Mour of a reputation at stake at Old Trafford

Aug 13, 2016
Considered among the best manager of his generation, Jose Mourinho has to prove all over again at Old Trafford to dictate his greatness.
Considered among the best managers of his generation, Jose Mourinho has to prove all over again at Old Trafford to dictate his greatness.

When Jose Mourinho took over as Manchester United manager back in June, one of his first acts was to send text messages to each of the club’s players competing at Euro 2016.

Old Trafford sources say that all 10 obviously responded, with the majority just expressing gratitude, offering the usual platitudes.

Some of the older and more experienced players, however, went a lot further.

They wrote lengthy responses, well beyond a hundred words, saying what an honour it would be to work with a manager of such quality, legendary status and reputation.

These are also the big questions, though, as Mourinho takes the job he had wanted for so long.

Is he really the same manager who built up that legendary status?

Are those undoubted qualities still as effective?

Does the manager who proved so much at such a young age now have more to prove than ever?

In short, is the reputation of a manager now on the line, at a club where he dare not fail?

Mourinho’s sensational career trophy haul of two Champions League and eight league titles means he will go down as one of football history’s greats, no matter what happens at Old Trafford.

But how he fares at United will dictate how great.

It will also dictate whether he should still be seen as one of the greats in the game now, and whether that sensational past remains relevant, or as someone who ended up burning out at the top level too quickly.

Last season at Chelsea might have been the first truly pronounced failure of the 53-year-old’s career but its unprecedented and dramatic scale – Mourinho was sacked after the defending champions sank to 16th in the table by mid-December – means it is impossible not to ask whether he’s still as effective in a game that has evolved considerably since his peak of 2010.

It didn’t help that his dismissal at Stamford Bridge came immediately after winning what was just his second league title in six seasons, a victory that was supposed to banish the idea he was past his best, given his sour experience at Real Madrid between 2010 and 2013, during which time he won La Liga just once and failed to lift the Champions League.

It is at this juncture in the Portuguese’s career that United finally turn to him, just as the club stands at a crossroads in its own history.

United’s winning aura has diminished since the appointment of David Moyes to replace Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013.

The Scot was picked in part because of a long-running debate within Old Trafford over the Portuguese’s suitability for the role, as well as his abrasive style of management that attracts such controversy.

Then, United didn’t think Mourinho’s winning record was enough.

Since, though, the club have not won much at all and, with Manchester City appointing Pep Guardiola and Chelsea going for Antonio Conte, they were forced to respond.

They needed a big personality, a big name.

Mourinho is now charged with restoring the club’s status.

First, he has to restore his own.

For Cesar Peixoto, the image of Mourinho is not the frustrated figure seen at Chelsea last season, nor even the defiant new United manager already throwing barbs around as he has done for much of the last decade.

It is something much purer, an almost forgotten image but one worth recalling in order to properly assess Mourinho at this key point of his career.

Peixoto was one of Mourinho’s first signings at FC Porto in the summer of 2002, when the then-39-year-old had just been appointed after a hugely promising spell in which he lifted lowly Leiria up the Portuguese league.

The young manager didn’t have any trophies to his name at that point, but did have an awful lot of talent and confidence.

“When I started working with Jose Mourinho, he was a young manager who had won nothing,” Peixoto tells ESPN FC.

“We looked at him and saw he was distinctive, that he had very different qualities to what we were used to. And very quickly we saw someone who had a lot of desire, a lot of personality, a lot of ambition, and it became very clear he had a lot of ability. He was well ahead of the rest of the managers in that period. Above all, we saw he was very clever, very different to the rest, and that he had a big future.”

For eight years between 2002 and 2010, Mourinho was a trophy machine on a par with anyone in history.

Aside from an average return of two major pieces of silverware per season, he set the highest points record in Premier League history with Chelsea and became the first Serie A manager to win a treble.

That pace slowed for a number of reasons, from the context of jobs he chose to changes in the game, but it also raised serious questions about the long-term effectiveness of his methods.

Over the same period of time, another image developed; one that was most vivid during his second spell at Chelsea.

It’s the image of Mourinho as a manager who derives extreme intensity from his players in order to maximise relatively pragmatic football, but to the point that the bond created eventually starts to burn away.

It is essentially unsustainable, further fostering the idea he is a short-term manager.

Mourinho has only once lasted more than three years in a job and that was his first spell at Chelsea, when he left a month into his fourth season.

Then there is the exhausting siege mentality that drives much of it; sources say the modern Chelsea players questioned it much more than any team previously except Real Madrid, because it seemed to go beyond just a siege.

Always conscious of image and the influence it can have on everything from opponents to referees, Mourinho was said by club sources to “obsess” about what he felt was unfairly critical coverage of his team, particularly the abrasive play of Diego Costa in 2014-15.

It got to the point where some players felt he was concentrating on that too much.

This wasn’t what they expected of someone with his reputation.

As a result, some of his hold over the team was broken.

They just didn’t believe in him in the same way Chelsea’s 2004-06 generation did.

The Eva Carneiro saga made things worse and ensured the relationship with the majority of the squad was eroding just months after winning the league.

Once Chelsea started losing and his usual approaches failed to work, Mourinho didn’t have much of a response.

He didn’t know what to do next.

So, what happens next is now crucial.

He must not just release United anew, but also escape from the corner into which he’s painted himself as a manager.

That will be even tougher in a Premier League featuring more sophisticated rivals than ever before.

It’s not just about the promise of younger coaches like Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham Hotspur or his Chelsea replacement, Antonio Conte.

Many of the main rivals from Mourinho’s past are here.

He still has Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, as well as Leicester City’s Claudio Ranieri, who so challenged him with Roma in the 2009-10 Serie A title race.

Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp got the better of Mourinho’s Real Madrid side in the Champions League when the German was at Borussia Dortmund.

And then there is Mourinho’s grandest rival from his time in Spain and, in fact, his whole career: Pep Guardiola, who just happens to be across town at Manchester City.

One positive is that there are few managers so up for a challenge as Mourinho, and those close to him say he is crackling with competitiveness again in the right way.

Sources also maintain that things were already different for him at United, and certainly different from his second spell at Stamford Bridge.

One Chelsea training ground contact said that, when Mourinho returned to the club in the summer of 2013, a lot of the squad, who had never previously played for him were surprised at how subdued and serious he was.

Some felt he might have required more of a break after leaving Real Madrid.

That has not been the case at United.

He has greatly enjoyed his time off by going to a series of different sporting events like the Montreal Grand Prix, and even joined Instagram.

While there was much commentary about his serious facial expressions while posing for his first pictures as United manager, his mood has been upbeat since he got to properly start working with the team.

Old Trafford will be the best platform for Mourinho to cement his ability as manager.
Old Trafford will be the best platform for Mourinho to cement his ability as manager.

United sources said Mourinho was content, in good spirits and often laughing and joking with the players.

He’s also changed the Carrington canteen back to one room to create more of a group atmosphere.

The squad has responded very well and enjoyed his drills much more than the Chelsea players did.

Part of that may be down to what the United players were used to with Louis van Gaal.

The Portuguese wants his new team to always look to play “killer balls” when going forward, in order to develop the devastatingly rapid counter-attacking of his best teams, whereas Van Gaal would often insist United play backwards or sideways passes in order to maintain possession.

Yet Mourinho does seem conscious of what happened with his previous team.

One theory constantly expressed by those at Chelsea was that because he didn’t have the same connection with a squad of “millennials” and had no real link to the players once Didier Drogba left in the summer of 2015.

As a senior figure completely loyal to Mourinho and who understood him as well as anyone, the Ivorian was seen by the younger players as a crucial go-between, someone who could explain exactly what the manager meant.

When Drogba left, so did that link.

It is in part for this reason that some close to Mourinho feel he has brought Zlatan Ibrahimovic to United.

Aside from the quality and sheer presence that the Swede brings to a slightly callow squad, he is a real “Mourinho player.”

The Swedish striker has remained complimentary of his former Internazionale boss – the two won Serie A together in 2008-09 – and enthused about his management.

The signing of the 34-year-old, as well as that of Paul Pogba, also highlights how Mourinho is completing most of the business he wants done.

2014 was the only close-season in his last spell at Chelsea that saw him secure all the deals he wanted and it led to the title.

It’s difficult not to think his obvious dissatisfaction at a more frugal policy 12 months later was just another distraction at the start of a chaotic season.

By contrast, sources say Mourinho is satisfied at how things are coming together at United.

Although he remains “intent” on signing a commanding, Nemanja Vidic-style centre-half, United’s work in the current window has been among their best in years.

With Pogba in midfield, it suddenly looks an imposing team and one built according to a precise design.

The 23-year-old gives Mourinho exactly the type of power from the centre of the pitch that he so prizes, something he has really missed since Frank Lampard in his first Chelsea spell.

Given how much the United boss was pushing for the transfer, it does feel as if much of his plan revolves around the Frenchman’s particular qualities.

Pogba is seen as a piece who will not just fit into the team but fully enhance it, bringing out more from his teammates.

He will also facilitate Mourinho’s preferred brand of physically strong and fast football and that will solve a tactical problem for his manager.

Sources at Chelsea told ESPN FC that even though the vast majority of Mourinho’s coaching is hugely sophisticated, the same isn’t true of his attacking approach.

They say it is rather basic: he generally trusts good players to just do what they do.

The key is to have players with exactly the qualities he wants for specific roles.

In that case, everything fits together and means less instruction is required.

Never was this more evident than with the brilliant Inter team that won the treble in 2009-10.

Diego Milito, the striker who scored trophy-winning goals in the league, cup and Champions League that season, explains to ESPN FC how it all came together.

“We had very good players, technical and tactically very intelligent,” Milito says. “We were a very good group. The team went winning and got more confidence. In the end, we saw a team that was very compact, knew what it wanted and then went and achieved what it did.”

Milito’s explanation of his own role further emphasises Mourinho’s forensic construction of the team, to the point it just worked perfectly.

“He always gave me a lot of freedom,” Milito says. “Obviously, I had to help the team. That was fundamental. Everybody had to be committed to attack and defence but, from the centre of the pitch going forward, he gave me a lot of freedom to move.”

Six years on from that epic high, Mourinho is starting again and given his past, questions remain over what will happen if things get disrupted or there is a problem.

Will Mourinho maintain his focus or, instead, be distracted by controversy and allow his control of the side to slip away as happened last season at Chelsea?

This really comes down to whether he is still the same manager as when he was younger and at his peak.

Does Peixoto still see Mourinho as the same coach?

“Yes, I think so. His personality is the same. He has the same confidence. Tactically, I think he’s changed a bit. I think he was more attacking at Porto. We played nicer football. The last few seasons, I thought his teams a bit tighter.

“There are a lot of people waiting for him to fail, and because he has a blunter personality, that can happen, that they want to point the finger.

“So maybe there’s a bit of that, maybe he can get a bit angrier. It’s natural. Because, when you’ve won everything more people want to get at you. It’s normal. He has more people in his shadow.”

Mourinho must escape the shadows of the last year and send his biggest message of all.

He must show that he’s still the great manager he was before 2010 and, also, that he is ready to give United an even greater future.

Source: ESPN FC