“It’s not fair to say that this one is amazing and the other one failed. It’s not fair, but it’s the reality of football, and the reality of life.”
“We are here to protect the loser,” proclaimed Jose Mourinho of he and Arsene Wenger’s role in the pre-match coverage of last season’s Champions League Final between Liverpool and Tottenham. He, perhaps surprisingly due to his image earned by quarrels with his peers, displayed solidarity in saying that neither Jurgen Klopp nor Mauricio Pochettino deserved to be called a loser for their accomplishments in leading each side to the final. It was just months earlier that Mourinho qualified United into the knockout rounds of the same tournament. But he was sacked in December, before he could see out his rewards in a tie against PSG.
Mourinho was then initially hired to analyze El Clasico for BeIN Sports, but continued to fill in due to his first-hand observation, star power, and chance for virality. The unfiltered studio time gave Mourinho an opportunity to rewrite his recent history that involved getting sacked by both Chelsea and United. After all, we know of Mourinho through his antics, whether in his tactical stubbornness, the antithetical relationship with his players, and his ego. The appearances proved to be his form of The Players’ Tribune or Uninterrupted, able to shape his story directly to an audience and perhaps into his next managerial position. Gary Neville and Slaven Bilic each distinguished themselves through insightful post-match analysis, using the momentum to return to the dugout.
Somehow, 2019 represents a vital time for the perception of Mourinho in how he’ll be remembered within soccer history. He is undoubtedly an era defining manager (start with the trophies that he continues to remind people he’s won), along with his influence in introducing a three-player midfield to the Premier League in his early Chelsea days. But his inability to update his tactics, and maybe his personality, to the contemporary game creates space for revisionist criticism especially when compared rival Pep Guardiola, who continues to learn, grow, and win titles across generations.
“The players who wear the [Real Madrid] shirt, of course they feel the responsibility. Of course, they need to have a certain kind of personality. Not just to cope with it, but more than that, to enjoy it...to be really special, it’s not just enough that you cope with the responsibility. You have to enjoy the responsibility.”
It comes down to timing: the turn of this decade, with the height of Barcelona’s tiki-taka style, would have been an impossible situation for any Real Madrid manager. The narrative of his three seasons in La Liga is filled with tension, both outside the club in eye-gouging Barcelona assistant Tito Vilanova and in internal battles with Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas. Sandwiched in between those moments was a record-setting 2011-12 season in which his side set La Liga records for most wins, most goals scored, most points accumulated, and highest goal difference. That season, properly placed, should have broken Mourinho’s narrative of being overly cautious and defensive.
Past the records, what remains of Mourinho’s memory during his time with Real Madrid is pressure. One season at Barcelona has been described as two seasons with another club considering the amount of attention from supporters. But ahead of an El Clasico match, Mourinho pointed out how much Gerard Pique revels in that atmosphere, saying that the centerback “plays like he’s at school with his friends.” Mourinho described how Sergio Ramos, who is close to featuring in 40 El Clasicos, is in his “natural habitat” on the biggest stage. It’s not enough to be a good player to feature for Real Madrid or Barcelona, says Mourinho - a player, and perhaps speaking for himself as a manager, must enjoy that level of pressure to succeed.
“There is one problem that I cannot find a solution [for], which is: when a player is playing, he likes the manager. When he’s not playing, he doesn’t like the manager.”
“Where’s the rat? Is it you, Granero?” demanded Mourinho of striker Esteban Granero after Real Madrid’s plan to put Pepe in midfield was leaked to the press. That paranoia led to a falling out with Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas at the very least. Zlatan Ibrahimovic said Mourinho cut him down and pumped him up, and one can imagine how that style of destroy-to-rebuild management can strengthen and weaken players equally. Though leave it to Ibrahimovic to add manhood into the equation, saying that Guardiola is “not a man” while adding that he misses Mourinho. Ibrahimovic, and Samuel Eto, who said that Guardiola didn’t understand the Barcelona squad, put down markers in the divide between the Mourinho camp of toughness and Guardiola’s intellectual approach. Guardiola may have titles, but at what expense, the strikers seem to be asking.
But even that has nuances. Ramos cut through the aura of Mourinho in jabbing “because you’ve never been a player, you don’t know that that happens sometimes.” Summarizing his disagreements with players down to playing time takes out the wrinkles of the politics, egos, and challenges of manhood within the everyday workings of a team. Though, according to Mourinho in a free space to shape a narrative, the relationship between manager and player is not about personality or communication. Players can be fickle depending on playing time.
“No club is waiting for me, nobody knocked at my door,” lamented Mourinho earlier this week, a realization that is some distance from his press conferences with United in which he reminded supporters, analysts, and managerial peers that he’d won more trophies than any manager in the Premier League combined.
Mourinho still receives coaching offers, and he will on his name alone for some time. But it’s not the right situation, not the stakes he describes with Pique and Ramos where he can relish in the pressure. Focused on returning to one of the “big five” European leagues, he recently rejected a contract offer from Guangzhou Evergrande. That single-minded drive is admirable from a personal standpoint, though we’ve probably reached a time where Mourinho must give in for a level just below what he’s come to expect. He understands how analytics have driven out the era when the manager was all-powerful. Mourinho only asks for empathy within the contemporary club structure.
It is difficult to understand how Mourinho fell this far to where no top club would want to hire him, especially after winning the Premier League just four years ago. Has pressing, or perhaps the global branding age, transformed the game that much as to neutralize a specific approach for big clubs? After beating Ajax in the 2017 Europa League Final with Manchester United, which represents the last trophy he’s won, Mourinho said that of his opponents that “there are lots of poets in football but they don’t win titles.” Two years later, the foundation of that Ajax side, with their attacking philosophy in tact, went on a memorable run to the Champions League semifinals. They didn’t win a trophy this time either, but at the very least, they showed how poets can adapt their approach to fit the modern game.