As we enter the first round of managerial sackings of the year, one person who has the dubious honour of making the list is one of the most unexpected: Jose Mourinho. Following his tumultuous time at Madrid, and disaster at Chelsea, one must ask what happened to the charming swashbuckler who declared himself “the Special One” 14 years ago?
As a Barcelona assistant, his relaxed demeanour was a necessary antidote to the haughty and stern Louis Van Gaal
His understanding of the game’s psychology has been fundamental to his management. At university, Mourinho attended lectures about public speaking and psychology that convinced him of the importance of psychology as a winning tool. It explains why Ibrahimovic describes Mourinho’s pre-match talks as “theatre, a psychological game”. His early career is filled with anecdotes of a jovial man with a paternal relationship with his players. Even before he became a manager, his charisma and man-management skills stood out.
Former Barcelona winger Simão Sabrosa says “his relationship skills were perfect,” as he would personally befriend each player, understanding what kind of relationship to develop with them. As a Barcelona assistant, his relaxed demeanour was a necessary antidote to the haughty and stern Louis Van Gaal, his light-hearted jokes a welcome distraction from Van Gaal gutturally barking pedagogical instructions. At Uniao de Leiria and Porto his reputation was enhanced by ingratiating himself to players. Mourinho’s man-management methodology encompassed a variety of approaches, as different personalities and situations needed different approaches.
Mourinho once benefited from an empathetic persona that demonstrated a willingness to defend his teams
First and foremost, he was a manager that would go above and beyond to build personal relationships with his players and defend their interests. His early career is filled with stories of this trait on display. Frank Lampard talked recently about how he was impressed by his dedication as Chelsea manager, arranging to meet the English Chelsea players before the 2004 Euros and charming them with his confidence. Ibrahimovic admitted he was shocked when Mourinho called him during the 2008 Euros to tell him he looked forward to working together, and at the subsequent texts praising his performances for Sweden and offering tactical advice for his next games. Both were impressed by his eagerness to personally attend to players despite not officially having started his job, and how he’d regularly text them about their families and home life.
As shocking as it seems now, Mourinho once benefited from an empathetic persona that demonstrated a willingness to defend his teams. When at Leiria, Mourinho insisted Sneijder take a short break after he noticed Sneijder’s exhaustion, and after that Sneijder “was prepared to kill and die for him”. But he could take on a stricter character to motivate people. At Inter Milan, he once snapped them into focus by throwing furniture in a passionate tirade. His gravitas and force of personality translated into tactical advantages. He convinced Eto’o to play as a defensive winger, but when the next manager told him to play as a left winger, he told him that only happened for Mourinho.
Mourinho was no longer a manager, but a general in a pantomime strife with political intrigue
That was the Mourinho of the past, and for some, the Mourinho envisioned now when discussing him. The teams he built had an undiluted adoration for him. The video of him tearfully hugging Marco Materazzi after winning the treble at Inter Milan exemplifies this, showing the uncontainable gratitude and affection towards his players. His success was built by his teams, and the bonds he formed with his players defined his career.
That changed at Madrid. The fight between Real Madrid and Barcelona in this era is told as a biblical fable where the ideological battle transcends the fate of the foot-soldiers. Mourinho was no longer a manager, but a general in a pantomime strife with political intrigue. Avenging Barcelona’s snub for Guardiola, he defied expectations to build a team that defeated the unstoppable Barcelona team. But this pyrrhic victory seems to have been a Faustian bargain as Mourinho has since looked drained of his innovation and charisma. He has gone on to experience the infamous “third season syndrome” which has typified his recent career.
Rumours floated through the hostile Spanish press of Ramos and Casillas issuing ultimatums
Mourinho’s presence has always conjured unrest. In his first season in Madrid, sporting director Jorge Valdano resigned after falling out with him, and Jerzy Dudek wrote that Mourinho was obsessed with finding a “rat” leaking insider information to the press, interrogating his squad for a culprit. This foreshadowed not just the crisis of the third season, but a fundamental shift in his trust of players. Beginning with a public fallout with primary rat suspect Iker Casillas, Mourinho made the first move in a civil war he would ultimately lose. Pepe was dropped after publicly denouncing Mourinho’s treatment. Rumours floated through the hostile Spanish press of Ramos and Casillas issuing ultimatums to Florentino Perez, fans divided into Mourinho/Madrid factions and anti-Mourinho fans whistled the record-breaking, title-winning manager.
Just as Napoleon would never recover from his disastrous invasion of Moscow, Mourinho has looked unable to recover from the Real Madrid civil war, scarred with a distrust of player-power. His efforts to undermine his opponents went from being Machiavellian art to cruel and capricious (poking Vilanova in the eye). What were once inspiring speeches have become insipid, as his public criticisms and treatment of people have backfired, causing rumours of frustration from players like Pogba and Sanchez over their treatment. He could once hypnotise players like Eto’o to play in positions they otherwise wouldn’t play, but was forced to accuse players at Chelsea of not listening (he called it betrayal) to his instructions. Can you imagine Mourinho saying such things in his first stint at Chelsea? Or constant remarks to the press about how his team don’t care, or aren’t good enough? His instinctive and ardent defence of his players has disappeared.
One cannot help but think of the meme which juxtaposes the Mourinho of the past and present. The left picture is a radiant, youthful and jubilant Jose in a suave suit with no tie; the right picture is a disgruntled, drained and unkempt Mourinho whose eye will twitch any minute remembering the traumatic experiences of his third seasons at Madrid and Chelsea. If Mourinho cannot reverse his fortunes, then that raises serious doubts over his career at elite clubs, and at a minimum, he’ll need to seriously re-evaluate his man-management skills and reflect on his recent past.