Friday 21 July 2017

James Lawton: Jose Mourinho's swagger of old returns as rival managers fold under the pressure

Manchester United boss playing his hand with swagger of old while rivals fold under unprecedented pressure

Jose Mourinho has re-invented himself so brilliantly this season (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Jose Mourinho has re-invented himself so brilliantly this season (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
James Lawton

James Lawton

On the casino-floor of football management the biggest, noisiest crowd is gathering again around the poker table of a familiar figure.

Yes, Jose Mourinho is back in the game, playing his cards with the old swaggering panache of his prime.

With typical perversity, the Special One has picked his time of renewal when the job has never been so uncharted, so treacherous, so, well, just about impossible.

How else do we interpret the conclusion of the all-conquering Luis Enrique that the challenge of life at Barcelona has become just too draining?

Mourinho has re-invented himself so brilliantly these last few months that only his successor at Chelsea, Antonio Conte, seems to retain the means to deny him the title of the most sure-footed manager in the Premier League, if not in all of Europe.

It is an astonishing resurrection when you consider the scale of the job he inherited in the wake of Louis van Gaal and David Moyes.

If Chelsea should lose any of their title momentum along the home straight, we can be sure no-one will be milking the glory more strenuously than Mourinho, who many saw as a broken figure when Roman Abramovich fired him in the middle of last season.

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He will be able to claim that the job he faced at Old Trafford was the biggest in English football.

Manchester United needed more than a straightforward revival, a calling to arms. They needed reminding of who they were and what they were supposed to represent.

They know that again now - as we saw at Wembley when they beat an able Southampton for the League Cup last Sunday after a run of growing assurance - and it is indeed a remarkable achievement.

Mourinho has done nothing less than dispute the growing belief that managing a football club has become a job to survive for a little while rather than master.

Consider the wreckage of hopes and careers he is stepping through as he confidently proclaims United's return to some of their old aura and glory.

Arsene Wenger, a man he has baited and scorned relentlessly down the years, has surely reached breaking point at Arsenal.

Jurgen Klopp, so recently beloved of the Anfield crowd and even spoken of by some as a re-incarnation of the spirit of Bill Shankly, has become arguably the Premier League's most vulnerable leading manager. If Wenger is widely considered a dead man walking as he takes Arsenal to Anfield this weekend, Klopp, amazingly, might just see defeat in front of his adopted people as one of a series of mortal blows.

And this, of course, is in the shadow of Claudio Ranieri's fall at Leicester City.

Some say it was the tragic end of football's most romantic story.

Others, more hard-headed, believe that the Italian charmer of the football masses was just another inevitable victim of a failure to fully understand the dynamics of the modern game and the psychology of today's player.

Ranieri lost the Leicester dressing-room unquestionably and the moment that was evident there was no doubt that sooner rather than later he would be heading home to Rome to consider in the Eternal City the hardest truth of the football of today.

The most vital question, as never before, does not concern what you achieved yesterday but the disasters you can prevent today.

Ranieri, faced with the rising spectre of relegation, could not begin to come up with the right answers and so he was gone when the Leicester players re-created new life with their crushing victory over Liverpool.

That left Leicester City's Thai owners less the villains as practical protectors of the club's interests - and Klopp in receipt of the most basic advice from former Liverpool striker John Aldridge.

The Irish international declared: "It's no coincidence that the defeats have come against teams from the bottom half of the league, who are aggressive and get in our faces.

"For me, Jurgen Klopp has to go after players with the aggression, the physicality, to cope with the demands made by such opponents. He needs players who can fight when the going gets tough. We surely don't have enough of these types of players.

"And against Leicester it seemed obvious that we needed a tough, physical centre-forward. When a defence is put under pressure they need someone up front who can hold the ball - someone who starts the fight from the front."

At Christmas Klopp was Shankly's successor. Going into the spring he is being given rudimentary football lessons. It is maybe just another example of the increasingly hazardous lottery of football management.

Nothing, however, can compare with the announcement of Enrique that he is walking away from the Nou Camp.

Two seasons have brought a Treble (La Liga, Champions Liga, Copa del Rey) and then a domestic Double but that success has not been enough to fend off the "exhaustion" that he says has created his decision.

Cultivation

Barcelona did that to Pep Guardiola in four seasons - despite the fact that his methods, his cultivation of Lionel Messi, made him the ultimate hero of Barca football.

For Enrique the ride was nothing like so joyful. His more direct style was questioned high on the terraces and down in the dressing-room, where he and Messi were said to have had a degree of distance.

Enrique's impending departure - and possible replacement by another coach unlikely to pursue the old Tiki-Taka Barca style, Sevilla's hard-driving Jorge Sampaoli - is maybe the ultimate parable of today's football.

It says that you can win everything and still find elusive any sense that you are on top of a job whose pressure and demands never relent.

Naturally, Mourinho is saying differently. On this occasion, at least, it is reasonable to believe it may be another aspect of his genius.

Irish Independent

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