The supposed behind the scenes power struggle between Jose Mourinho and Manchester United chief executive Ed Woodward played its way onto the field earlier this season. In the week following a 3-2 loss against Brighton, Mourinho started center midfielder Ander Herrera at right center back alongside Chris Smalling and Phil Jones versus Tottenham. Herrera predictably struggled in his new position, keeping their opponent on-sides on their second goal in a 3-0 loss. Most recently, it was Scott McTominay’s turn to move from center midfielder to the right center back position in a 3-1 loss against West Ham. He was beaten far post for the opening goal. Mourinho had been calling out for center back reinforcement throughout the summer. Having already given up 12 goals seven matches into the season, the question now is who is to blame for the lack of cover.
“We tried to play,” lamented Mourinho after their 0-0 draw to Valencia in the second matchday of the Champions League, before adding that his side “don’t have the technical quality to build from the bac.k. That shot was aimed at his starting center back pairint of Smalling and Eric Bailly. For a manager who built his reputation on stingy defending, his criticisms of his current center backs have focused on the attacking end. In answering why he started McTominay against West Ham, Mourinho pointed to the Scottish midfielders ability in the build-up phase. That same line of thinking also applied to Herrera.
In a classic Mourinho paradox, he is both right in his analysis yet also shoulders the blame. Since taking over the United job in the summer of 2016, Mourinho has signed Bailly and Victor Lindelof for a combined $73 million – which, granted, is less than one Virgil van Dijk. Yet in what should have been the future pairing at the position returned little in real life production. Bailly is now the scapegoat of a struggling side. And as Jamie Carragher abruptly put it, Lindelof should simply not be playing in the Premier League.
There is an alternate history of what the side would look like had Diego Godin, Harry Maguire or Toby Alderweireld moved to United as rumored. The side’s current depth chart of Smalling, Bailly, Jones, Lindelof and Maros Rojo is some distance in quality from the pairing he won his first Premier League title at Chelsea in 2005. Giving up just 15 goals in the league, their defensive dominance was defined by the pairing of Ricardo Carvalho and a then-24-year-old John Terry as captain.
If there was any center back - or player - who embodied Mourinho’s principles, it was Terry. He’s previously raved about the holistic approach the Portuguese manager implemented on the side from training to tactics to dressing room management that revolutionized that first Chelsea era. Describing the tactical periodization methodology that Mourinho would later make famous, Terry says that Mourinho’s work with the ball changed the way he thought about the game.
Of the mind games that are relevant now with rumors of Mourinho losing the United dressing room, Terry recalls getting singled out and berated by Mourinho during a training session the season after they won their first Premiership title. He noticed Mourinho grinning at him later during the same practice, understanding how going after the big names on the side would force the rest of the side on edge and not rest on their championship from the season before. In affirming the loyalty that still bonds the two today, Terry said he would have left the field “in a coffin” for Mourinho.
There was a similar bond from his center back pairing at Mourinho’s next job with Inter. That defensive group consisted of Walter Samuel, Lucio and Marco Materazzi, and culminated with the trio being the backbone of a treble winning side in 2010. Lucio called Mourinho the best manager he’d ever worked with. Materazzi broke down Mourinho’s secrets into five categories of drive, cleverness, knowledge, experience, and empathy. In spite of how his player management appears today, the Italian defender described empathy as the foundation of any Mourinho side, the characteristic that unites the team to showcase their trademark fight and spirit.
That brief, dominant era ended with this touching moment between Materazzi and Mourinho after their Champions League win, with Mourinho on his way to Real Madrid. Yet it was at Madrid where Mourinho began to show cracks in his player management. Pepe and Sergio Ramos manned the middle during that era that is now characterized by a singular, perhaps unhealthy, desire to beat Barcelona. That drive led to Mourinho falling out with club stalwarts and both of his center backs. Ramos described Mourinho as “just another coach” he played for. Mourinho continually reminded Pepe that a then-19-year-old Raphael Varane would take his job. Regardless, and whether because of or in spite of those public battles, they did win La Liga in record breaking fashion in 2012.
It in interesting to note how football, and defending, were changing during his time at Real Madrid into this Chelsea return. The pressing style forced center backs to defend spaces higher up the field. He returned to Chelsea and won the league once more in 14-15, with Terry and Gary Cahill as his center back pairing. In contrast to his criticism of Bailly and Smalling, he described Cahill as a “mature player” and a dependable vice-captain for England. With Cahill currently on the bench at Chelsea, there are rumors that Mourinho would move for his former center back at United. That is, if Mourinho is still around to see it.
Rio Ferdinand accused Mourinho of wanting to get sacked. Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, both simultaneously annoyed with the manager for putting United in this position in the first place, concluded that he has the ability to turn the club around.
That is the current duality of how others see Mourinho. Although, as we analyzed with Manuel Pellegrini, there are a group of once dominant managers in the mid-2000s failing to acclimate to this high tempo, high pressure era. How a team plays off the ball is no longer a specific tactic, but an entire paradigm in itself. In analyzing the modern Premier League defender from van Dijk to John Stones, sniffing out counter attacks with positioning and holding onto possession while an opponent presses are equally as important as desperately clearing crosses while holding onto leads. Smalling, Jones, and Bailly may have been first choice center backs in a different era.
In ranking the center backs he’s worked with, I would go something like: Terry for his longevity and underrated ball playing, then Ramos for his ability on both sides of the ball, his relentless attitude, and his winning. Carvalho’s on-ball quality in controlling matches during that initial 2004 Chelsea era puts him close to the top. That then leaves a group of underrated, veteran center backs in Pepe, Lucio, Walter Samuel and Materazzi who were equal parts savvy, nasty, and dependable. Given those names, this current crop of United center backs pale in comparison in more than one category.
Terry, meanwhile, expressed his certainty that his 2004 Chelsea side would beat last season’s record breaking Manchester City side. Although defined by their record breaking spend on wing backs, City did buy $75 million on center back Aymeric Laporte last winter to pair alongside the $64 million Stones. While that matchup would be a fascinating clash of two dominant sides who defined an era, it does display how the bedrock of any team still relies upon the back two. Mourinho already knows he’ll never win with this current crop, but it’s difficult to see any manager finding success either.