Monday 19 February 2018

Dion Fanning: Mourinho discovers that he is his own hardest act to follow

Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho

Dion Fanning

Football embarked on a cultural war last week which was also an existential debate as it found itself asking the question beloved of the perpetually bewildered, 'What's it all about, eh?'

If football is entertainment why does it not always entertain but if it is business, should we simply not be impressed that it is frequently more stimulating than, say, the consolidated accounts of a haulage company.

If football were merely business it wouldn't mean as much even if we know – and often try to conceal – the realities such as a club's wage bill acting as what The Economist described last week as a "dully accurate predictor of footballing success".

Football is at the point where these things and others meet, a point where it is given meaning and which ensures that the game must always be about winning but it can be about many other things as well.

At the centre of this cultural war was Jose Mourinho. On Wednesday night at Stamford Bridge, Mourinho was in a less familiar role as the hapless loser, turning to his bench with a succession of resigned shrugs and grimaces that he could easily have picked up from his first mentor, Bobby Robson.

It was said of Robson that he always wore the look of a man who feared he had left the gas on and Mourinho seemed spent on Wednesday, a man exhausted by the admittedly enormous task of being next on stage after witnessing at first-hand one of the most magnificent performances from the great Jose Mourinho.

He had given everything in the week building up to the Liverpool game. Mourinho staged a massive work of conceptual art, a stimulation for all the senses across all platforms, like one of those installations that persuades the customer that, in return for buying a ticket for the show, they will be treated to a ferocious if glib dissection of their own personality.

Chelsea's performances in the first leg of the semi-final and at Liverpool provoked these questions.

The contagion spread when football's great neurotic genius Pep Guardiola couldn't prevent Real Madrid knocking out Bayern Munich and the question was asked if it is better to win or to play with style as if one precluded the other.

This was a great misunderstanding of Guardiola, an extension of the idea that he is one of football's entertainers, an Ossie Ardiles for the 21st century who simply tells his players to go out and enjoy themselves. Sometimes it would be easy to believe Guardiola had created monuments to beautiful futility instead of winning the European Cup twice

If Guardiola and Mourinho are united in anything, it is their contempt for the idea that professional footballers should go out and enjoy themselves. In Diego Torres' riveting, if one-eyed, biography, Mourinho is cast as Potter from It's a Wonderful Life but without Potter's core belief in essential human kindness. By the end, Torres records that Mourinho used to tell the players to 'Go out and enjoy yourselves' as a balm for his own anxieties, an order which "would usually be anathema to him".

With Mourinho it is easier to detect this profound contempt for enjoyment than with Guardiola, but it may be the tie that binds them.

Mourinho has, of course, a profound contempt for many things, including public opinion except in those frequent moments when he is courting public opinion. For this, and many other things, it is easy to accuse him of hypocrisy but nobody believes what he says anyway so it shouldn't really come as a surprise when he contradicts himself.

Few men have accommodated multitudes as Mourinho has. He can spend the season talking down many of his players and then persuade his team – made up of different players it must be said – to sacrifice themselves as they did against Liverpool.

Mourinho started a cultural war either side of the Anfield game but at Stamford Bridge, Atletico were the side who looked like they were ready to advance it.

Diego Simeone skipped along the touchline at Stamford Bridge, backed up by the familiar cast that accompanies a Spanish team on the road. They are people who look more like the staff of a fine hotel than a football club. There were men in beautifully cut suits, men in cheaper suits, men in cheap suits and overweight men in club tracksuits – the bellboys – all of whom seemed to be starring in their own version of this movie or expecting a substantial cameo.

Simeone was able to assert himself as the new star, in charge of this faster, stronger, staggeringly energetic Atletico Madrid side which could yet defy convention in the most extraordinary way.

We know they are defying convention because they have a wage bill smaller than QPR's, although both are probably defying convention in very different ways.

Manchester United's wage bill, for example, provides another accurate predictor of the epic nature of David Moyes' time at the club. United had the second-highest wage bill in 2012/'13 but their fall has been so profound that they have transcended this reliable guide.

The Manchester United story may be the most fascinating sporting story for a generation and they, too, were convulsed with questions of identity as they prepared for Louis van Gaal's arrival and the likelihood that if he fell out with players, as Moyes did, it would be the players who would be doing the falling.

Some have wondered what this means for the Class of '92, as it turns out Nicky Butt's presence is another dully accurate predictor of footballing success, certainly in a home game against Norwich in April.

What is Manchester United all about, they also wondered? Ryan Giggs was the answer for those who wanted continuity but Moyes was the manager who was going to provide stability. Van Gaal promises something different. He promises conflict, obsession and an overwhelming belief that anybody who opposes him is wrong. Manchester United think they are entering the unknown but the future may be more familiar than they think.

dfanning@independent.ie

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