If success, solely is the measure of a man, then Jose Mourinho is a Colossus. The Portuguese manager has won a host of titles, which includes championships in his native Portugal, England, Spain and Italy as well as two UEFA Champions Leagues with Porto and Inter Milan respectively. In his own way, the former disciple of Sir Bobby Robson- who was once called ‘The Translator’ by his critics who viewed him as an outsider with no footballing experience, trying to make it big in their hallowed world- has transformed the way fans and pundits see football. Acting as an iconoclast with utter disdain for beautiful football, he has made his way to the top of the pile through a style of play that has often been called boring, distasteful, insulting and several other things over the years.
Born in a middle-class family in the township of Setubal in 1963, a young Mourinho was introduced to football by his father, José Manuel Mourinho Félix. Mourinho senior had a successful stint as a goalkeeper and a manager in several Portuguese clubs. Despite being aware of the unforgiving attitude of the game and also having seen his father getting sacked from a club on Christmas Day, Mourinho Junior decided to follow dad’s footsteps and started learning the craft at the local club, Vitoria Setibul. His first lucky break came when Sir Bobby Robson was hired by Sporting Clube de Portugal and he was appointed as the translator for the veteran English manager. Robson immediately recognized that Mourinho possessed an inherent understanding of the game and took him under his wing. After being sacked by Sporting in 1994, Robson took him first to Porto and then to Barcelona where he continued to hone Mourniho’s skill and win a lot of trophies alongside. After Robson, it was Louis van Gaal who furthered Mourinho’s understanding of the intricacies of the game and helped him fine-tune his footballing philosophy.
The Dutch manager was evidently fond and respected his protégé a lot, which is why he once said,
[ Mourinho was] An arrogant young man, who didn’t respect authority that much, but I did like that of him. He was not submissive – he used to contradict me when 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 the assistants.
After van Gaal left in 2000, he was let go of by Barcelona in a dishonorable manner, having been called ‘an interpreter’ by the-then club president club Josep Lluís Núñez. It is a grudge he probably still harbors to this day and one that has fueled much of his rivalry with Josep Guardiola, the Spaniard who once shared workspace with Mourinho. Ever since his first Champions League triumph with an unfancied Porto back in 2004, the ‘outsider’ has rarely put a step wrong, barring maybe his time at Real Madrid and his last season in charge of Chelsea.
Currently managing Manchester United, Mourinho still remains as divisive a figure as he was during his early days when he declared himself as the “Special One” in one of his press conferences as the manager of Chelsea. Having picked up spats with Arsene Wenger, Rafael Benitez, and the aforementioned Guardiola, he has also had to face a lot of ire from fans. Liverpool fans hate him for his chest-thumping and antics after his Blues side won 2-0 at Anfield and derailed the home side’s title chances in 2013/14, while most Catalans would be quite happy to see him fall after his eye-gouging antics at their former boss Tito Vilanova. Quite simply, Mourinho is hard to love unless he is one of your own and even then, you may find it to be quite a difficult task. He thrives off hate, attention, and ridicule, is an excellent man-manager and loves playing not only the media but also the opposition. In many ways, he is the footballing equivalent of a thrilling Hollywood biggie.
But all of that happens off the pitch and off-field theatrics can only get you so far. They must be backed by on-field performances. Mourinho is just as big a paradox here, with his well-documented disregard for flowing, “passing football” and his habit to ‘park the bus’, especially in big away games. However, to me, that is an appalling tag that has been unfairly handed to him. It undermines the amount of preparation and study that Mourinho undertakes before a match.
In fact, Jonathan Wilson, the famed Guardian journalist notes that the former Benfica boss has seven points on which he bases his approach:
1. The game is won by the team which commits fewer errors.
2. Football favors whoever provokes more errors from 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 lowers their possibility of making a mistake.
6. Whoever has the ball has fear.
7. Whoever does not have it is thereby stronger.
It is to be noted that all his teams have done remarkably well with this approach, even if the pundits have not waxed lyrical about it. Substance matters more to him than style and his teams are usually extremely well-drilled and develop an ‘us against the world’ or a siege mentality that helps him get the best out of his players. He has a select core of players around whom he builds the teams, in the old Chelsea setup, it was Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, and John Terry, in the new one it was Thibault Courtois and Eden Hazard. At Inter, it was Diego Milito, Samuel Eto’o, and Wesley Sneijder while at Madrid it was Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos. Come United and he is now trying to leave the same imprint on the likes of Paul Pogba, Phil Jones, and Romelu Lukaku.
However, the transition has not been as smooth as expected. Many touted him to be the favorite to take over from Sir Alex Ferguson back in 2013, but David Moyes was chosen instead. Mourinho finally got his shot at the post in 2016, following the dismissal of his once-tutor Louis van Gaal. His first season produced a mixed bag as United finished fifth in the league but won the Community Shield, League Cup, and the UEFA Europa League, thus securing Champions League qualification. However, the style of football played was branded as boring and suffocating and was marked by a string of 1-1 or 0-0 draws, with United having to depend solely on their 35-year-old marksman Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Mourinho also seemed unsure of the right formation despite splurging a record 89 million pounds on Paul Pogba, the Juventus midfielder. He flirted with various formations, most notably a 3-4-3, a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3. In the end, however, thanks to their individual superiority, the club managed to find themselves competing with the European elite once again.
The summer window found United splurging 75 million pounds for Everton striker Romelu Lukaku to ease the pressure on the-then injured Ibrahimovic and the youngsters Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford. Lukaku has certainly started his Old Trafford career pretty well, scoring 11 goals in 17 appearances. The Red Devils started the 2017/18 campaign shredding whoever came their way, but the pace has faltered since then. They are currently 8 points off the pace from Guardiola’s Manchester City, who have been in a league of their own, both in Europe and in domestic competitions. Of late, several teams have managed to find a chink in United’sarmour. In his last seven games away to Premier League’s Big Six, Mourinho’s men have failed to win any and have scored only one goal. Their last big away match was a 1-0 loss to Chelsea, where they were largely second best in most parts of the game. Sure, they missed the services of Pogba, Ibrahimovic and Marouane Fellaini but that cannot really be an excuse for a club aiming to make it big once again.United’s 4-1 win against Newcastle and the 3-1 victory against Arsenal underlined Pogba’s importance to the side, and his coming back will not only make United a better side but also give Mourinho the much needed tactical flexibility and an opportunity to express himself more on the pitch.
With Manchester City yet to be beaten in the league this season, the Manchester Derby on 10th of December should be a delightful battle for not only the fans but also the neutrals, who are likely to see two of the best minds in football having a go at each other once again. Mourinho no doubt is the underdog, especially with his trump card Pogba out due to a red card, but if history is anything to go by, the thing that is certain is that he will not leave a single stone unturned in his quest to derail his arch nemesis’s expensively assembled side’s title challenge. He has won league titles wherever he has been in his second season, so much so that it has almost become second nature to him. Even when he was in Spain, he trumped Pep’s Barcelona by leading Madrid to the La Liga title despite Barca having, arguably, one of the best sides in the history of football.
The Antichrist, as I like to call him, will be eager to repeat the same once again and he will not be lured into playing football in an artistic way because in his own words,
There are lots of poets in football but poets don’t win anything.
He will thus, do it in the manner he knows, by neutralizing the game or parking the bus and shutting down opponents, especially the ones who pose a credible threat to his dreams. In a way, he is modern football’s own Zdenek Zeman except that his style is radically opposite to the legendary Calcio manager’s. But they share the same stubbornness and a kind of brash confidence that only the best in the business possess. Geniuses often have an obsessive nature that not only sets them apart from the rest but also brings about their downfall and Mourinho is that box-office genius whom you can either love or hate, but never ignore. For as long as he reigns, we are assured of a “soap-opera”esque drama and as a football aficionado, it does light up your life quite a bit.
Cheers Mou, football could do with a few more characters like you!