The Devil's Party (Part 1)

Jose Mourinho - the manager, his methods and why it always goes wrong in the third season.

At the beginning of May 2015, Chelsea wrapped up the Premier League title with a scrappy 1-0 win over Crystal Palace. It was not a great game or a great performance, but then for a couple of months Chelsea had looked exhausted, dragging their fatigued limbs over the line and grateful no contender was able to make a serious or consistent challenge. It was a day of relief as well as exultation, Mourinho’s third title with the club, his first since his return and only the fifth they had ever won, despite all their recent investment.

Nobody then, perhaps, realised quite what a struggle those final yards had been, had any notion just how difficult things had become. Certainly nobody suspected then what would happen this season as Chelsea suffered the worst opening third to a campaign of any defending champion – worse than Leeds United, who finished seventeenth in 1992-93, worse even than Manchester City, who were relegated in 1937-38. Nobody recognised that what we were seeing was not necessarily a wearing champion staggering to the finish but a club entering a period of profound crisis.

Mourinho’s mood, too, was strange. He could have been forgiven for seeming jaded, yet his mood in the post-match press conference was neither tired nor celebratory. Usually such end-of-season events are relaxed affairs: “Tell us how you won”, "Who was the most important player?”, “Which game was key?” and, perhaps, if somebody is feeling especially mischievous and isn’t just writing the same reflective piece as everybody else, “How can you be even greater next season?”

But Mourinho was as chippy as ever. This day of joy, he decided, was the perfect time for delivering another thrust in his on-going feud with Pep Guardiola. "For me,” he said, “I'm not the smartest guy to choose countries and clubs. I could choose another club in another country where to be champion is easier.” He didn’t name Guardiola, but the reference was clear. Guardiola had gone to a super-club where the question is less, “Who will win the title?” than “How many will Bayern win it by?” His titles, Mourinho was suggesting, meant less than the one he had just won. To some extent he was right, of course, and if he’d been making a general critique of the iniquities of global football finance, he might even have come across as statesmanlike, but his point was limited to Guardiola and his personal antipathy.

"I choose a club where I was happier before and a country where you are happy before,” he went on. “I took a risk. 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, 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 [the Chelsea owner Roman] Abramovich tells me to go."

Even by Mourinho’s standards, this was weird. Why would anybody, having just lifted the title, choose to belittle their rival, a rival who operates in another country? And not just a passing jibe, an under-the-breath aside, but a full-on assault. Mourinho could have criticised Guardiola by implication, by pointing out he had come back to Chelsea for love, by outlining the difficulties he had faced, by paying tribute to the competitiveness of the Premier League, but instead he chose to sneer. In the moment of his triumph, Mourinho chose to make the conversation about Guardiola.

In hindsight, that final sentence seems strange too: here until Abramovich tells him to go? Mourinho had said on his return to Chelsea that he wanted to found a dynasty, that in a career laden with silverware that was something he still hadn’t done and yet that line, seemingly so throwaway, hinted at an insecurity. Perhaps it was merely part of his contract negotiations: he did, after all, sign a new four-year deal a few weeks later.

Odd as the attack on Guardiola was, it followed a pattern. Increasingly, as the season had gone on, it had become apparent that Mourinho is obsessed by Barcelona and, specifically, by Guardiola as the manifestation of the Barcelona philosophy. He was once among them, but they rejected him. He once worked with Louis van Gaal at a time when the club was home to the men who would shape modern coaching.

Mourinho left to make his fortune and succeeded, but when he wanted to return they denied him. He was a little bit different. He wasn’t a player but a translator-turned-coach. He wasn’t one of them. He didn’t think like them. He didn’t instantly revere Rinus Michels. He looked at the game and asked not how to win while playing well, but simply how to win. He had a pragmatic edge that meant he never quite fitted in. He came, in 2008, replete with honours, wanting to be coach and they preferred one of their own, whose coaching experience consisted of one season with the reserve team. He became the outcast, the rebel, the fallen angel. He began to define himself in opposition to Barcelona and thus to the prevailing footballing ethos of the age, determining, like Satan in Paradise Lost, that “glory never shall his wrath or might extort from me.” He would not play by their rules; he do things his way in self-conscious opposition and prove that he was right. He vowed, like Milton’s Satan “to wage by force of guile eternal war, irreconcilable to our grand Foe.”

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When Van Gaal arrived at Barça in 1997, it was supposed to be as the club’s youth co-ordinator, but he was soon asked to take over as manager as Robson, despite winning both the Copa del Rey and the Cup-Winners’ Cup, was shuffled into an ambassadorial role because of poor league form. On Robson’s recommendation, Van Gaal took on Mourinho to be his “third assistant”. At 34, it was a huge step for Mourinho, the first real sign that he was respected by figures at the top of the global game.

Mourinho had been born into football. His grandfather had been president of Vitória de Setúbal. His father had been a goalkeeper – he saved a penalty from Eusébio on the forward’s debut – and then went into coaching. Mourinho wanted to be a player but after spells at Rio Ave, where his father was coach, Belenenses and Sesimbra, he recognised that coaching offered him a more promising future. His father’s career helped make him aware what an ungrateful world football can be: Mourinho has often referred to one Christmas when he was “nine or ten” when his father was sacked on Christmas Day. Actually, it happened in 1984 when Mourinho was 21, but the general point remains: no matter what you’ve done in the past – Mourinho Snr had taken Rio Ave to promotion and a Portuguese Cup final – a run of bad results can bring the end.

Mourinho Jnr became a student at the Instituto Superior de Educação Física  in Lisbon and came under the influence of Professor Manuel Sérgio, who believed that football knowledge was not enough, that a coach also had to be a psychologist, a public speaker and have a grasp of the sciences. In 1987, Mourinho left the college and worked for a while as a PE teacher at various primary schools, specialising in helping children with disabilities.

From being a teenager, Mourinho had helped his father, preparing scouting reports on opponents – perhaps significantly, looking for ways their way of playing could be hampered. Eventually, Vitoria de Setúbal, a club where his father had played and coached, took him on as a youth team coach. He fulfilled the same role at Estrela de Amadora and then became a scout at Ovarense. Eventually, in 1992, he got his big break, appointed to work with Robson at Sporting.

Robson, a naturally open and garrulous man, took to discussing tactics with Mourinho and, as they moved to Porto and then Barcelona, gave him more and more responsibility, getting him to plan training sessions and prepare dossiers on opponents, recognising that the younger man’s meticulousness and natural caution were a useful counter-balance to his own spontaneity and attacking instincts.

Barcelona in the mid-nineties was an extraordinary place to be, not just because they won the league two seasons running, but because of the people who were there. Guardiola and Luis Enrique were already together in midfield when Van Gaal took over. Julen Lopetegui, a back-up goalkeeper, and Laurent Blanc departed as Van Gaal arrived. A year later, Phillip Cocu joined the midfield and Ronald Koeman arrived as an assistant coach. Frank de Boer was signed the year after that. In Mourinho’s time at the club, Barça were home not only to the Chelsea manager, but also the current managers of Bayern, Barça, Manchester United, Porto, PSV and Southampton. They are not clones of each other, but it was at the Camp Nou in the late 90s that the prevailing ethos of modern football was formed.

The predominant style, of course, was that which has sustained Barcelona since the days of Vic Buckingham, Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff (the player) in the early seventies: they were the ideas of Ajax, Total Football, a belief in possession football, rooted in a high offside line, pressing and the interchange of players on the field. Cruyff as manager reinforced this and, although he saw Van Gaal’s version of the game as overly mechanised, the starting point was the same. This was perhaps the greatest coaching seminar in history, and the philosophy it taught was that which had been flowing from Ajax to Barcelona, which believed the same things but had more money, for three decades: what we might perhaps term Barçajax school. Even Robson had played under Buckingham at West Bromwich Albion.

Not that anybody remarked upon it then, but Mourinho was an outsider looking in. He hadn’t played at Ajax or Barcelona – or even West Brom – so although much of his experience at the top end of football had been under Barçajax thinkers, those ideals perhaps weren’t as deeply ingrained in him as they were in others. Van Gaal was impressed by his work on positional play and allowed him to give tactical advice at half-time and to coach the team in friendlies. As he became increasingly confident, Van Gaal found “an arrogant young man, who didn’t respect authority that much, but I did like that of him. He was not submissive, used to contradict me when he thought I was in the wrong. Finally I wanted to hear what he had to say and ended up listening to him more than the rest of my assistants.”

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Barcelona was Mourinho’s education. The next stage was to put it into practice.. Mourinho left Barcelona to take up the assistant manager’s job at Benfica in the summer of 2000, recognising that it was at home that he was most likely to get an opportunity. Sure enough, four games into the season Jupp Heynckes left the club and Mourinho stepped up to replace him. His reign lasted only nine games: Mourinho resigned after the new club president Manuel Vilharino indicated that he wanted to give the manager’s job to the former Benfica defender Toni.

Mourinho was appointed coach of União de Leiria in July 2001. They are a small club and their budget was extremely limited, but playing hard-nosed counter-attacking football Mourinho had them third by January. They fell away towards the end of the season but Portugal’s big clubs had taken note and, the following January, Mourinho was appointed manager of Porto, replacing Octavio Machado.

It was at Porto that Mourinho’s ideas were first tested on a stage he saw as befitting his talents. It was there that he first achieved the sort of control over a side that he demanded, there that he was competing for titles rather than scrapping to avoid relegation.  That allowed him to be more expansive in his approach. “At Porto he practised attacking football, but in Italy he played differently, because he didn’t have a team that gave him the same guarantees offensively speaking,” said the centre-back Jorge Costa, the captain of that side, who was recalled by Mourinho from a loan spell at Charlton Athletic. “I think it’s a huge mistake to say a coach is either offensive or defensive, because we should always coach according to the reality we are inserted in. Mourinho is a great example of that. He didn’t separate offence from defence, instead he worked the tactic as one.”

Even at Porto, though, there were limits to how much freedom Mourinho was prepared to give players. “He didn’t let me or any of the other centre-backs go up the pitch with the ball,” said Costa. “I did it sometimes and he hated it, clearly letting me know later that this would unbalance the team. He would allow the full-backs to go up but that would always be compensated by one of the midfielders.”

At Porto, Mourinho tended to favour a 4-3-3 in the league, switching to a 4-4-2 with a diamond in midfield for the Champions League.  For Jorge Costa, though, that was not a sign of reactivity; it wasn’t that Mourinho’s principal aim became to stop the opposition playing. “He never changed tactics thinking about the opponents, but always thinking about us, about his own side,” he said. “He changed so we could play along with his strategy. We would always stick to our tactics, the 4-3-3 or the 4-4-2 diamond, but those formations didn’t mean we had to be offensive or defensive: it depended on the match, it depended on what he wanted us to do on each night. More than formations, our team lived off its dynamic, because despite changing formations we would never change our playing philosophy.”

In the Champions League campaign. Mourinho’s midfield comprised Costinha holding, with Maniche to the right, Dmitri Aleinichev to the left, and Deco creating behind a front two of Carlos Alberto and Derlei. Attacking width came from Paulo Ferreira and Nuno Valente pushing forward from full-back. “I didn’t like the 4-4-2 diamond that much,” said Maniche, “because I didn’t touch the ball so often. In that formation the midfielders at the sides of the diamond needed to cover for the left- and right-backs, who went forward a lot.”

The shape, though, was a minor detail alongside the style. “He wanted us to press very high,” said Maniche. “He wanted the team to react quickly when they lose the ball, so we gain it in their midfield. This pressure would be done as a team, and not only one or two players. He would prepare us for each game throughout the week and work on that. If he knew that one of the central defenders had trouble on the ball, he would tell us to pressure the other defender, to force the weaker one to run with the ball. It depended a bit on whom we were facing; he liked to have possession as well.”

That, of course is the essence of the Barçajax school: pressing and possessing. But Porto also had their own style. Mourinho was heavily influenced by his director of methodology, Victor Frade, one of the pioneers of periodisation, who preferred the low block, sitting deep and absorbing pressure. Porto tended to press, but they could also drop off. Most importantly, possession was never fetishised: “The more the ball circulates in midfield,” Mourinho said, “the more likely it is that the other team will dispossess us.” That was the first expression of a theory that would later become notorious.

So while it would be misleading to suggest that Porto played the Barçajax way, it wasn’t too far removed from what had been going on at the Camp Nou the previous decade. Nor was his use of the goalkeeper Vítor Baía, who rates Mourinho as the best coach he worked under. “I was very important in the defensive organisation and also in the first moment of transition,” he said. “Mourinho liked the Dutch style, which meant the keeper had to know how to play with his feet, had to know how to start an attack. Our defensive line was mid-high on the pitch, so that tells you a lot about how we pressed, very high. This obviously was good for me, because I was more involved in the game: I loved to initiate attacks and be a part of the switching of the ball from one side to the other.”

Yet for all players from that Porto side insist Mourinho didn’t change for specific matches, he would present them with dossiers on their opponents. “One of the most important aspects about José, which I support, is that the other team has to be the one making the changes, you have to keep your own identity,” said Costinha. “Of course, he would give us detailed information about the team we were facing next at the start of the training week and more precisely about the player that would be closest to our area of play. ‘What was the player like? Did he have a tendency to get many cards? What kind of movements did he make?’ It was new for many of us back then, but it was very helpful and meant we were much better prepared for each match.”

Where Mourinho excelled was in his attention to detail and, specifically, in anticipating scenarios that might occur during the game. “Those things happened all the time,” said Vítor Baía. “Sometimes it was as though he could see the future. I remember a specific incident against Benfica, when throughout the week he prepared us for what we should do after we scored a goal… He told us that [the Benfica coach José Antonio] Camacho would make a specific substitution and change his tactics, which was what happened. So we already knew what to do when he did it; we were completely prepared for it. For the same match, we also prepared to play with 10 players, because José knew the referee would not be able to take the pressure and would show a red card along the way. That also happened, but we had already seen that movie during the week, so we knew what to do and got a narrow win.”

Mourinho still readies his side for different scenarios today. When Chelsea beat PSG 2-0 in the Champions League in 2014, for instance, to go through on away goals, John Terry revealed that they’d practised for various different scorelines, even down to the system with three centre-forwards plus André Schürrle plus Willian they used for the final 10 minutes as they chased the vital second goal. Specific preparation is key; as little as possible is left to chance.

Mourinho’s other way of preparing for big games, was psychological. “The rivalries would do their work,” Maniche said, “and the press conferences.” An ability to play the media has always been a Mourinho strength, antagonising opponents and pressuring referees. The flip side of that is his relationship with his own squad, a capacity to create remarkably strong bonds.

That, perhaps, is an aspect of Mourinho that is often overlooked, that while he can be grouchy with the media, while he pursues feuds with rivals and can fall out with his own players, he is also capable of inspiring devotion. There are stories of players in tears as he hugged them goodbye on his first departure from Chelsea. “He would fool around with us outside practice, but when the time to work arrived he would be ruthless,” said Vítor Baía. “We only practised for one hour each day, yet those hours were the most intense I've ever seen.”

The goalkeeper stresses how good Mourinho was at handling different personalities, what an astute man-manager he was. “He knew everybody so deeply that he could control our emotions in every situation,” he said. “In my case, he would just pat me on the back and I was ready to go. However, there were players who needed motivation, who needed to be praised, and he knew which ones needed what, that’s what made him so good.”

That, though, is not quite the full story, which explains much about Mourinho’s Machiavellian charm, the sense he gives of planning out every interaction. In September 2002, he was banned from all club activities for a month after a training-ground row with Mourinho. “That was the turning point in his career,” Vítor Baía said. “He was very young and wanted to make a statement – and he did it. We had a great relationship, because we had been together at Porto with Bobby Robson, then for three years in Barcelona, with him always as assistant coach, but when he arrived at Porto he wanted to show everyone who was the boss: friends off the pitch, players on it. Performance was what counted, not relationships, so I was not in the best form and was chosen as an example: I was his statement. Of course I was not pleased at the time. Today, after many conversations with him and the assistant coaches from the time and some players, I know that it was all a plan. Everyone knew how to react to me, how to speak to me, everyone was ready. After the month of suspension José welcomed me back with a big hug and I was straight back into the first team.”

Porto won the league that season with a record points tally and also claimed both the Portuguese Cup and the Uefa Cup, their approach in the final infuriating the Celtic manager Martin O’Neill, who accused them of diving, feigning injury and time-wasting. They defended the league title the following season and also added the Champions League. Mourinho made another step up and was appointed manager of Chelsea.

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Given the rush of success that followed, given how Mourinho charmed English football in his first season, it’s easy to forget now that his first weeks at Chelsea were faltering – at least from a tactical point of view. Initially, Mourinho used the midfield diamond he’d deployed with Porto in the Champions League. In his first match, a hard-fought 1-0 win over Manchester United, Claude Makelele patrolled in front of the back four, while Frank Lampard was deployed behind a front two of Didier Drogba and Eiður Guðjohnsen with Geremi and Alexei Smertin at the sides of the diamond. Joe Cole and Thiago Mendes sometimes came in as the flanking players and Mateja Kežman sometimes played instead of Guðjohnsen, but that was the shape for the first six league games of the season. Chelsea conceded only one goal in that spell and picked up 14 points, but they only scored six goals. Lampard seemed uneasy as a number 10, struggling to play with his back to goal and lacking the tight technical skills or vision to operate as Deco had for Porto. Mourinho spoke about the importance of practising not only attacking and defending but also the transitions from attack to defence and defence to attack, and introduced to public consciousness the concept of “resting on the ball”, passing it around at the back to give players time to recuperate, but his football was scratchy and, frankly, a little dull.

Against Middlesbrough in September 2004, though, he changed shape to the 4-3-3 that became characteristic of that period at Chelsea. Damian Duff came in on the left with Guðjohnsen pushing across to the right, while Lampard fell back into a shuttling midfield role in which he excelled, specialising in those late runs into the box that brought him 13 goals that season. Remorselessly, relentlessly, Chelsea swept to the title. There were a couple of dabbles with a back three, and Arjen Robben sometimes played on the wing, but the 4-3-3 was the base.

Mourinho was more cautious than he had been at Porto, most notably in the way the full-backs – Paulo Ferreira and Wayne Bridge in that first season – rarely advanced beyond the halfway line.  His side didn’t press anywhere near as high, in part because of the lack of pace of John Terry at centre-back. The shift away from the Barçajax model had begun. Chelsea conceded only 15 goals while amassing 95 points in 38 games, both Premier League records.

The only problem was the suspicion that Roman Abramovich felt that having invested as much as he had, he might be due a little more entertainment. Hernán Crespo, Michael Essien and Shaun Wright-Phillips arrived that summer and there were experiments with a front two again in the first two games of the season, against Wigan and Arsenal, both won 1-0. But the 4-3-3 soon returned and so did the sense of Chelsea as a remorseless winning machine. They conceded seven goals more and won four points fewer, but they still took the title by eight points from Manchester United.

But the whispers about Abramovich’s dissatisfaction were growing ever stronger. He had decided to buy a football club after watching Manchester United’s 4-3 victory over Real Madrid at Old Trafford in March 2003: football like that was what he wanted (although his excitement at that game in particular perhaps suggests his lack of understanding: Real Madrid were 3-1 up from the first leg and never in serious danger). So he bought more stars: Andriy Shevchenko arrived, and so did Ashley Cole, Michael Ballack, Salomon Kalou and, after a protracted tussle with United, Mikel John Obi.

Mourinho was unimpressed. There were awkward attempts to squeeze Shevchenko into a 4-4-2, or to play a narrow 4-3-3 with Shevchenko on the flank, but none really worked. Shevchenko, who had just turned 30, never seemed to have recovered fully from a knee injury from which he had rushed back to play in the World Cup; there were times when Mourinho seemed openly to despair of his form, laughing ruefully at another bungled first touch. Chelsea were still essentially defensively solid, but they lacked anything approaching fluency. They only lost three times that season but, ending it with five successive draws, they surrendered the title to United having scored 19 goals fewer than the champions.

The relationship between Mourinho and Abramovich soured as the season went on, reaching crisis point in a League Cup semi-final first leg at Wycombe. Injuries meant Chelsea fielded Essien and Paulo Ferreira at centre-back and, after a 1-1 draw against the League Two side, Mourinho erupted. In a small room off the tunnel at Adams Park, as a tea urn belched steam into the freezing January air, he bemoaned, in his characteristically sulky way, a recruitment policy that had left him overburdened with attacking players but bereft of defensive cover. It was a mesmerising incident, partly because of the incongruity of the sophisticated manager and the parochial surroundings and partly because the player Mourinho was so desperate to sign was Tal Ben Haim. The Israel international did arrive that summer and played just 13 league games before being offloaded.

Mourinho lingered a further eight months after the rant in the steam, but as Abramovich appointed Avram Grant as technical director, the atmosphere became increasingly rancorous and, in September 2007, after following up a 2-0 defeat at Aston Villa with a 0-0 draw at home to Blackburn, he was gone.

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For reasons beyond our comprehension, the website couldn't cope with the full 12,000 word article on one page. To read the second half of 'The Devil's Party', click here

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