed legitimate to ask, had Mourinho had been so keen to sign Radamel Falcao? Perhaps it was just a misjudgment. Perhaps he really did think that, despite the evidence of last season at Manchester United and the Copa América, the Colombian could become again the striker he was before his knee injury. But again a theme of the Torres book seemed relevant, namely the perception among certain Madrid players that Jorge Mendes clients enjoyed a privileged position at the club. Falcao, of course, like Mourinho, is a Mendes client. That is not to imply any wrongdoing, but the closeness of a relationship can lead to misjudgment.
It is one that had had major consequences, largely because of Costa’s dismal form. He has gone from being a poacher to a wrestler, the moments of gamesmanship that could once be accepted as a corollary to his edge now the dominant feature about him. He admitted he had returned for pre-season overweight.
Chelsea’s preparations for the season in general came under scrutiny. Mourinho, aware of how exhausted his players had looked towards the end of last season, gave them an extra week off in the summer, but far from refreshing them the result seemed to be that they came into the campaign undercooked; that at least offered some explanation for why so many players – Costa, Branislav Ivanović, Cesc Fàbregas, Eden Hazard, Nemanja Matić… – all looked off-form simultaneously. The only player who started the season well was Willian, who had perhaps maintained his levels by playing on the Copa América.
The defensive problems initially caught the eye, with Chelsea’s back four against Swansea, Manchester City and West Bromwich Albion undone by simple balls in behind them, exposing John Terry’s lack of pace and an unexpected reluctance on the part of Thibaut Courtois to leave his goal-line – perhaps mindful of the goal he conceded to a Charlie Adam shot from the centre-circle against Stoke City last season. But there were problems at the other end as well. Willian’s free-kicks for a long time seemed like Chelsea’s only mode of attack. After beating Swansea City 5-0 in January, Chelsea scored more than once form open play in a game on just eight of 47 possible occasions.
Chelsea lost at Everton and scrambled a draw at Newcastle. They lost at Porto in the Champions League. They took the lead at home to Southampton but were well-beaten 3-1. Mourinho, having brought on Matić at half-time, took him off again 28 minutes later. Under pressure, the manager counter-attacked. On Sky he spoke uninterrupted for seven minutes: “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.”
Nobody was quite sure how to take it. The monologue was spectacular, and also included a ludicrous attack on the referee Bobby Madley, who had turned down one good Chelsea shout for a penalty and two for Southampton, and the refereeing establishment in general, as well as a call for everybody at the club to “take responsibility”. On the one hand it appeared he was flailing wildly, lashing out at a strong of enemies real and imagined. But the section about his future seemed carefully directed. He knew he was nearing the edge and was making clear that if he was going he wanted his pay-off. He’d signed a four-year contract in August, but that appears to have a release cause that means he would be due just one year’s salary: around £9.5million. But the point about Chelsea’s reputation was a sound one. That Mourinho had been re-appointed was itself an indication of how few elite-level managers there are still available to Chelsea. Nobody who dreams of building a dynasty would go there. And yet equally there was the thought, stimulated by the Torres book, of whose line Mourinho was pursuing: was what he said good for him or good for Chelsea?
As results faltered further, others began to wade in. “Mourinho is a great coach but, after a year and a half, he ruins his players,” said Fabio Capello. “His players are also psychologically unable to give him what he wants. His cycles tend to last around this period of time.”
They beat Aston Villa, but then came a defeat at West Ham in which Matić was sent off just before half-time. Mourinho approached the referee Jon Moss in the tunnel and called him “fucking weak”, earing a stadium ban. Was a that a genuine loss of control or was this another example of the trait outlined by Torres of him helping create the appearance of conspiracy to absolve himself of responsibility?
Chelsea went down 3-1 at home to Liverpool. As against Southampton, they’d taken an early lead then dropped deeper and deeper, allowing the away side to gain confidence and momentum. Then, unluckily, with Mourinho banned from the stadium for his attack on Moss, they lost 1-0 at Stoke. It was the first time since Gianluca Vialli was in charge that Chelsea had lost three league games in a row. They’d also gone out of the Capital One Cup to Stoke and struggled to four points in two Champions League games against Dynamo Kyiv. The season has becoming about trying to regain dignity and, if possible, if everything has settled down come the spring, mounting a challenge for fourth or, perhaps, even for the Champions League if the domestic situation means it can be prioritised above all else.
Heading into the international break with a third of the season played, Mourinho still appears to have the confidence of the club, something that can perhaps be explained by three factors. Firstly, there is the terror that he goes elsewhere and enjoys huge success; it may be true that most managerial cycles at the highest level last a decade and it is 12 years since he won the Uefa Cup with Porto, but he has exceeded expectations regularly enough that it seems reasonable to expect further success. Secondly, there are few obvious candidates to step him for him who could realistically be called even a sideways move, never mind an upgrade.
But perhaps most importantly, there is a realisation that Mourinho was probably right to demand greater investment in the summer (albeit with the caveat that he has what must be a frustrating habit of writing off decent players he doesn’t warm to – the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Mohammed Salah, André Schürrle and Juan Cuadrado – and is bafflingly reluctant to give a chance to young players, despite Chelsea enjoying remarkable and sustained success at youth level). This is a squad that has lost a number of leaders recently with the departures of Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and Petr Cech. John Terry is, finally, showing signs of age. This is a squad that needs carefully nurturing. An interim appointment would find a far trickier situation that those that faced Guus Hiddink, Roberto Di Matteo and Rafa Benítez. Guttman’s Three-Year Rule suggests that one of two things must be changed every third season, either the manager or a core of players. Usually, the easier replacement to make is the manager, but here perhaps the reasoning runs that it’s better to keep Mourinho and refresh the squad.
That, at least, is a refreshing shift from convention – not just for Chelsea but for modern football as a whole. Whatever went wrong at the start of this season, Mourinho has stayed true to his tactical principles – and that, perhaps, is part of the problem. For those who espouse the Barçajax school, a key principle is continuity; that’s why Soriano demanded a willingness to promote academy products when looking for Rijkaard’s replacement. It’s about a holistic approach – something Soriano is trying to instil at City – and creating a culture at a club (which in part explains why Manuel Pellegrini was kept on despite last season’s disappointment). History tells us that doing that is easier for those whose football is proactive. Reactive coaches, those who deal less in creation than destruction, those who deal not in ideals but in countering those of others, tend to find empire-building far harder. Helenio Herrera, perhaps most notoriously, found his great Internazionale ultimately consumed by its own negativity. When they lost to Celtic in the 1967 European Cup final, it precipitated a collapse that cost them a Serie A title they had seemed sure tow in and ultimately led to Herrera’s departure. The full-back Tarcisio Burgnich remembers before that final being corralled in isolation at a hotel in Estoril, the constant focus on stopping Celtic making the squad so stressed that he was woken at night be the sound of nervous teammates vomiting. Mourinho’s players may not have reached that pitch of anxiety, but equally his talk when he returned to Stamford Bridge of being the happy one, a leader reading to lay down roots and build an empire, seems further away than ever. But Mourinho remains adamant in his radical reactivity.
A week after the win over United last season, Chelsea held Arsenal at arm’s length and drew 0-0 at the Emirates, to which the home fans – with, you hope, some sense of self-irony given their club’s own history – chanted “Boring, boring Chelsea”. Mourinho responded witheringly. “People talk about style and flair but what is that?” he said. “Sometimes I ask myself about the future, and maybe the future of football is a beautiful green grass carpet without goals, where the team with more ball possession wins the game. The way people analyse style and flair is to take the goals off the pitch.”
It’s a fine, memorable image – but then the devil always has the best lines. Part of Mourinho’s appeal is his cynical charm, which can attract when compared to the prissiness and holier-than-thou attitude of many who promote the Barçajax school. Even Milton seemed to relish Satan’s role rather more than those of the denizens of heaven: he was, as William Blake observed, “of the devil’s party without knowing it.”
But take the pointed hints at Arsenal’s impotence away from Mourinho’s words, and what emerges is a false dichotomy. Possession does not necessarily equal excitement: there are many who find possession football dull – as demonstrated by the countless complaints about Spain as they won the 2010 World Cup and in 2012 their second European Championship – and there are plenty to thrill to the counter-attacking play of say, Germany at the 2010 World Cup or Borussia Dortmund under Jürgen Klopp.
And this is the irony of Mourinho’s position: if, as it often seems, he has allowed his philosophy to be defined in opposition to Barcelona – he is that which they are not – then he is still allowing Barcelona to dictate terms, creating a dichotomy where there could be multiplicity. There is not just radical proactivity and radical reactivity; there are several schools in between.
There are plenty of coaches who have grown up outside the Barçajax school who have been successful, plenty of coaches who have worked out their own way. Given the resources available, Diego Simeone has achieved remarkable success with Atletico, winning La Liga with them and taking them to a Champions League final, and he even plays a game that, like Mourinho’s is rooted in struggle, but there is no sense that he consciously sets himself up in contrast to Barça. The greatest influence over him, in fact, still seems to be the great old Argentinian Victorio Spinetto, who coached him in the youth ranks at Vélez Sarsfield and prioritised fibra – fibre, or toughness – above all else. There may be doubts about Rafa Benítez’s legacy, and it may be that he is beyond the peak of his powers, but he has won a Champions League, two Europa Leagues, two La Liga titles, many of them with teams a little below the highest tier, with a style of play that he honed working in the youth ranks at Real Madrid. His style is different to Mourinho’s – and there is a clear antipathy between them – but Benítez just as much as Mourinho likes control; yet he is not defined by Barça. Klopp’s star may have fallen a little with his struggles last season, but he developed a devastating form of pressing at Borussia Dortmund that shared certain similarities with the Barçajax approach – pressuring the man with the ball, pushing high up the pitch – while lacking others – there was none of the Barça focus on maintaining possession.
It is not that there is the Barçajax school and Not-the-Barçajax school; it is that the Barçajax school is one way of playing among an almost infinite variety. As the obsession with Guardiola suggests, Mourinho may have rejected Barcelona as they rejected him, but as the anti-Barcelona he is still defined by them. It may be that the negativity that induces places limitations on how long he can prosper.