Manchester United were served early warning of how special Jose Mourinho was. The Portuguese manager’s sprint up the Old Trafford touchline following Costinha’s agonisingly late away goal for Porto in March 2004 will not be fondly remembered by supporters, but the brazenness of Mourinho’s celebration certainly made an impression.
Mourinho made a name for himself by being different and that March night in Manchester was key to the trajectory of his career. Had Paul Scholes’ second goal of the game not been incorrectly ruled out for offside United would have eliminated Porto from Europe and Mourinho would never have had the chance to publicly discard his Champions League winners medal in preparation for his move to Chelsea.
“I am a special one,” Mourinho told the press at his Chelsea unveiling and backed up his words with deeds, transforming the Blues from also-rans to serial winners virtually straight away.
Football, like all sports, is a game of ifs, buts and maybes. Would Mourinho have become the huge presence in the game that he is today had United held on and pushed Porto out of the Champions League that night? For all his subsequent success at Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid, the underdog Champions League victory with Porto remains his most remarkable triumph and the springboard that launched him to the very top of the game.
Mourinho announced himself on the world stage at Old Trafford and, for better or worse, United may be his last big job in club management. A decade is a long time under the spotlight at clubs like Madrid and United and the Special One’s results have been notably less special in the past few years.
Can Mourinho restore his fading reputation at Old Trafford? More importantly, can he restore United’s fading fortunes?
Mourinho, at his peak, was ruthlessly single-minded and charismatic. He transferred his Porto 4-3-3 formation and style of play directly to Chelsea in the 2004/5 season and spent big money on the players he needed to make the system work. Didier Drogba and Ricardo Carvalho spring to mind as early acquisitions.
Chelsea’s players were almost pathetically enamoured with Mourinho. He showered John Terry and Frank Lampard with praise in the media, defended his players to the hilt, and the rewards were evident. Mourinho’s first Chelsea team had a brick wall defence and players willing to run through opposing brick walls for their manager. They had a defined (albeit mostly boring) style of play and stuck to it doggedly.
Mourinho certainly didn’t lack for conviction in this summer’s transfer market. Eric Bailly and Henrikh Mkhiytaryan were signed swiftly while Zlatan, though a free transfer, is a superstar signing with superstar wages. Enough has been written about the size of Pogba’s transfer fee. Mourinho convinced the club to stick its chest out and pay for the folly of letting the player go so cheaply in the first place.
In stark contrast to recent seasons United fans had every reason to be pleased with the summer’s transfer activity. Puzzlingly, however, Mourinho seems to have lacked a clear plan of how to use the players he signed. The size of Pogba’s fee suggests the team should be built around him, but the Frenchman spent much of the early season tripping over a fading Wayne Rooney in the No.10 position or struggling to convince in a two-man midfield. His confidence has appeared low and he doesn’t always appear to understand his role.
Mkhitaryan’s treatment almost warrants an internal investigation. Thrown in at the deep end against City then hung out to try and publicly castigated by his manager, the Armenian finally appears to be working his way back into favour and showcased his gifts in the cup win against West Ham in midweek as well as at Goodison Park on Sunday.
Mkhitaryan is not the only player who has been questioned in public by Mourinho. Once the arch protector of his own players. Rooney’s ability to play in midfield was scorned in the summer; ‘you can tell me his pass is amazing but my pass is amazing too without pressure’, then Luke Shaw was singled out for public criticism after defeat to Watford before joining Chris Smalling in the manager’s bad books for failing to play though injury.
Shaming players in public is usually the last resort of a desperate manager but Mourinho seems to have carried seamlessly on from his final season at Chelsea. All too often this season United have appeared listless and directionless. The players are far from blameless but Mourinho must take responsibility for a lack of tactical clarity and the poor morale that is a world away from his best work as a manager.
Mourinho is a smart guy. Few would doubt that. It may well be that he’s found a culture of complacency in the United dressing room so strong he feels that he needs to rail against individual players and create chaos in the media to shake things up.
United have been in a lull since Fergie’s retirement and, while many hoped Mourinho could spark an instant revival, the malaise may run too deep for this to have been a reasonable expectation. A look at Mourinho’s last three club jobs provides real hope that he’ll get it right eventually. Specifically, that he’ll get it right in his second season.
Mourinho won the league in his first season at Inter Milan, but his second season there is the one everyone remembers. The canny signings of Diego Milito, Samuel Eto and Wesley Sneijder, combined with a revival of Italian catenaccio defending, propelled Inter to a league, cup and Champions League treble and a famous win over Barcelona.
In his first year at Madrid Mourinho was humbled 5-0 at the Camp Nou, but in his second season Real hit a La Liga record number of goals and scored over 100 points as they pipped Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona to the title.
It may all have gone wrong for Mourinho in his third season at Chelsea but it shouldn’t be forgotten that they were exceptional in his second season, cruising to the league on the back of a muscular defence blended to the craft and guile of Cesc Fabregas and Eden Hazard.
Mourinho’s second season at United could be particularly successful if, as appears likely, they miss out on the Champions League spots again this year. They’re currently priced at odds of 3.80 to gain a top four spot with Bet365, who offer a great £200 bonus upon registration explained in detail here, including the terms/conditions and rules of how to withdraw it.
Liverpool and Chelsea have demonstrated the domestic benefits of a calendar free of irksome midweek trips to Eastern Europe and, while everyone wants to be in the Champions League, a title push is a nice consolation. Participation in the Europa League will surely be avoided next time around.
Chaos and controversy is part of the bargain when you enter into a pact with Mourinho and he has a habit of shaping success out of the maelstrom. It isn’t always pretty and it rarely lasts (his third season at Madrid was almost as ill-tempered as his third season at Chelsea) but wherever he’s been the Portuguese has won league titles.
Klopp is more charming, Guardiola more cerebral, Fergie more enduring but Mourinho possesses a bloody-mindedness when it comes to winning that arguably surpasses them all. Jose has brought madness and paranoia to United but that is his style. He launched himself at Old Trafford in 2004 and he will celebrate more success there or crash and burn – or both – in future years.
The ride won’t always be comfortable but it should be fun.