Wednesday 18 September 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'From winning big to losing bigger'

Hold The Back Page

After a third sacking in five years, all of Jose Mourinho’s boastfulness and preening merely come across as a form of empty camp. Photo: PA
After a third sacking in five years, all of Jose Mourinho’s boastfulness and preening merely come across as a form of empty camp. Photo: PA
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

The Special One is dead. He's been ailing for a long time, but this day last week Liverpool finally put him out of his misery. Jose Mourinho is just another manager now, a Clark Kent whose superhero alter ego has hung up his cape.

When the Spanish Armada ran aground on the west coast of Ireland, some of the noblemen on board its ships stuffed their pockets with gold and jewellery before jumping overboard. They drowned as a result, dragged under by the very treasures they'd coveted so much.

Jose Mourinho met the same kind of doom at Manchester United. Nothing mattered more to him during his time there than the preservation of his own reputation. The needs of his players seemed secondary to Mourinho's neurotic need to ensure that if anything went wrong he wasn't going to be blamed. Now his reputation lies in tatters thanks largely to his obsession with maintaining it. Karma is a bitch.

To understand why Mourinho's reign at Manchester United was such a disaster we have to go back to the period between May 22, 2012 and May 20, 2013. In that spell everything changed and Mourinho has never recovered.

On the first date Mourinho signed a new four-year contract with Real Madrid. His reputation was at its peak. He'd just steered the club to a first La Liga title in four years, overcoming a Barcelona side who'd previously seemed invincible. The style in which Real won the title, scoring a league record 121 goals, flew in the face of Mourinho's reputation as an unimaginative pragmatist.

Better still, Mourinho had disposed of his former nemesis Pep Guardiola who resigned as manager of Barcelona at the end of that season. His replacement, the inexperienced Tito Vilanova, would surely be no match for the Real mastermind who in the last decade had won two Champions Leagues, one La Liga, two Premier Leagues, two Serie As, a UEFA Cup and two Portuguese Leagues. Few managers in history have been as highly regarded as Mourinho was at that moment.

Yet less than a year later, Real sacked Mourinho after a trophyless season. The campaign had revealed a venality to the man's character which severely damaged his reputation. Apparently wrong-footed by Barcelona's terrific form under Vilanova, Mourinho lost the plot. He tried to halt Barcelona's gallop with defensive tactics and foul play, fell out with key players Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas and publicly criticised Cristiano Ronaldo.

Then there was the paranoia and the self-pity. "In Spain, some people hate me, many of you in this room," he told a press conference. He claimed that UEFA gave special treatment to Barcelona, described the season as, "the worst of my life," and alienated the club's fans. When he went it seemed like a blessed release for everyone.

Mourinho left Madrid a significantly diminished figure. All the weaknesses which revealed themselves under pressure in that cursed season have only grown worse since. The sideline shenanigans, the media fall-outs, the public disloyalty towards his players, the conviction that he is being unfairly treated, the recourse to negativity against quality opposition also characterised his time at United, this season in particular.

In the five seasons since leaving the Bernabeu, Mourinho has won one Premier League and one Europa League. The soft nature of that Premier League victory was underlined when Chelsea were succeeded as champions by Leicester City. Mourinho was sacked the following season after his players practically engaged in a work to rule against him.

When Mourinho brought Manchester United a runners-up slot last season it might have been regarded as something of a personal renaissance. But the air of perpetual crisis cultivated by the manager knocked the good out of his achievement. The boss's palpable unhappiness at the distance between Guardiola's Manchester City and his team seemed to cast a pall over everything.

That unhappiness caused the manager to turn on whoever was the handiest target at the time. Sometimes it was the media, sometimes it was the United board for not giving him enough money and too often it was his players. Luke Shaw was an early target of his wrath, Anthony Martial, Antonio Valencia and Marcus Rashford came in for public criticism as did Henrikh Mkhitaryan before being swapped for Alexis Sanchez in what now looks a spectacularly ill-judged deal.

Worst of all was the way Mourinho's relationship with Paul Pogba seemed to degenerate into a personal feud. The sight of United's most expensive and most talented player sitting on the bench as Liverpool tore them apart seemed like the final admission of impotence from a manager who'd apparently given up trying to get the best out of Pogba. Mourinho seemed to be more comfortable with the likes of Ander Herrera, Nemanja Matic and Marouane Fellaini, whose loyalty to his approach compensated for their limitations.

One oddity of Mourinho's character is that for all his mockery of the media he seems inordinately interested in it. The sideline incidents, the shushing of opposition fans, the bizarre press conference tirades, the benching of high-profile players, often seemed expressly designed to distract attention from the latest poor result. Mourinho became like some scoundrelly politician obsessed with 'controlling the news cycle'.

In this respect his reaction to Fellaini's late winner against Young Boys was a nadir. Most managers would have showed relief at being rescued from the consequences of such a poor performance. Mourinho's smashing up of the drinks trolley had an air of calculation about it, as though he was some kid on social media trolling for likes. It was his equivalent of David Moyes walking on to the pitch alone.

It's hard to have any sympathy for the man. Gary Neville's criticism of Pogba for "dancing on Mourinho's grave" is rich considering the way Mourinho performed Riverdance on Arsene Wenger's reputation for so long.

Mourinho's description of the Arsenal boss as "a specialist in failure," betrayed his certainty that he'd always be riding high on the hog. But now, after a third sacking in five years, all the boastfulness and preening merely come across as a form of empty camp. It's hard to blame Pogba, whose dancing consisted of one cryptic comment on Twitter, when the player knew Mourinho would have taken great pleasure in administering the ultimate humiliation by leaving him on the bench for the forthcoming Champions League game in Paris.

There are certain parallels between the demise of Mourinho and that of Martin O'Neill. Both liked to snipe at the media, both exhibited a total self-assurance which curdled into defensive sourness when things started to go wrong and both were at heart dour pragmatists left behind by the contemporary game.

Mourinho and O'Neill were left behind not just tactically but psychologically. The antediluvian machismo of both men contrasts hugely with Guardiola's romanticism, Klopp's sense of humour and Pochettino's determination to carry on without complaint against the odds. Nothing was more predictable than to see Roy Keane complaining about Pogba last week and inveighing against the spoilt nature of the modern-day player.

Other old pros joined in what is really only the perpetual complaint of middle-aged men that youngsters these days have it too easy and don't know how lucky they are. The likes of Alan Mullery, Tommy Smith et al were only too willing to say it about Keane's generation in their day.

The problem with this attitude is that even if there is something wrong with 'players these days' it is 'players these days' a manager has to cope with. His job is not to enact some back to basics social revolution but to make the most of the material he's been given. Your old style 'football man' doesn't seem to understand this. You wonder if Mourinho does anymore.

Seven years ago he gave an interview to Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated who described him as "the best coach in any sport, anywhere." When he told SI, "I see myself coaching a club team, coaching the national team or helping develop soccer in the US," it sounded like polite flattery. A man like Mourinho would hardly want to end up in such a backwater.

Now America seems the best possible move for him. The league there is growing in popularity and Mourinho would enjoy celebrity status without the levels of public scrutiny present in the major European leagues. His powers may have diminished but they'd surely be up to the task of winning big in America. The likes of Gerardo Martino, Giovanni Savarese and Peter Vermes would prove easier foes than Guardiola, Klopp and Pochettino. What could be better for a man with a bruised ego than linking up again with Zlatan Ibrahimovic in Tinseltown?

Back in 2011 Mourinho told Wahl he'd go to the US "when I'm tired of winning things in Europe". Who'd have thought that one day he'd be tired of losing?

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