This is not José Mourinho

By Nicol Hay

Picture José Mourinho. Now let me guess what’s in your head. 

I think the José in your mind is raising his fists, celebrating another crushing of a weaker opponent. He is wearing a luxurious winter coat over a suit so finely tailored it would be impossible for any other man to wear it. Yes, his ego shines through – but it is backed up by the imperious display of towering athletes so devoted to his guidance that they perform unbelievable feats in roles they would otherwise consider beneath their skill. You love him, you hate him, he is indifferent. The José in your mind is in total control of a team and a club that expresses his personality completely.

Now look at the Stamford Bridge touchline. You see that man in the crumpled sportswear, peripheral to the game in front of him? The man with all of the rage, but none of the fire?

This is not José Mourinho.

What happened to that man who captured our imaginations nearly ten years ago? The Special One built teams completely certain of their identity, staffed with players shielded by their coach’s ability to deflect all attention – and therefore criticism – onto himself. The Current One presides over a Chelsea team with a constantly rotating first eleven, with previously indispensable players isolated and exposed as a scapegoat for all the club’s ills. Why doesn’t this José care the way he used to?

As always when discussing Mourinho, it all comes back to ego. The José in your mind surfed on an indestructible self-image born of unrelenting success. He took a modest Porto, a Chelsea seemingly doomed to become a billionaire’s plaything, and an Internazionale desperate for European success to validate their default scudetti and turned each of them into relentless winning machines. He was able to do this because each club was disposed to hand themselves over to him completely, and each embraced the José trademarks utterly.

Solid, uncompromising midfields, set off with a single central creative, supplying muscular forwards and wingers of stunning pace and directness. All three clubs embraced the Mourinho way, and with José at the centre of their identities, the rewards came flooding in. Those teams weren’t darlings of the neutral, but they weren’t built to be. The emphasis was always on the collective, the siege mentality, the remorseless pursuit of success by any means necessary. 

It was Real Madrid who broke the José in your mind. This is a club that possesses an ego surpassing even Mourinho’s, and could never submit to handing everything over to him – even when it was obvious that totally is the core of all his achievements. 

José clearly believed in himself enough to consider himself capable of succeeding anywhere, so compromises began to appear in his previously bulletproof gameplan. Three central creatives instead of one. A single player who was allowed to break the regimented collective strategies to pursue his own greatness. An ingrained desire for caution and control in constant battle against 86,000 voices screaming for more goals, for beauty, for impossible perfection.

This was not José Mourinho.

Whereas the all-conquering Mourinho could and did pick any club he pleased for his next appointment, the man broken by Real Madrid had fewer options. The new wave of top clubs around Europe were owned oil-rich consortia, looking for a coach amenable to a little direction from upstairs while they transformed football clubs into unblemished PR vehicles – they could never hand themselves over to so spiky a presence as José. The only clubs that would consider giving up such control were the smaller, more desperate institutions hoping to break into the Champions League, and there was still enough of that Mourinho ego in place for him to regard such a move as an unacceptable backwards step. Mourinho might have found himself in charge at Manchester United, but Alex Ferguson considered his personality unsuited for the image of the club, and that door closed. 

So all that was left was for José to come home to Chelsea, where his legend was cemented. But despite the mending of the personal rift between Mourinho and owner Roman Abramovich, this was still the club that he had left in 2007, one that now demanded style to go with its substance. A club just like the Real Madrid that broke the José in your mind.

With no other options, Mourinho returned to Chelsea and tried to make his Madrid compromise work at Stamford Bridge – but this is not José Mourinho. He can attempt fit in those extra creatives, to adopt a more expansive approach – but without that ruthless control of the players and of the tactics, this is not a José Mourinho team. So he cares less, his façade is less carefully maintained. He doesn’t work as hard for his players, because they are not truly his.

If we are to see that José in your mind ever again, someone will have to back down. Either Abramovich gives up on beauty and allows Mourinho that total control once more, or Mourinho gives up on Chelsea and takes on a long-term project at a Schalke or a Lazio or a Liverpool. Neither scenario seems likely, so I worry that Mourinho may be lost forever, replaced by a compromised echo of his former self.

This piece was written by Nicol Hay, who you can follow on Twitter at @NicolHay. Comments below please.

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