What a hotly contested top four this Premier League season is going to see.
The great Greek ancient tragedian Sophocles said, “But when a god sends harm, no man can sidestep it, no matter how strong he may be”.
There was a time in football when one man appeared to be able to sidestep such a fate, and the world became captivated in chronicling a remarkable personal crusade of unprecedented excellence and legacy-building. For nearly two decades Jose Mourinho has helped himself to 23 major honours in four different countries, an inspired modern tale of combating the establishment, legacy-building and history-making.
Whether it is leading Porto to a miraculous second European Cup, delivering Chelsea’s first league title in 50 years or rising to the challenge of Pep Guardiola’s magnificent Barcelona by giving Internazionale the honour of a first-ever Italian treble, there is no doubting the eternal greatness that is associated with the recently departed Manchester United manager.
However, the sense that he is also yesterday’s man is growing ever strong, as the manner of his ignominious sackings at Chelsea three years ago and Manchester United in 2018 attest to.
It is not an exaggeration to say that in years gone by the appointment of Mourinho to any football club almost guaranteed success in the league and at least a semi-final in the Champions League. He was famed for his sensational second seasons – Porto’s Champions League triumph, defending the premiership with Chelsea, winning the treble with Inter Milan, winning the league with Real Madrid and winning the league again with Chelsea.
That strong ability to execute successfully after a season of acclimatisation and planning was classic Mourinho – diligent, meticulous and empowering with razor precision, whether it was a tactical tweak, a shift in mentality or a key transfer.
Unfortunately the second season that has always delivered glory never eventuated at Old Trafford, and Manchester City’s imperious form prevented a first a league title in five years. A combination of transfer market frustrations and the decaying of dressing room relations with several key players conspired against the special one, staying true to form in his history of third-season implosions.
There is an acceptance now post-Alex Ferguson that after three managerial departures and hundreds of millions of pounds spent in the transfer market there is a clear misalignment between the Glazers, the board, Ed Woodward and, most recently, Jose Mourinho. A scattergun approach to signings as well as the peculiar absence of faith in Mourinho’s summer transfer targets are certainly obstacles that would hinder the performance of any manager, especially in this crucial third season in which Mourinho was expected to finally deliver.
However, beyond that, while it’s difficult to identify any other mitigating factors, it’s easy to see why and how the Portuguese tactician failed to live up to expectations.
The inevitable passing of time has brought about a more riled, discontent and pugnacious Mourinho which is a far cry from the charming, charismatic and inspirational trainer he was when he first set foot into English football in 2004. The latter years have not been as kind to him as the embryonic season were, but change and Mourinho’s inability or refusal to adapt to these new modern standards of man management and tactics is central to his seemingly painful demise.
The likes of John Terry, Frank Lampard, Richardo Carvalho, Marco Materazzi, Samuel Eto’o and Zlatan Ibrahimovic often eulogise Mourinho and his ability to coax the very best out of players through brilliant psychological and man management. He was the master of the carrot-and-stick treatment with an innate ability to shield his players through his own histrionics when the temperature invariably rose throughout the course of a season, and he had the ability to build a powerful siege mentality cultivated a single-mindedness, a resilience and determination that would often lead to triumphs in the face of overwhelming odds.
Today the even greater cosmopolitan flavour that serves as the enduring strength of the English Premier League has changed how players respond to man management, some 15 years after Mourinho’s first spell. An old-fashioned rollicking or berating does more harm than good, and consistent public criticism of players does not augur well in the age of social media.
At some point players will no longer receive criticism as players – eventually they will take it as a person, a human being trying to do their best at their job. This is clearly why it makes sense that there were mutinous undertones surrounding Mourinho’s sackings at Real Madrid, Chelsea and now Manchester United as the players no longer responded to him. The likes of Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Potchettino have got the balance right in this respect – they’re nurturing, empathetic and modern.
Playing turgid and uninspiring football has not helped Mourinho escape the ‘dinosaur’ tag with which some have labelled him. At times, when Manchester United resorted to kick and rush, the way Mourinho would unabashedly harness the aerial prowess of Marouane Fellaini felt like we were seeing football from another more prosaic era.
A defensive shambles, a midfield with no energy or creativity and an attack that demonstrated no spontaneity, spark or imagination in the final third – that is legacy he will be leaving. In its totality this appears to be the culmination of Mourinho’s regression as a manager, stuck in yesteryear with no desire to reinvent himself.
The Mourinho apologists will argue that United could have conceivably won the double in past seasons without a rampant City, but that is precisely the point – in past seasons he may have had the means and conditions to succeed and thrive. Presently this is a man in dire need of recalibration and adaptation to modern football on a fundamental basis.
Whether it be as simple as how he communicates to his players or as challenging as how he discovers his tactical and psychological cutting edge, the next chapter in Mourinho’s managerial career will no doubt require changes to meet the challenges of today, as his aura of hitherto specialness has seemingly deserted him.