Jose Mourinho has built his career on three pillars: results, cohesion and brand. He survived moments when one of the above was absent. At times, the structure held when two were missing. But with all three pillars crumbling, the edifice came crashing down.
Few managers found a way to drop their achievements into conversation as frequently and casually as Mourinho. They were both a source of pride and a stick with which to beat his rivals. From memorable rants about how his adversaries had won “zero titles” during his time at Inter, to calling Arsene Wenger “a specialist in failure” to his more recent “respect” outburst, this was the equivalent of a kid in a high school basketball game shouting “SCOOOOREBOARD!”
And he was right. Very few men in the history of the game racked up trophies as quickly as Mourinho did. Whatever the critics said about him — the vast resources he enjoyed, the good fortune that broke his way, his style of play — he could point to the silverware tally pinging away like a cash register on Black Friday.
Well, he used to. Mourinho has since had a string of failures: He decamped the Bernabeu with Real Madrid on the verge of civil war, then left Chelsea on the brink of relegation. And now this: the United debacle. While his problems in Madrid and London came after winning league titles, his struggles in Manchester have been marked by sustained underachievement.
In a footballing landscape where clubs are more corporate, more conscious of their status as branches of the entertainment industry and where players are long-term assets to be defended and nurtured, Mourinho’s willingness to criticize his employers, his defensive approach to football and his readiness to shift blame to players do him few favors.
It raises the question: What big club would want to employ Mourinho, the personification of damaged goods?
It’s hard to imagine the highest echelon of European clubs queuing up to get his agent, Jorge Mendes, on the phone. Mourinho has been linked with a return to Inter, the one club other than Porto he did not leave on bad terms (delivering a Treble makes you untouchable), but manager Luciano Spalletti has the trust of the club. What’s more, Mourinho has returned to a club, Chelsea, where he enjoyed success, and we all know how that turned out.
This has been Manchester United’s worst start to a Premier League season. It’s mid-December and they’ve conceded 29 league goals, one more than the entire 2017-18 season when they finished second, a whopping 19 points off the pace. The two trophies Mourinho won in his first season, the Europa League and League Cup, felt like lipstick on a pig.
For much of his career, Mourinho enjoyed the benefit of players who were almost maniacally devoted to him. He quickly built trust and respect within the squad — results helped, of course, but that cohesion was present even in tough times — to the point that it had a multiplier effect: any instruction is worth more when you have buy-in from those executing it. This was a constant throughout his career, even when things fell apart badly towards the end, as happened at Real Madrid and upon his return to Chelsea.
But Mourinho couldn’t keep his squad together at Old Trafford. Players showed up as if they were going to work, not going to war for something (or someone) they believed in. Too many players lacked a good rapport with Mourinho, perhaps because the one constant with Mourinho, at least as far as his starting lineups were concerned, was change. Just four outfield players — Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Antonio Valencia — started as many as two-thirds of United’s league games in his first campaign. That rose to five last year with Eric Bailly. When there are too many players who don’t feel the manager’s confidence, it’s hard to be confident in the manager.
With poor results piling up, Mourinho had just one thing left to help prop himself up: his brand. His was confidence, the cocksure attitude of a person you knew would deliver. Sure, it often came with mind games, controversy, referee-baiting and finger-pointing (and occasional fingers to the eye), but it felt as if it was part of a master plan. Players and fans believed they were part of a Mourinho manifest destiny. The football may not have sparkled, but winning is fun, whichever way it comes. And that matched Manchester United to a T.
For all the talk of the club being known for flying wingers and “ATTACK-ATTACK-ATTACK” in its heyday under Sir Alex Ferguson, Old Trafford was as much about being an impregnable institution, a sort of benign Red Death Star of invulnerability, as it was a place for thrilling football. That, in short, was what Mourinho was supposed to bring: the swagger of somebody who ultimately knew he would beat you, then do a jig over your body.
Instead, in addition to the two-and-a-half season of underachievement (which looks even worse coming on the heels of three seasons of failure under David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal), we’ve been treated to a steady stream of chaos, controversy and back-biting. Most games became an ordeal, an exercise in fear-of-failure under the stifling weight of the club’s history. Neutrals watched, drenched in schadenfreude, while United fans suffered.
The club was trapped under an iron dome of negativity. Mourinho’s actions and words only became more erratic, from dropping their world record transfer, Paul Pogba, and screeds about his résumé to thinly veiled attacks on his boss, Ed Woodward. Done in a different context, they would have been displays of strength. But there’s a fine line between uber-confidence and self-delusion, and Mourinho crossed it too many times.
Mourinho will leave with a big payoff and plenty of time to reflect and evaluate. His critics will say the game has passed him by and it’s true that, with the possible exception of Atletico Madrid, Europe’s big clubs play a different, more pro-active style of football. He’ll need to adapt to that while also being ready for the next trend given the ever-cyclical nature of the sport. Most of all, he’ll need to repair his image which is seriously damaged, at least in England and Spain. If he gets another top gig and hits a bump in the road, he can’t react the way he did at Real Madrid, Chelsea or United. That shtick is played out.
Instead, he’ll have to work his way back up, most likely finding success from the second tier, as a true underdog. Much like he did at Leiria and Porto, which is what got him on the map in the first place.
What next for Mourinho?
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As for United, they will retrench and reload. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as caretaker manager through the end of the season — and perhaps hiring a director of football, something Mourinho resisted — will buy them the time necessary to take a run at a top-shelf boss, with Mauricio Pochettino, Diego Simeone and Max Allegri among the candidates. What the club needs most right now is a blank slate, one on which they can erase the failures of Moyes, Van Gaal and Mourinho while sketching out an appealing future.
United’s owners, the Glazers, know that sport is a branch of the entertainment industry. And it is hard to sell a product when you’re not driving results on the pitch, something that hasn’t happened since Sir Alex Ferguson capped his legendary run at Old Trafford by winning the Premier League. That was almost six years ago.
The Glazers had to act. Otherwise, they ran the risk of a generation of football fans who would know Manchester United only as a basket case of a club, laughed at by rivals and supporters who pined for the glory days.