Has José Mourinho become a victim of his own success?

Has José Mourinho become a victim of his own success?

HOW DO YOU MEASURE SUCCESS in football management? If it’s just about emerging victorious, José Mourinho is up there with the best over the past decade.

There’s no doubt that José Mourinho is a highly successful manager. You only need to look to his trophy haul over the past decade – and the calibre of his rivals – to see that his achievements compare favourably when put up with the very best. He’s the first to mention his success, and he often uses it as a stick to beat his enemies. Arsène Wenger was infamously framed as a “specialist in failure”, while Claudio Ranieri was derided last year as “he is almost 70, and he has won [only] a Super Cup and another small cup”. He’s known as a master of mind games.

But for all the pyrrhic victories over the years, he lost the war of winning hearts and minds. A pragmatic approach is often respectable if your personnel don’t match up to your opponents, but if your team costs twice as much as your opposition you should at least aim to match them on the field.

It’s seems strange that he honed his craft at a team that he later came to view as a bitter rival, but his time at Barcelona gave him a view into the pinnacle of the game. His critics often refer to him as ‘the translator’, but there’s no reason why it should be perceived as a slight, as it was here that he started to compile detailed reports of opposition players in his role as assistant manager under the guidance of Sir Bobby Robson. His meticulous attention to detail helped to shape his management style and he freely admits: “I was more influenced by Barça’s philosophy than by any other coach. They were four years of my life [that were] absolutely fundamental.” 

He came to learn the game at Barcelona, but he began his meteoric rise in Portugal.

He moved to Porto in late 2002 after a short spell at Benfica and a successful season at União de Leiria in the previous year. He showed his acumen by identifying players like Deco, Costinha and Ricardo Carvalho, and won the league in his second season with a record-breaking 86 points out of a possible 102. They also won the UEFA Cup against Celtic, showing that his methods could also work in European knockout competitions. It’s safe to say he was fast becoming one of the hottest young managers in the world.

He established Estádio do Dragão as a fortress, foreshadowing the future template at Chelsea, and won the league once more in the following year with two weeks to spare. His time at Porto cemented his claim to be one of the top managers in the modern era, as his unfancied team fought their way to the Champions League final in 2003-04. They emerged victorious, seeing off AS Monaco with a 3-0 victory that became a launching pad for his future success.

With a European Cup tucked under his arm, it was time for Mourinho to make a move upwards. Whilst Porto gave his resume legitimacy, it’s unlikely that they would have been able to handle his ego in the long term, and they just don’t have the allure that comes with managing Europe’s true elite sides. Chelsea may not have been elite at the time, but they had solid foundations and an open chequebook, and it was also a chance for Mourinho to prove himself in a major European league. “I have top players and, I’m sorry, we have a top manager. Please do not call me arrogant because what I say is true. I’m European champion, I’m not one out of the bottle, I think I’m a special one.”

He was handsome and smart, with a cocky smirk plastered across his face. Why shouldn’t he be here? He was the hottest young manager in Europe, and he had the funds to bolster his quest to break the duopoly of Arsenal and Manchester United at the summit of the Premier League. He won a double (League Cup and Premier League) in his first year, breaking numerous records in the process. It seemed that his blueprint for success could be sustained, as they won the league again in the following year, while making credible gains in the Champions League.

Why was he so successful in his first stint with the Blues? Their transfer policy obviously played a part, but the players attributed their success and continued improvements to their manager. He identified solid targets – £70 million worth – and continued to refine his pressing game. Stamford Bridge became a fortress, and he had the media eating out of the palm of his hand, while he adopted a siege mentality in West London. You were either with him, or against him. There could be no middle ground.

During the start of the 2006-07 season relations broke down with Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, allegedly because of a backroom power struggle and a lack of reinforcements, and just like that, he was gone. His dismissal did no real damage to his reputation, as Abramovich took the brunt of the flak for the decision. Chelsea had moved on to the perennial yes-man Avram Grant, and that left Mourinho with a number of options in 2009.

A reunion with Barcelona was his first choice destination, but a disastrous PowerPoint presentation with former sporting director Txiki Begiristain and vice-president Marc Ingla allegedly put paid to his chances. They were said to be worried about his relationship with the media, and the way he cultivated drama as a means of spurring on his sides. Winning at all costs had ironically cost Mourinho a chance at winning the job he craved.

He moved on to an Inter Milan team in transition, filled with ageing stars that still had enough left in the tank to romp home in the league. Wesley Sneijder, Samuel Eto’o and Esteban Cambiasso were just a few of the stellar names he could call upon, while Diego Milito lit up the charts scoring 30 in all competitions. His stint in Italy was typified when Inter faced off against Chelsea in the Round of 16 in the Champions League.

As the familiar defensive shape took form in front of his former squad, they seemed to wilt under his familiar stare. Inter eventually won 3-1 on aggregate, including a 1-0 away win. They saw off Barcelona in a heated semi-final, and capped it all by beating Bayern Munich 2-0 in the final. Mourinho had proved that his previous win was no fluke, and his critics had little to offer in response.

He ended the 2009-10 season with another three trophies, with the treble representing Inter’s greatest ever season in terms of silverware. He moved up once more, this time to Real Madrid.

His career trajectory had finally reached the upper echelons. Inter are a brilliant team with great European pedigree, but they pale in comparison to the commercial juggernaut that is Real Madrid, with their expensively assembled squad of the world’s very best players. It was obvious from the start that he was going to continue to court controversy: “I am José Mourinho and I don’t change. I arrive with all my qualities and my defects.” 

It was no longer a case of having to prove himself – it had suddenly become a challenge to maintain his success, whilst fighting off the best team of the last decade in Pep Guardiola’s famous Barcelona side. In his first year they only won the Copa del Rey, but they managed to win the league – while breaking all of the usual records – in 2011-12. The success was short lived, following his eye gouging antics during a game against their bitter rivals in the following season. The team had become thuggish, as Mourinho saw his realism give way to pure cynicism. He may have won the league, but at what cost to his personal reputation? In the end, he left by “mutual agreement” in 2013, but now there was nowhere left to go but sideways at best in terms of club status.

His second spell at Chelsea in 2013 started acrimoniously, if you believe the allegations that he broke down in tears upon learning that David Moyes would be the new Manchester United manager, allegations that were strenuously denied at the time by Mourinho’s camp. Once again, it seemed that his reputation had preceded him, and his trophy haul meant little to those who feared his confrontational style could damage their brand. Nonetheless, he came bearing gifts for the journalists waiting with bated breath. He was now “the happy one”, but he bemoaned the quality of the Chelsea team at his disposal. He framed them as “the little horse” in the title race, and slowly got to work.

A year later and the ‘little horse’ had grown into a fully-fledged stallion, running away with the league before Christmas. More importantly, the attacking football on offer hadn’t been seen at the Bridge for years. Could José finally be loosening the reigns? Would he really shy away from his pragmatic nature when the going got tough? After a 5-3 tonking at the hands of Tottenham on New Year’s Day, Mourinho reverted to type, favouring pragmatism ahead of the adventurous football played by his stalwarts and new Spanish signings. It seemed that he had lost faith in his team, who began to look lethargic. Either way, they were never going to be caught, and it marked another year of success for their manager.

The 2015-16 season began with the news that stalwart goalkeeper Petr Čech would be sold to Arsenal. It was a move that left fans scratching their heads, while Mourinho himself made pains to ensure that supporters knew he had nothing to do with the decision. The club doctor was dismissed, and results were worse than bad. Suddenly the Blues were in freefall, and that was amidst the backdrop of rumours that a member of the squad had openly refused to play for his manager. The writing was on the wall for a while. Following the loss to Leicester City – that proved to be his last game in charge – Mourinho made his thoughts clear to the media when it was opined that the team looked completely unrecognisable from the Champions of the previous season: “It’s hard. All last season I did phenomenal work and brought them to a level that’s not their level, which is more than they really are, or this season we are doing so bad that some of the players – of course I am not saying all of them, I don’t want to put them all in the same basket – but clearly for some of them, it is so difficult.”

Did he have a point? Could he truly claim credit for raising the team to the sum of its parts? If so, should he also bear responsibility for the disintegration of a league winning side? Probably. Playing dour football was one thing, but playing badly and floundering near the relegation spots was beyond the pale. He craves absolute loyalty from his players, but ended with only his most trusted lieutenant by his side, and that was a player who had to be subbed off at half-time during the opening game of the season. Once again, he was sacked the season after winning the league. It was evident that he had lost the majority of the squad, but supporters still thought he was the right man for the job. Such is his cult of personality at Chelsea, even the worst league run in decades couldn’t stem their fervent adulation.

Despite popular wisdom, money can only get you so far, and continued success may be impossible for Mourinho to sustain given the nature of his demanding personality. However, he does tend to leave his squads in decent order, while a subsection of the supporters always seem to pine for his abrasive style.

Of course, his trophies and records mean he has staked his claim in the annals of footballing history, whilst he tends to get his teams up and running quickly. If he had taken over at Manchester United in 2014, history suggests that he would have been able to extract the last remaining vestiges of talent from Sir Alex Ferguson’s weary champions in a way that David Moyes was never going to be given the chance to replicate. His personality was the one thing that stopped him from finding out.

For all the money spent over the years during José Mourinho’s time as a manager, he has always managed to get results. Is his pragmatic approach really so bad? His teams have broken goalscoring records in countries all over Europe, and he always gets results.

It seems like success is judged not only on what you win, but how you win, especially when your team is a worldwide brand worth over $3 billion dollars like Barcelona. Yes, he’s a toxic character, but does that honestly diminish his success on the pitch? In the eyes of some, it appears that winning just isn’t enough. Mourinho would probably just laugh and point to his CV.

By James Milin-Ashmore. Follow @jamoashmore

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