“Judas is number one”. This was Jose Mourinho’s summation after being heckled by those Chelsea fans who so formerly adored him during Manchester United’s quarter-final FA Cup loss at Stamford Bridge.
Mourinho, sacked twice by Chelsea, but still revered in West London as a returning manager for Inter Milan and Real Madrid was dubbed ‘Judas’ by fans during United’s 1-0 defeat. His response: holding three fingers aloft in a reference to the three league titles he won with The Blues.
Questioned post-match Mourinho said: “Until the moment they have a manager that wins four Premier Leagues for them, I’m the number one.
“Until then, Judas is number one.”
Amidst the arrant nonsense of the Mourinho claiming that the increasingly square peg Paul Pogba was ‘the best player on the park’, despite all evidence to the contrary, N’Golo Kante’s unpressurised shot was enough for Chelsea to beat holders United – who had Ander Herrera sent off in the first half – and set up a semi-final against Tottenham at Wembley.
Mourinho, 54, is Chelsea’s most successful manager, of course, after winning titles over two spells in 2005, 2006 and 2015.
In his first 10 seasons of club management, Mourinho led his club to win its domestic league eight times, the UEFA Champions League twice and the UEFA Cup once. Between 2003 and 2012, Mourinho did not go as long as one single calendar 12 months without winning at least one trophy.
Wherever Mourinho has been as boss: Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan, Real Madrid and now Man United, he has won silverware in a haul of 23 career trophies since Porto announced Mourinho’s arrival as a ‘Special One’ with a four trophy haul, including the UEFA Cup and Portuguese title, in 2003.
Mourinho owes Chelsea nothing, but events at Stamford Bridge emphasise just how short fans’ memories are when their icons depart for a perceived rival – and how reputations tarnish.
He said: “They can call me what they want. I am a professional. I defend my club.
“I’m really proud of my players, I’m really proud of Manchester United fans.”
Reports will focus on the red card for Herrera, United’s lack of available strikers through injury and suspension, and Chelsea’s preparation advantage this season in a campaign with no European football. And this is right and proper. However, the circumstances Man United faced at The Bridge would historically have been the prelude to a Mourinho masterclass of the kind that the manager has been renowned for. Instead United’s challenge withered on the vine with Herrera’s first half sending off.
Yet, in the round, the facts are hard to argue with. His opposite number, Antonio Conte is excelling with runaway leaders formed of the core squad that that were only one point above the relegation zone in December 2015 when Mourinho was sacked amidst claims of ‘palpable discord’ between players and a manager renowned for his previous close bonds with staff.
And for all the talk of Conte’s Chelsea as a even more negative facsimile of Mourinho’s vintage sides it is worth noting that only Liverpool have scored more Premier League goals than The Blues so far this term.
Man United meanwhile are on course to finish with a mere 57 goals at their current rate of scoring. And that would be their second lowest total since 1990 and not so significantly different to the dire fair of Louis Van Gaal’s swansong season and its 49 Premier League goals. Conte’s ‘negative’ Chelsea are projected to score 80 league goals by the season’s end.
Short term, Mourinho may have just cause to mump and moan but given the resources at disposal and also his ill use of talents at his disposal such as Luke Shaw it is hard to feel sympathy. With Swaw exiled in favour of lesser players like Blind, Rojo and Darmian who are all ahead of the ex-Southampton man for a first team slot and a spend of £32m on Bailly, £36m on Mkhitaryan and a world record £89m for Pogba in the last year, he cannot complain of a lack of financial backing or player numbers. Even the recruitment strategy is not culpable, if as believed, the manager is yet to find time to meet his scouts and pass on his requirements.
Where is the “Special One”?
So where has it all gone wrong for the ‘Special One’? Firstly, it is a question about context.
Most clubs would be delighted with League Cup and Charity Shield trophies and an extended run in the Europa League. But United are judged by their progress in the league (and ideally Champions League) and even in a transitional season, by the progress they’re making on the pitch.
At his best, Mourinho is all about ‘us against the world’ but who and what is really against Man United in the grand scheme of things?.
Whoever he has managed, whether it is Porto or Chelsea or Real Madrid, he has been most successful when framing his teams as put upon underdogs. But imagine this reality: Man United as underdogs. Really? With all that money? With all those players? With that worldwide brand popularity?
Mourinho nurtures slights, both real and imagined. He spreads this persecution complex – among the squad, his board and the fans. And the manager unites them all to a common cause which is to fight against a world that exists solely to undermine him and his teams. But as soon as the conceit becomes untenable, with each advantage his teams’ enjoy making it risible, then the rest of the world’s disbelief can no longer be suspended.
And it is this fact alone that now makes Mourinho most vulnerable. With no-one real to fight or rage against, nothing he says rings true any longer – to the extent that even his players cannot buy into a deception that is now perilously close to caricature. Even sartorially, Mourinho increasingly wears his heart on his sleeve.
The Loro Piano overcoat (pictured) of his final season at Chelsea became an unflattering emblem of his malaise just as the paunchy, grey top he’s taken to wearing recently on the bench at United games is unbecoming of a man once considered as stylish within football circles.
It is clear to see that Mourinho gets significantly less well groomed the more that pressure appears to be enacting upon him. His skin goes puffy around the jowels and beneath the eyes. He tends to let his hair grow scruffy and he becomes ‘less dressed’ in appearance, his outfits become less well considered tonally and in terms of overall look. This enhances the impression of a man of action who takes it all to heart, despite public bullishness, and, I’m guessing, dwells on setbacks and fears at home.
Mourinho apparently has a seven point plan for big games. It is a plan that looks factually correct but practically redundant in a game where no-one, starts from such a a negative premise – that the ball is the enemy:
1. The game is won by the team who 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 does not have it is thereby stronger.
Mourinho as is his want, always travels to Camp Nou, to Anfield, to Old Trafford, to The Emirates, to The Parc des Princes, The Etihad and their likes (including Stamford Bridge) to get a point. And if he can pinch all three, while keeping a clean sheet, then so much the better. Even when his sides press high, as they did against Chelsea in the FA Cup at Stamford Bridge, it was only to have Hazard well policed and the ball funnelled to the weak in possession Gary Cahill to prevent the home side playing out effectively.
In a fair fight, 11 v 11, such displays of high ‘defensive pressing’ will inevitably be characterised by others as simply a different take on ‘parking the bus’ or refusing to engage with opponents in possession, for fear that a football match might suddenly break out.
But whatever is ailing Mourinho though, one thing is clear. He is not achieving the success with the swagger and fear factor he enjoyed so consistently in the past. It feels stale with Mourinho now and he doesn’t even try to spin it any more. In fact, he doesn’t really engage much at all with the journalists that he so beguiled in 2004 and in his first phase at Chelsea. His reminiscences are charmless and his presentation partial, often accompanied with a selective loss of his other times excellent faculty for spoken English.
And in the interim time has moved on.
The class of managers Mourinho encountered pre-2012 were cut from different cloth than the opponents of today. Some of them are old foes by name only and they have matured and grown into a different game – unlike Mourinho.
Other, younger bosses are new to the scene and schooled in a new way of playing that is not so easily repelled.
Jurgen Klopp circa 2012 is a different animal to the one now resident at Anfield. His Liverpool side play a wholly different system to the Dortmund side that reached the Champions League Final in 2013 against Jupp Heynckes’ Bayern Munich.
Pep Guardiola, notwithstanding his current struggles, has also evolved to a game-plan that sees more improvisation in the final third, and more dynamic movement whether from his early first season ‘free 8’s’ and full backs or more recent shapes such as the 4-2-3-1 that becomes 4-2-4 in full cry.
Then we have Ronald Koeman, another Barca old boy, who has done some great things at Southampton with both his eye for talent and also a unique way of using a high press and a modern take on classic English forward play. Koeman has overseen a recent and impressive, unbeaten sequence at Everton.
Carrying on at St Mary’s, Claude Puel is getting The Saints up to playing their superb football on a more consistent basis and is brave enough take the game to all-comers home and away.
The contrast with Mourinho’s game-plan at United is that rivals are building teams whereas Mourinho is seeking out a supporting cast for his still to fit, brand ambassador Paul Pogba.
Eddie Howe, an outsider as Arsenal’s manager in waiting, at Bournemouth is another acolyte of the new school Champions League style that mixes possession and transition to exciting effect and he can do so very consistently simply because there are now no poor relations in the cash rich Premier League.
That buying power, all the way down the league, ensures there is no fear factor, even for the relative ‘have nots’.
The standard of players now plying their trade for teams that are tipped to finish mid-table or below has drastically improved.
This level of progress would have been beyond our comprehension (and Mourinho’s) back in 2010. That West Ham were able to attract Payet and Antonio, that Stoke boast a squad lit up by the likes of Arnautovic and Shaqiri, or that Swansea can call on internationals like Fer and Naughton, that Leicester could win the title, perfectly underlines the current changing of the guard in England.
Everywhere I look, I see Mourinho stuck in 2004. He has shuffled his pack at great expense and come up with some very familiar and very obvious answers – with more expensive but inferior players to the ones he had before in his peak years.
So, if everything is changing and everything is improving where is Mourinho now and where is he heading? How much has he changed and how much can he change? If you want to know why Mourinho is failing or his side is underperforming then these questions are the obvious place to start.
In a world where rivals at the biggest clubs – like Guardiola, like Zidane and Ancellotti and even Wenger and Ranieri, as recently as last season, have embraced solutions from a multiple point of view (a flexible, tactical pragmatism), Mourinho increasingly looks like a man whose time has been.
Inflexible, dogmatic, reliant on just one big idea, Mourinho himself might have mocked his rivals with this withering assessment at his peak. But now that description equally applies to Mourinho himself and just three years after winning his last title with Chelsea in 2014, the Portuguese boss’ stock is somewhat diminished.
With his career, if not his legacy, at a crossroads, Mourinho would do well to take a leaf from the play-book of his most illustrious predecessor at Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson.
Above all else, the “Govan Knight”, was at his best making tough decisions, altering his approach and his personnel, reinventing himself whenever the ground threatened to shift beneath his feet. Now, like the Scot, Jose Mourinho must learn that lesson too. It is a lesson that is best summed up in the phrase ‘adapt or die’.