Let’s get past the word brand because this is about something slipperier than money or prestige, and let’s not pretend that Manchester United and José Mourinho aren’t going to be fine in the end because it would take a Faustian TV deal or an excellent therapist, respectively, to truly hurt them, but they haven’t been their old indomitable selves in a while. They’re more like the way you see your dad at sixteen than at six, pondering the sorites paradox in reverse: when does a blip become a dry spell and when does a dry spell become what you are?
Less abstractly, United haven’t finished in the top three—let alone done anything of consequence in the Champions League—since Alex Ferguson retired with his thirteenth Premier League title in 2013, and Mourinho’s last two gigs at Real Madrid and Chelsea were a mite more toxic than they were successful. His first year at Old Trafford was technically fine but didn’t live up to the marketing materials. (Or maybe it exceeded them. #POGBACK is a mid-table hashtag.) Nothing says Plans A and B were stupid anyway like The Biggest Club In The World™ trying to win the Europa League.
Mourinho’s talking about staying at United for another fifteen years but you’d have to have a memory like a burned out cassette tape to believe that. It’s slightly galling that he has the job at all, given the relative stateliness of the club and Mou’s habit of slipping whoopie cushions beneath the ass of Arsene Wenger’s soul when he’s bored. But then Sir Alex could be a bully if not a vulgarian and entrenched power probably only seems polite because it doesn’t need to be outwardly crass in order to gets what it wants. If United have always seemed less profane than, say, Chelsea, it’s because you can preach class and project institutional calm if the guy in charge of the club simply doesn’t lose. When people go from praising you to wondering what the hell is wrong with your midfield, you may find out that your principles are circumstantial and that you’re apt to take a meeting with a villain, see if he’s got any bright ideas about how to use Ander Herrera.
Even healthy relationships don’t transcend two parties using each other, and that goes octuple for when millions of dollars are involved, but Mourinho and United’s partnership reads as especially transactional. Mou has spent his career performatively legitimizing himself, then waiting for the results to catch up to his bluster, so why not give reclaiming and becoming the beloved replacement patriarch of Europe’s circa 1995 Yankees a shot? United are less complicated: it’s just that they’re not Manchester United if they’re not winning. Their ethos is greatness, by any means. Having disposed of everything that wasn’t getting the job done—David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal, Iker Casillas’s dignity—here the two of them are, aging enfant terrible and mid-life crisis Goliath, discovering one another but actually hoping to discover idealized versions of themselves. They’re only in this together because neither of them knows an artificer who sells cursed mirrors.
Not that Pep Guardiola at City, or even Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid, are in anything like love-marriages. Mourinho’s bald ambition and egotism can be refreshing because, when he’s not lying in that way where he knows everyone knows he’s lying but he maintains kayfabe regardless, he says ugly things that are true not just of him but many of his contemporaries. The how-dare-you-question-me, I’m-a-genius-and-you’re-an-insect stuff is at least honest. It’s a little bit tactical too. If I’m such a deceitful monster, he asks, then why am I so straightforward about my monstrousness? He’s like if a pickup artist were charming. Case in point, I feel bad about comparing him to a pickup artist. I like the guy.
Which is why I’m giving this question perhaps more consideration than it deserves: Mourinho definitely won’t be managing Manchester United a decade and a half from now, but does he genuinely believe that he might? He’s only ever left two big jobs willingly: Porto for Chelsea and Inter for Madrid. He quit both those gigs because his work was complete—two European-domestic doubles, no room for complaint—but every other stop has ended in frog-raining disaster. Rafa Benitez got dismissed because Ronaldo wouldn’t stop making faces in practice. Mourinho left because he made being Real Madrid—which is like being able to fly and instantaneously own property by looking at it—seem like no fun at all. His pair of Chelsea exits were about as bad.
I don’t think he’s proud of this. It’s often difficult to discern the difference between when Mou is play-acting a tantrum or throwing a real one, but there’s an undeniable insecurity about him—no one that arrogant has it as thoroughly together as they would like you to think—and it manifests mostly in deeply mean defensiveness. Sometimes Mourinho is shredding a ref or the media or another manager for effect and sometimes he’s just hurt and angry. And then he’ll show up the next day sardonic as Gore Vidal. That’s when you know he really meant it, and that he’s capable of shame.
He would like to think of himself as someone who can control these outbursts, that in his 50s and 60s, he can be more like Sir Alex—furious when he needs to be, but typically sternly avuncular—because that’s how you build something, how you stay in a job for a long time. If there’s one thing about Mourinho’s career that hasn’t felt designed, it’s that he’s been such a nomad. He’s failed, in other words, but more than that he’s failed because he so swiftly insulates himself from failure with barbs and accusations and tirades that he never gives himself a chance to pull out of a nosedive. He doesn’t want to get caught in the embarrassment of trying to salvage a situation that might not be salvageable. He’ll finish sixth and turn a locker room grimmer than the battlefields of Verdun, but he won’t suffer that specific humiliation.
Which is why he won’t last at United. Maybe he’s mellowing with age and he’ll stick around longer than his customary two-to-three seasons, but Mourinho’s powers of alienation match or exceed his immense skill as a coach. But it’s a nice thought, isn’t it? To want to change? Unfortunately, your best self is someone you only ever meet in your mind. Plus José’s pretty pleased with who he is already. When he tells you that, it’s the truth.