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José Mourinho falls to earth

The question isn’t why he has failed, but how he has succeeded for so long

David Bennun | December 18th 2015

The only thing more spectacular than Chelsea’s fall from grace this season is that of their manager, José Mourinho, who was sacked yesterday. The reigning champions of English football currently lie two places and one point above the relegation zone. For Mourinho, it is the first serious failure he has known in his managerial career. More interesting than the obvious question of why Mourinho has failed now is another: why didn’t he fail sooner? Mourinho’s rise was meteoric, but that is not unheard of. What is astonishing is not how he went up, but how he stayed up.

Mourinho won Portugal’s Primeira Liga in his second season as a manager. He has since won league titles in seven out of 11 full seasons. He has also won the Champions League twice, with different clubs, and a host of other cups, experiencing just one trophyless season. Only Alex Ferguson, who managed Manchester United for 26 years, compressed a comparable level of success into an equivalent period of time. But he did it at one club, where he unequivocally ruled the roost. Mourinho did it in five stints at four clubs where he was, like most modern managers, more of a hired hand. He is the nearest football management has to a sure thing – a galácticoach.

How has he done it? He never played at a high level, and started out as a translator for Bobby Robson when the latter was a manager in Portugal – which must have been a challenge, given how unintelligible that much-missed figure could be, even to native Anglophones. Mourinho is acclaimed for his tactical nous, his coaching skills, his meticulous scouting and preparation, and his ability to motivate players. It is this last quality, above all, that finally appears to have abandoned him. Never before has he failed to get a team to punch at or above its weight. Everywhere he has gone, he has improved the club’s performance – at least in terms of silverware.

What Mourinho has never been famed for, however, is his football. The man has always been far more entertaining than his teams. From the moment he went pelting along the touchline at Old Trafford, overcoat flapping in the spring air, to celebrate the goal with which his Porto side knocked Manchester United out of the European Cup, he was pure showbiz. He is funny, charming, infuriating, odious, graceless, generous, vicious, but never dull – much like Ferguson, the manager he beat that night. But unlike the teams of Ferguson’s greatest days, Mourinho’s were tough and functional rather than exciting. Porto were dogged, well-drilled and snide. In both his spells at Chelsea he favoured percentage football illuminated by flashes of match-winning quality. At Inter Milan, this Portuguese manager was more Italian than the Italians, his team smothering and grinding down opponents – including Barcelona and Bayern Munich on the way to another European Cup, and the first treble for any Italian club.

“If your only selling pitch...is that you are a winner,” one newspaper columnist has written of him, “there is nothing left when you become a loser.” Yet Mourinho is far more versatile and adaptable than he is given credit for, and this is crucial to his success. He has always cut that overcoat according to his cloth. In 2010 he went to Real Madrid, whose fans have little tolerance for dull efficiency. He won the Copa Del Rey and the league title with gung-ho, attacking football unlike any he had delivered before. Manchester United fans, currently bored by the stultifying “philosophy” of Louis van Gaal, are generally no admirers of Mourinho. Yet even they might remember how, when his Real Madrid knocked United out of Europe in 2013, an ever so ’umble Mourinho praised United’s attacking traditions, then insisted the better team had lost. Was he pitching for his dream job? If he had been, it surely wouldn’t have looked much different.

That was a Mourinho who had never encountered collapse. He has now. Perhaps it is a blip. Perhaps his powers have finally ebbed under such sustained pressure. Maybe he will never be the manager he was. Whoever hires him next will be taking a much bigger gamble than his last four employers. But they will get one of the few superstars of the game who does not kick a ball for a living.

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