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The fall of the dark angel: José Mourinho’s “anti-football” philosophy

He was once the bright, young innovator of the European game. Now Mourinho is a brooding presence who, in crunch situations, has an inclination to negativity. 

The sneer, the shrug, the black coat. José Mourinho doesn’t bother to hide any more that he is the dark angel of football. Nobody is so effective at killing games, nobody less concerned about the spectacle.

Entertainment? No, the game is for winning – even if you’re in charge of Manchester United, the most successful team in English history, the richest club in the world, a side that since the 1950s has been synonymous with swaggering, attacking play.

“Sometimes I feel [people think] that to be good defensively is a crime,” he said in October last year after a grim, first-leg 1-0 Champions League win over Lisbon’s Benfica. “But it is not a crime.” It was a classic piece of Mourinhismo, offering a premise that is self-evidently true to portray himself as the victim and leaving out the context – that an overtly defensive style is usually seen, in the words of the great Russian football writer Lev Filatov, as “the right of the weak”.

United are anything but that: their annual revenues of £581m place them top of the Deloitte Money League. And the problem is, they are not winning – or not winning enough. Victories over Chelsea and Liverpool may have all but guaranteed them second place in the league, but Manchester City, now managed by Mourinho’s arch-rival Pep Guardiola, should wrap up the title with a month and a half still to play. Even worse, United were eliminated from the Champions League by Sevilla, who lie fifth in the Spanish league. Bafflingly, even though Sevilla are so vulnerable that they have conceded five in a game on three occasions since the turn of the year, Mourinho remained cautious and, by the time United finally exerted pressure in the final ten minutes of the second leg, their incredulously emboldened opponents had scored twice.

When Manchester United beat the Dutch team Ajax (annual revenue roughly a sixth of United’s) in the final of the Europa League last season, Mourinho described it as “a victory of the pragmatism, a victory of the humble people, a victory of the people who respect the opponents, a victory of the people who try to stop the opponents and exploit their weaknesses”. The then Ajax manager, Peter Bosz, said he’d thought the game had been “boring”. Mourinho didn’t care. “There are lots of poets in football,” he said, “but poets don’t win titles.” Mourinho still has the best lines. There’s no such thing as a routine press conference with him.

There is always the possibility that he will take aim at another manager, or launch a new offensive in his constant propaganda wars against opponents, referees, the football authorities and often his own club’s directors. He may not have invented fake news, but he has certainly been one of its most effective and enthusiastic exponents over the years. The 55-year-old will be good value for the reviled RT (Russia Today), which has signed him up to offer analysis during the World Cup in the summer.

Mourinho is commonly described as pragmatic: he does what it takes to win. But perhaps that isn’t entirely accurate. Over the past couple of years, another possibility has emerged. His battle with Guardiola, an evangelist for an open, attacking style of play, has been rejoined in Manchester, where Guardiola has managed Manchester City since 2016. Guardiola was a senior player at Barcelona when Mourinho was taking his first steps in coaching there, as an assistant to Bobby Robson and then Louis van Gaal. They have clashed repeatedly, in the 2010 Champions League semi-final when Mourinho was in charge of Inter Milan and Guardiola of Barça, and then through two tempestuous seasons after Mourinho had taken the Real Madrid job. Perhaps pragmatism is too simple a shorthand; perhaps Mourinho has his sides play the way they do not for reasons of efficiency but of ideology. Perhaps the most important thing is simply that he is not Guardiola.

Manchester United have won the English league championship a record 20 times, two more than Liverpool, but their history is not as straightforward as that statistic may suggest. Only three managers have ever won the league with United. Given that they have enjoyed a significant financial advantage over their domestic rivals since 1910, when Old Trafford opened as the largest and finest ground in the world with a capacity of 80,000, it could be argued that their history is one of persistent underachievement, broken only by the efforts of three great managers: Ernest Mangnall, who managed the club between 1903 and 1912 and won two league titles; Matt Busby, five league titles between 1945 and 1969; and Alex Ferguson, 13 league titles between 1986 and 2013.

Perhaps that’s a mischievous interpretation, but it’s certainly the case that a number of managers have found themselves overwhelmed by the scale of the job. After Busby stepped aside from coaching to become general manager, Wilf McGuinness and Frank O’Farrell struggled before United were relegated under Tommy Docherty in 1974. The economics of modern football makes such a decline all but impossible today, but since Ferguson’s retirement, David Moyes and Louis van Gaal have both failed. That’s why United swallowed their reservations and in summer 2016 turned to the Portuguese.

 When we were young: Mourinho celebrates victory over Barça with Chelsea’s Frank Lampard in 2005. Credit: Kieran Galvin/ Colorsport/ Rex

Mourinho has won eight league titles in four different countries – from Porto to Chelsea to Inter to Madrid – over the past 14 years, plus two Champions Leagues, two Europa Leagues and eight domestic cups. He is as near to a guarantee of success as it’s possible to find. And yet, as recently as 2012, when Manchester United were beginning to contemplate a future without Alex Ferguson, Bobby Charlton – at the time both a club director and its all-time leading scorer – made clear that they would not consider Mourinho. His football, it was believed, lacked the requisite style but there was also his personality. He manipulates and dissembles. He admits he sees press conferences as an extension of the game, an opportunity to rile opposing managers or pressurise referees. Most notoriously, when the 2011 Spanish Super Cup match between his Real Madrid and Barcelona erupted into a mass brawl, he snuck up behind the Barça assistant coach Tito Vilanova and hooked a finger into his eye. “A United manager,” Charlton said, “would not do what he did to Tito Vilanova… Mourinho is a really good coach, but that’s as far as I’d go.”

In part, Mourinho’s appointment was indicative not only of the changing make-up of the United board – more Americans and more businessmen; fewer British football men – but also of a sense of desperation. Van Gaal won the FA Cup in his final season, but United finished outside the top four and so missed out on qualification for the Champions League. For a club of United’s stature, that was unthinkable. In the three seasons after Ferguson’s departure, United hadn’t made anything close to a title challenge. Even worse, Manchester City, after a protracted quest, had appointed Guardiola, a visionary coach whose radicalism had brought six league titles in his seven years working as a manager, first with Barcelona, then Bayern Munich. There was a sense of the balance of power in Manchester sliding from red to blue. Something had to be done. At the time, the only man who had ever stopped Guardiola winning a league title was Mourinho in 2012, when he was manager of Real Madrid.

Madrid, like United, have a sense of themselves as being part of the game’s establishment. They do things the right way. They have a code of señorio, gentlemanliness, to which they try to adhere. They too once thought they would never employ Mourinho. But then Guardiola won the Champions League with Barcelona, playing football of such majesty that people stopped asking whether they were the best team in the world and started asking if they were the best of all time. Madrid’s president, Florentino Pérez, had spent millions trying to raise his side to that level, yet Guardiola was achieving what he had dreamed of with a side largely produced by Barcelona’s own academy. His Barça pressed aggressively and passed exquisitely. Players took the game to new levels, racking up unprecedented levels of possession.

Barcelona’s pass-and-move philosophy had been brought from Ajax 40 years earlier by the coaches Vic Buckingham and Rinus Michels and the forward Johan Cruyff. Cruyff had returned to the club as coach in 1988 and had reaffirmed that philosophy, overhauling the academy and giving the young Guardiola his debut. Guardiola’s success as a manager was thus the flowering of seeds planted decades earlier, such continuity of approach itself seeming a rebuke to Pérez’s spending. There was no quick fix, their success seemed to say. Guardiola’s side had outplayed Manchester United in the 2009 Champions League final and had earlier swept through to the semi-final. The academy, La Masia, appeared a limitless seam of talent. At the time, it felt as though Guardiola’s reign could go on and on. But then, at last, came a stumble, and with it Pérez’s solution.

Guardiola’s Barcelona had looked irrepressible again in the 2009-2010 Champions League, but then they came up against Mourinho’s Inter Milan in the semi-final. The ash cloud sent over Europe by the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull meant that Barça had to travel to Milan for the first leg by coach rather than plane. Perhaps that wearied them; perhaps it was just an excuse. Either way, they lost 3-1.

In the return match at Camp Nou, Inter set out to defend. When their midfielder Thiago Motta was – harshly – sent off with more than an hour still to play, any pretence at attacking vanished. Inter didn’t want the ball. They kicked it away and resumed their defensive shape in a sort of 4-5-0 formation. By the end, they had had an unthinkably low 19 per cent of possession.

Yet Barça, one of the greatest attacking sides of all time, couldn’t find a way through until the 84th minute. It wasn’t enough. They won 1-0, giving Inter a 3-2 aggregate victory. Mourinho, arm outstretched, finger pointed, charged across the pitch in celebration. Barça, in their fury, turned on the sprinklers. This was even better for Mourinho: not merely had he beaten Guardiola and Barça, but he had exposed them as bad losers. He had dislodged their halo. If anybody could end the Guardiola empire, Pérez realised, it was Mourinho.

Mourinho hated Barcelona. The club had been his final education as a coach. He had moved there in 1996 when Bobby Robson was appointed to succeed Cruyff, having outgrown his role as translator for the former England manager to become his consigliere. When Robson was deposed after a year, Mourinho became an assistant coach to his replacement, Louis van Gaal, a manager who had developed Cruyff’s principles (if not necessarily in the way pure Cruyffians enjoyed). Under van Gaal’s management, Barça won two league titles. His captain was Pep Guardiola.

In 2008, when Frank Rijkaard left Barcelona, its decision on a successor as manager came down to two men. There was Mourinho, who was about to win the Italian title with Inter, having already led Porto to the Champions League and Chelsea to only the second and third league titles in their history, in 2005 and 2006. Or they could go for Guardiola, who had had one season as a coach, leading Barça’s reserve side with some success. They went for Guardiola. Mourinho, as former Barça vice-president Marc Ingla put it, was “a bit poisoned by the fact he was rejected”.

Mourinho had already begun to amend what he had learned at Barça, but from that moment on he became their ideological opposite. At Porto and at Chelsea he had been pragmatic, but after 2008 there was a change in tone. If Guardiola attacked, he would defend. If Guardiola wanted the ball, he didn’t. If Guardiola pressed high up the pitch, he would sit deep. At Madrid, Mourinho’s biographer Diego Torres claimed, he had a seven-point plan for winning big games:

1. The game is won by the team that commits fewer errors.

2. Football favours whoever provokes more errors in 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 reduces the possibility of making a mistake.

6. Whoever has the ball has fear.

7. Whoever doesn’t is thereby stronger.

Mourinho was just as much a post-Cruyffian as Guardiola, but those principles, passed down from Ajax through Buckingham, Michels and Cruyff, were turned on their head. His consecration was that 2010 semi-final. Barcelona against Real Madrid, Catalunya against Castilla, a Dutch-inspired team ethic against a policy based on buying the biggest stars, was already arguably the greatest rivalry in football. Guardiola against Mourinho made it apocalyptic. In 2010-2011, Guardiola came out on top. His side humiliated Mourinho’s 5-0 in their first league meeting of the season and beat them again in the Champions League semi-final. Barça won both competitions.

But Mourinho, harassing Guardiola in the media as much as on the pitch, slowly wore him down. Madrid won the league in 2012 and Guardiola, exhausted, resigned to take a year’s sabbatical. As always happens, Mourinho had won the league in his second season. Then, as always, in his third season, the team disintegrated, wearied by his abrasiveness, and he left in acrimony.

***

Manchester United appointed Mourinho because, after three stuttering seasons, they were desperate, and because when faced with Guardiola it made sense to deploy the anti-Guardiola. After Madrid, Mourinho had returned to Chelsea and followed the familiar paradigm: first season, improvement; second season, success; third season, toxic collapse.

United knew what they were getting.

Last season was a disappointment for both City and United. Guardiola seemed to struggle to adapt to the physical demands of the Premier League and his side finished third. Mourinho’s team drew too many matches and finished fifth, although that was redeemed by success in the Europa League, which earns qualification for the following season’s Champions League.

Questions (tempered by an awareness of various family issues) began to be asked: was he quite the force he’d once been? Had we become inured to his charm? Had he been scarred by his turbulent stints at Madrid and Chelsea? Did he still have the same energy for the game?

Few managers survive at the very top for more than a decade. The game moves on and they struggle to evolve with it until they are left as parodies of themselves – like Arsène Wenger at Arsenal, applying the solutions of the past to the problems of the present. The Chelsea forward Eden Hazard has suggested that Antonio Conte, who eventually replaced Mourinho at Chelsea, is more advanced than Mourinho in terms of “tactical training”. “The automatism,” he explained, “was a little bit different.” Conte, like Guardiola, works on pre-planned attacking moves to be applied when appropriate.

Practice means players know instinctively where to move and that means they can attack more quickly, a huge advantage when playing against massed defences.

This season another question has arisen, however. City have been spectacular, their form putting pressure on everybody else. The title race was as good as over by Christmas. Through the autumn it felt that every dropped point from a rival could be critical. Yet when United, having had an excellent start, faced Liverpool in October, they went into the bunker, killed the game and drew 0-0. The rivalry between the clubs means trips to Anfield will always be difficult for United, but this was a Liverpool that had leaked 14 goals in their previous seven games. They were vulnerable, so much so that the following week Spurs hammered them 4-1. Adopting such an overwhelmingly defensive stance at Anfield made little sense. United never applied pressure to Liverpool’s weakness. It was a missed opportunity, two points wasted. The issue has recurred, away at City, at home to Spurs, against Sevilla. In crunch situations, Mourinho’s inclination is to negativity.

That’s not pragmatic; that’s ideological. As Mourinho battles with the awkward behemoth that is United, as he fights the growing sense that he may no longer be at the cutting edge, he must struggle also with the instinct that tells him in any situation to do what his nemesis wouldn’t. 

Jonathan Wilson is the author of “Angels With Dirty Faces” (Orion)

This article first appeared in the 22 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special