Comment: Jose Mourinho harms only himself when he plays familiar blame game
It will be a year on Monday since Jose Mourinho’s last victory over major opposition as Chelsea manager, that 2-0 win at home over Arsenal that came at a cost, with a three-match ban for Diego Costa, and ushered in three months of torture for the man in charge right up to his December sacking.
The whole saga ended in betrayal, or at least it did in Mourinho’s view when, in the wake of what turned out to be his final defeat, by Leicester City, he accused the players of having betrayed his work: the three days of preparation, the four dangerous situations he had identified in which Claudio Ranieri’s team usually scored. He wondered aloud whether the previous title-winning season had just been him doing an “amazing job” with bog-standard footballers.
It was the ultimate workplace departure, a raised middle finger to the office, mic drop and exit stage left to the sound of his own footsteps. A storm was coming and Mourinho did what Mourinho always does in that situation, which is defend the brand of Jose, that reputation hard-won going back to his days coaching the youth teams at Setubal and those long years when he was just someone else’s assistant.
Listening to him digest defeat by Pep Guardiola at Old Trafford last Saturday was to hear a man who knows that the instinct to push blame his players’ way is wrong, but can fight it only every so often until the inner chimp takes over.
Mourinho said more than once that he took responsibility, but it was the pieces in between that were the problem. There was the suggestion that the game was too big for some of his players, or that he realised after 20 minutes that picking Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Jesse Lingard was a mistake.
That familiar complaint from last season, that – for some unfathomable reason - players were just not doing what players were supposed to do.
As he goes into Sunday’s game at Watford requiring a victory to settle Manchester United’s early-season jitters, Mourinho might reflect on that reflex of his to blame others as having developed into his greatest weakness. It wrecked his last months at Chelsea when, for example, after the draw with Newcastle last September, he rated his players’ performance as “minus one” and said there were six of them he would like to have substituted.
He fought it as best he could on Thursday night after defeat by Feyenoord with a largely second-string team, perhaps in acknowledgement that he had gone too far after the defeat by City. Even so, his triple substitution on 63 minutes was one of those classic Mourinho gestures – reckless, some might say – that is meant to tell his players and the watching world that he is displeased.
As a young manager in those two remarkable seasons at Porto, Mourinho became a force of nature because he had nothing to lose – a cannonball fired at the big coaching reputations, shaking the complacency of the old order. But 14 years on since the start of his Uefa Cup-winning season at Porto he is a servant of the reputation he has, obsessively defending it at the expense of the present.
His background as a PE teacher, then a youth coach, then an assistant and finally a manager in his own right should not be sneered at – it is one of the great modern football stories. It has changed the way we look at coaching, and who is eligible to be a manager. But the experience shapes Mourinho now more than ever; he is a man who guards his elite-level record like the curator of a collection which no one else is permitted to judge.
At 53, with 18 major trophies and 15 years of success, he has outlasted the usual career span of all but a few of the top managers in history and it is inevitable that there will be some, Guardiola included, who, with their new methods and youthful enthusiasm, come snapping at his heels. The game is different now, too, and the clubs that were once sure of regular success can no longer take it for granted.
His challenge this weekend to his players to be ambitious despite their wealth and fame is fair enough and was a tactic Sir Alex Ferguson leant on occasionally, not least in the summer of 2002, when he suggested many of his players had had their appetite dimmed by new contracts. They responded by winning the league. Blame-shifting though, can have an extremely damaging effect.
These days modern players are encouraged to examine their emotions, and when they have done so with one manager it is hard for them to respond another way. Mkhitaryan, for instance, has struggled in the past with issues of self-belief, and the consensus was that at Borussia Dortmund, Thomas Tuchel worked hard in coaxing the best out of his talented playmaker. Not least by getting him to read The Inner Game of Tennis, W Timothy Gallwey’s 1970s work on mental preparedness.
Currently injured, Mkhitaryan, one suspects, will feel most keenly last Saturday’s comment from Mourinho that he would have substituted him after 20 minutes. Mourinho said he did not do so because he feared it would “destroy” the two players in question but given that he gave voice to his thoughts, he might as well have done it anyway.
These were strong words from a big name in world football, and sitting in the Old Trafford press room, what was striking above all was that he did not need to say them. Big clubs lose big games, and big managers move on to the next big match. Yet Mourinho got caught on the hook of his oldest insecurities and instinctively launched a case to clear his name. He should know that it does more harm than good.