Jose Mourinho has developed a less than flattering reputation over the past decade, but that shouldn’t put Manchester United off.
It has been a year of extremes for Jose Mourinho. Not six months after leading Chelsea to the Premier League title, he is out of a job, having overseen what must surely now be considered the worst title defense of all time.
The question now is simple: what next?
Mourinho seems intent on a quick return to management, and the obvious destination is Old Trafford, where Louis van Gaal’s days are surely numbered after four defeats in a row.
But the way events have unfolded at Chelsea since May has cast doubt on the Portuguese’s credentials. In this season of perpetual Mourinho analysis, some have even gone so far as to suggest he is overrated.
So it seems worth pointing out, lest it be forgotten, that Mourinho remains, even now, very good at his job.
His job, to be clear, is to win. Which he has done almost every year since he broke onto the scene with Porto in 2003. 15 major trophies in 13 and a half seasons, to be exact. 22 if you include the minor ones. In four countries. Would that we were all overrated.
So, then, Mourinho to United.
Not so fast, it seems. United chairman Ed Woodward has already questioned whether Mourinho fits the managerial profile United are looking for and has overlooked Mourinho for the same position once before—back in 2013, when he opted for the eminently more suitable candidate, David Moyes, instead.
Part of the problem, here, seems to be that because most people dislike Mourinho, they feel some concurrent need to insist that he’s bad at his job. Or at least that he’s not as good at his job as his trophy haul might be taken to suggest.
More specifically, there is the ever-reliable series of “buts” Mourinho’s critics seem to turn to in response to the overwhelming evidence he is, in fact, all he’s cracked up to be: but he plays anti-football, but he can’t develop young players, but he’s a trouble maker, but his management style can’t work for more than a few seasons.
All of these are true, in their way. But they are misleading, too. And they are certainly not legitimate reasons for United not to hire one of the best managers in the game.
But He Plays Anti-football
The suggestion here seems to be that playing anti-football is cowardly and therefore also a little bit wrong. Why doesn’t Mourinho take a risk once in a while, especially with all the money and world-class talent he has historically had at his disposal?
This question is often accompanied by the assumption that what Mourinho does is easy. Obviously, it isn’t easy. If it were easy, more people would do it. Not everyone, but certainly someone.
There is a reason, for example, why Mourinho has won the Champions League twice and Tony Pulis has won the Football League Third Division runners up medal only once. And it isn’t only because Mourinho has had access to better players. Not all defense-minded managers are created equal.
There is no doubt Mourinho favors a less aesthetically pleasing style of football than, say, Pep Guardiola. But there is also no doubt it works. And the fact is United are not currently in a position to worry about style.
But Mourinho Won’t Give Young Players A Chance
This is true. But it is only a mark against the man if you adopt the weirdly moralistic stance that a manager’s devoting himself to developing young talent is some sort of inherent virtue.
This is a messy issue for a lot of reasons. No one thinks, for example, Arsene Wenger shouldn’t have bought Mesut Ozil two summers ago, but a lot of people think Mourinho should have given Romelu Lukaku a chance to prove himself at Chelsea instead of buying Diego Costa.
Presumably, this is because Wenger has a history of giving youth a chance. But then there is an argument purchasing Ozil has limited the opportunities of players like Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey, both of whom have been benched and shifted out of position to accommodate the (more talented and experienced) German.
Indeed, one could argue Lukaku has developed more quickly in an Everton team where he is an established starter than he would have fighting for a place in Chelsea’s starting XI.
And when you add in the fact Chelsea bought Lukaku as an 18-year-old, and Arsenal bought Ramsey as a 17-year-old, it is hard to pinpoint exactly what we are rooting for when we root for these young players to be given a chance.
The youth vs. experience debate quickly turns into a foreign vs. domestic debate and a rich vs. poor debate. Just look at United. One of the few things van Gaal has been praised for during his time in Manchester has been his willingness to give youth-teamers opportunities in the first-team, but it is tempting to wonder whether he would have been so accommodating had all those big-money signings he made actually been any good.
Mourinho, for his part, seems to have adopted the more pragmatic stance that his job is to win, not to take a moral stand on how to win. If nothing else, he is consistent.
There is also the obvious footballing reason Mourinho favors experience over youth. Namely, he demands a huge amount of defensive discipline from his players, and defensive discipline is one of the few things players can only develop with experience. If you look around Europe, the best young payers are almost all attackers. This is not a coincidence. Of course defenders must be given a chance to prove themselves eventually, too, but for a lot of good reasons that chance usually comes later than it does for players in other positions.
For the most part, Mourinho has simply never been in a situation, such have been his financial resources, in which turning to youth has seemed like the best option. And he has never worked for an owner who has expected this of him. It would very interesting to see how he would adapt at United if Woodward hired him only on the agreement he gives youth a chance.
But His Management Style Is Too Destructive To Work For More Than A Few Seasons
This is also true, as history shows. But to think this is a problem with Mourinho, as opposed to a problem with the game in general, is simply to ignore the facts.
The longest-serving manager in Europe’s top four leagues is Wenger, who is now in his twentieth season at Arsenal. The next two names on that list are Giampiero Ventura and Diego Simeone, who are in their fifth seasons at Torino and Atletico Madrid, respectively.
Among Europe’s elite managers, four or five years at a single club has come to feel like an eternity. Guardiola is in his third and final season at Bayern Munich. He left Barcelona after four. Carlo Ancelotti was at AC Milan for eight years, but since leaving the Rossoneri in 2009, he hasn’t stayed at club for more than two seasons. Rafa Benitez’s longest stint at single club was the six years a spent at Liverpool. Other than that, he has never stayed at a club more than three.
Excluding Wenger, there are zero managers in the top flights of England, Italy, Spain, and Germany who have been in the same job for more than five years.
In this context, Mourinho’s short termism appears less of a personal flaw and more of a product of the way football works these days, repeating itself over and over again in roughly three year cycles.
But While Most Managers Just Leave, Mourinho Leaves In Acrimony
This isn’t really true at all. Mourinho has been known to butt heads with his superiors in the past, but this has rarely effected his relationship with either players or fans.
He left Porto on good terms. He left Inter on good terms. He left Chelsea a hero the first time around. He even left Madrid on good terms, though his relationship with certain players had become strained. The only time he really seems to have left a club in any sort of acrimony was this season at Chelsea, but even now, the fans still love him.
While it is undeniably true that Mourinho has only been able to succeed with a single team for two or three seasons at most, he has almost never left a club the worse for it. Porto haven’t reached the heights they did when Mourinho was there, but they continue to win league titles and are an established presence in Europe. Chelsea are one of the European elite thanks in huge part to Mourinho. Inter fell away after he left, but he left the club in a great situation; no one there wanted him to leave. Madrid won that elusive tenth Champions League the season after he left. It remains to be seen what Chelsea will do now.
And yet many people still insist on talking about the price a club has to pay for Mourinho’s brand of success. But there really doesn’t seem to be one. Not in the long term, anyway.
All of which makes the situation at Chelsea this season that much harder to evaluate. There was obviously a lot going on behind the scenes. It is clear now that some of Chelsea’s players were not fully on board with Mourinho’s management style. But that still doesn’t do enough to explain the severity of the drop off.
Again, because it bears repeating, almost the exact same set of players won the league last season. It is a very strange situation, and is likely the result of a combination of a lot of factors. Mourinho was certainly at fault, and it was hard to argue with his sacking. But the players were also at fault. So, too, was the owner. But trying to explain exactly why and what for would be little more than an exercise in speculation.
What is certain is that the situation at Chelsea this season was unique for a lot of complicated political reasons and historically unique in the context of Mourinho’s career. As far as prospective employers go, it would be wise to dwell on the two trophies he won last season than the opening to the current campaign.
But Mourinho Is A Trouble-maker
In the absence of any substantive criticism of Mourinho, his critics, and the accusations they level against him, have taken on a sort of moral tone to the effect that Mourinho is a bad manager because, essentially, he is a bad man. He is an egotistical, megalomaniac, sore loser, and he is a disgrace to the good name of whichever club he happens to be managing at the time.
This is a much more difficult claim to analyze.
Not because it isn’t true, necessarily, but because being an egotistical, megalomaniac, sore loser is pretty much par for the course as far as professional football managers go.
Van Gaal? He’s spent so much time talking about his beloved philosophy in the past season and a half that he seems to have forgotten to coach his team. Wenger? Principled, certainly, but then it took him eight trophy-less years to accept maybe sometimes his team needs to be able to defend as well as attack. Guardiola? He said recently he dreams of his team keeping 100% possession one day. Okay, Pep, sure. Whatever you say.
Alex Ferguson was a great manager—arguably the greatest manager—but if he is also a great man, there is very little evidence in his interactions with the press, toward whom he was frosty at best and a bully at worst.
Mourinho has done some bad things, worse than most. He famously poked Tito Vilanova in the eye in the aftermath of an El Clasico in 2011. And his inexplicable vilification of former Chelsea doctor Eva Carneiro earlier this season, for which he is now facing a lawsuit, feels like it might have been the beginning of the end of his second stint at Chelsea.
These were genuinely bad things, beyond the realm of petty, egotistical nonsense in which all managers should be permitted to engage. But these are not really the things people talk about when they criticize Mourinho.
Instead they talk about his whining and moaning at referees. They talk about his childish press conferences. They talk about his unwillingness to ever accept any blame. In short, they talk about the sorts of things pretty much all managers engage in.
There is a problem here, and Mourinho is a part of it, but he is more a symptom than a cause. Carneiro, for example, is filing suit against the FA as well as Mourinho. The Spanish FA never charged Mourinho for what he did to Vilanova.
Mourinho is part of a system that simply doesn’t work very well. And he is far from the worst part. The idea that any prospective employer should overlook his services on the grounds he is a bad guy is, at best, hypocritical.
Of course everyone being bad doesn’t excuse Mourinho’s being bad, but it does perhaps put the claim he is the worst, or that he in some way exemplifies all that is wrong with the modern game, into some perspective. The sad fact is he doesn’t come close.
But He Doesn’t Fit The Manchester United Way
Is Mourinho the right man for Manchester United? Well that depends. It depends on whether or not you buy the claim he is especially evil and United as a club are especially honorable.
There has been a lot of talk in recent weeks about United and tradition, about what the club means. United are an attacking club. United are not a sacking club. Maybe.
But United are a winning club, first and foremost. And the overwhelming evidence suggests Mourinho is a winning manger.
Besides, if United do decide to part ways with van Gaal (which appears increasingly like it is only a matter of time) a quick glance around at the other potential candidates isn’t exactly encouraging.
Ancelotti has announced he will replace Guardiola at Bayern. Jurgen Klopp is at Liverpool. Guardiola seems to have his sights set on Manchester City.
If Guardiola does go to City, Manuel Pellegrini will be out of a job, but it would be a brave man to make the jump from City to United. Benitez’s days are numbered Madrid, but try yelling the Old Trafford faithful he is the right man for the job, and you will probably be laughed out of the room, and with good reason.
The obvious candidate outside the usual suspects is the inside man: Ryan Giggs.
Giggs was a great player. Giggs is a United legend. Giggs may yet prove to be a great manager. But as of now his top-level experience consists of four meaningless games as United’s interim manager at the back end of the 2013/14 season and six months as an assistant to van Gaal, who is not exactly Mr. Popular among United fans right now.
Appointing Giggs would be a huge risk. Not only because he lacks any real qualifications, but also because in the not unlikely event he struggles, the club may find itself being forced to turn on one of its favorite sons.
Even from Giggs’ perspective, it would seem wise to start lower down, to gain some experience in the lower leagues or a smaller Premier League club before working his way up to the United job. There is a possibility Giggs will be good immediately, but none of the evidence suggests he will.
And then there is Mourinho, serial winner, slightly crazy, and now with a point to prove. But he plays anti-football, but he can’t develop young players, but he never lasts more than a few seasons at a single club.
But, right now, he is also the best man for the job.
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