Monday 19 August 2019

Dion Fanning: Biggest threat to Mourinho remains Mourinho himself

The swagger remains but has been obscured by the warring, trolling manager whose frustrations may eventually turn inward

Jose Mourinho is just as famous for his touchline altercations as he is for his haul of trophies
Jose Mourinho is just as famous for his touchline altercations as he is for his haul of trophies
Mourinho talks with Rafael Benitez
Mourinho of Chelsea speaks to Eden Hazard
Mourinho with Manuel Pellegrini
Mourinho with the Premier League trophy

Dion Fanning

Jose Mourinho's season has begun with some gentle stretching exercises.

He responded to Roberto Martinez's criticism of Chelsea's pursuit of John Stones with some light sarcasm; he suggested that Chelsea's opponents are trying to buy the title; he made a throwaway comment that Eden Hazard was better than Cristiano Ronaldo last season; he attempted to heap pressure on Arsene Wenger.

And there was Rafa Benitez. There will, it seems, always be Rafa Benitez.

As the season progresses, Jose Mourinho's words will be dissected and analysed. The term 'mind games' will be used when it is clear that the mind Jose Mourinho is often playing tricks on is his own.

Mourinho and Arsene Wenger clash
Mourinho and Arsene Wenger clash

Christopher Hitchens used to say that hatred was a terrific way of getting you out of bed in the morning. Mourinho isn't driven by loathing as Alex Ferguson was. Stephen Hunt tells the story about Mourinho shaking his hand when he saw him in Harrods after the Petr Cech incident. At the time, Mourinho was attempting to destroy Hunt's character in the media.

Ferguson would have continued the fight but there was something in Mourinho's gesture that revealed how controlled he is about these things. He would say what he liked about Hunt to the media but that was something else. He may not be seen joking with Wenger or Benitez at a coaching conference but so often these comments aren't personal.

Even when they're nasty and personal, they're just business.

Instead his words might be his way of keeping himself interested because he knows that they have no bearing on results, no matter what people say when they talk about mind games. Results are what his players are for and Mourinho demonstrated again last season his gifts at organising them to win.

These pre-season sorties are, instead, training drills to motivate himself. Right now he is Gareth Cheeseman standing in front of a mirror, growling 'You're a tiger' as he gets ready for the year ahead. This has been Mourinho's way, so often crude and unpleasant as he resorts to the verbal equivalent of poking somebody in the eye, unless he can actually poke somebody in the eye.

Mourinho has always felt that there is no other way. David Moyes told Patrick Barclay in 2005 that the English football establishment was hoping for a fall when Mourinho arrived in 2004. "The initial feeling was that you just couldn't display that kind of arrogance in this country and get away with it. I think there were a few queuing up, you know, waiting to have a crack at him."

Steven Gerrard and Jon Flanagan of Liverpool have words with Jose Mourinho
Steven Gerrard and Jon Flanagan of Liverpool have words with Jose Mourinho

Moyes, of course, took a different road when he was appointed Manchester United manager. He was one of the few people in public life who used the term humbled correctly. Moyes appeared humbled at Old Trafford and it didn't do him much good, even if his appointment was said to have caused Mourinho much pain.

If Mourinho ever says he is humbled, you can be sure he is using it in the accepted modern way to mean bursting with pride.

The swaggering Mourinho remains but it has been obscured by the warring, trolling manager. Perhaps he has checked the data and noticed that in a world defined by 'You'll Never Guess What X Has Said About Y' stories, this is the way to keep relevant or maybe it's all we notice these days.

Mourinho has always been aware that his image and his image as a winner has been an important factor. As David Runciman put it in 2006, "At Chelsea, Mourinho smoulders at his players from the sidelines in a fetching array of suits and coats, top button of his shirt undone and tie slightly askew… Mourinho recognises that it is part of a manager's job to give his team the audience they need to perform."

He provided that audience from the moment he arrived for the first time in 2004.

Nobody could take him down because, in part, he took over at Chelsea when they were on the up. They had managed to come second under the hapless Claudio Ranieri which was a demonstration of their gathering influence under Roman Abramovich. When he returned in 2013, he promised to be a different kind of manager. In some ways, he has kept his word.

All is said to be serene within Stamford Bridge. Mourinho was not considered the right man for Manchester United because of the trouble he caused.

Diego Torres quoted an unnamed United executive in his Mourinho biography who had explained the situation to Jorge Mendes's agency Gestifute. 'The problem is, when things don't go well for 'Mou', he does not follow the club's line. He follows Jose's line."

This time at Chelsea, Mourinho has avoided the spectacular acts of internal insurrection which brought an end to his first spell at Chelsea and made his time at Real Madrid so toxic.

It seems strange to say that a year in which he repeatedly alleged a vast conspiracy against his side was a quiet one but last season was a reasonably placid time for Mourinho as Chelsea coasted towards the title.

Defending the Premier League may be more difficult (no side has done it since Manchester United in 2009) but Mourinho is at the right club.

Chelsea were recovering from a bleak post-Carlo Ancelotti spell before he returned to the club (albeit a bleak spell when they improbably won the Champions League in the year they finished sixth in England).

Again, he arrived when they were moving into a position of strength. They finished third under Benitez, a position Mourinho couldn't improve upon his first season.

Last year was different and now we will see how much has changed. Chelsea's title in 2014 was Mourinho's third in England. He was 52. Alex Ferguson didn't win his first title with Manchester United until he was 51. But he had so much to get out of bed for every morning.

Ferguson said in his most recent autobiography that he never stayed in bed contemplating the world in the morning. Perhaps driven by the forces Hitchens talked about, he was up from the moment he was awake as he fought to secure his position in the pantheon.

Mourinho works in a different way. He has, of course, never stayed more than three years at a club and he is beginning his third season at Chelsea. He is shrewd enough to realise that one more year will be seen as an accomplishment in itself and perhaps he will use that as a diversion if this season doesn't unfold as he anticipates.

Failure last season came in Europe when Chelsea went out against PSG as they descended into the chaos that seemed to be a reflection of Mourinho's off-the-field complaints about conspiracies.

Mourinho was able to turn it into something else as he criticised Graeme Souness and Jamie Carragher, a debate which eventually descended into an abstract and meaningless question about the love the world feels for Jose Mourinho.

Mourinho has always feigned indifference about these things but he is now at a club where he is accepted unconditionally (well, maybe there are one or two conditions). With hindsight, he might consider that he was fortunate not to get the Manchester United job where the supporters wouldn't have had the patience.

Chelsea offered him some solace after the wounding time at Real Madrid, but expectations will be greater this season.

Unlike Ferguson, Mourinho has always acted as if his position among the great managers was secure and his comments about those who challenge him are often delivered with a pitying tone. Ferguson was defending his territory; Mourinho makes it sound as if it is comical to think anybody else could enter it.

Abramovich is also said to be more content this time round so maybe only one factor could upset Jose Mourinho this season.

Perhaps his pre-season comments could have some significance. Chelsea's signings have - at the time of writing - been limited. When Mourinho talks about others buying the title, it may be that he is talking to those he depends on for purchases; when he talks of Hazard being better than Ronaldo, he is reminding people what happens when you invest in players; when he talks about the pressure on Wenger, he is objecting to the pressure that is always on him. And when he talks of Benitez, he is just talking about Benitez.

For now, Mourinho has amused himself by wounding others with his verbal pokes in the eye. But there is always the danger that he will turn inward, that he will destroy himself by essentially poking himself in the eye. This season, the biggest threat to Jose Mourinho is Jose Mourinho.

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