The world is currently on lockdown, Covid-19 is wreaking havoc and making a mockery of all the things in society we considered important, including football.
One of the more surprising aspects of living in what is effectively quarantine, is just how many people are willing to break protocol, despite the genuine threat to life.
Less surprising however, is that José Mourinho is one of those found to be flouting the rules. After all, he is Mourinho, ‘The Special One’. The man who has made a career out of rubbing people up the wrong way, the one who revels in ignoring the norms and rebelling against the machine.
It might be a cynical thought, but it is hard to look at the videos and images of Mourinho conducting training with a select few members of the Tottenham Hotspur squad (in a public park no less) and not think of it all as a publicity stunt. Since he took the Premier League by storm when he was appointed manager of Chelsea in 2004, he has been a regular fixture on the back (and front) pages of British newspapers. Even when jobless or working overseas, he is still someone who the media in Britain love to provide constant updates on. Right now, however, he has been rather usurped by Covid -19.
Two decades on from landing in British football, Mourinho remains an enigmatic and divisive figure in world football, but we’re still obsessed with him. Narrative follows him wherever he goes, even if there is no story, he is the story.
While still an incredibly talented manager, it is clear that he no longer operates at the peak of his managerial ability anymore. His powers are waning, which is why him being offered a chance to prove himself again in the modern game at the Tottenham Hotspur stadium was so intriguing. From the outside, there wasn’t much sense behind the appointment. His time at United was rife with controversy and deemed a general failure, despite the smattering of trophies he did manage to pick up. A major issue was his relationship with the players, namely the younger recruits in the squad such as Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial. Mourinho seems to have trouble connecting with millennials but to be fair, he has never really been a manager known for bringing through youth players.
During his time as a manager he has become famous for his consistency and by this we of course mean the Mourinho cycle; Lasting 3 seasons at a club, with his second being the most successful and then subsequently seeing the third season collapse in an explosive manner.
Again, it’s not such a surprise to see that the Mourinho cycle seems to be happening all over again at Tottenham, albeit in a shorter amount of time. It didn’t take him long to declare unhappiness with Daniel Levy’s transfer activity and it took a matter of weeks for him to identify the player he would attempt to publicly lambaste on a regular basis. At United it was Luke Shaw, with Tottenham it’s Tanguy Ndombele.
It begs the question, why do English clubs keeping going back to Mourinho?
As Rory Smith details in the New York Times, it might be down to what the Portuguese manager represents.
“Mourinho bridges the divide between the old conception of what a manager should be — an omniscient potentate, his fingerprints on every aspect of day-to-day life at a club, not answerable to a sporting director or a recruitment committee — and the more modern vision of what one should look like: handsome, charismatic, all brooding intensity.”
He is that bridge between what managers used to be and what they are now, he also helped shape the Premier League into becoming the global behemoth it is now. Much like Jürgen Klinsmann was the player that changed the way English football clubs conducted their transfer business, Mourinho was the manager that changed how clubs recruited managers in Britain.
Before Mourinho, championship winning managers in England hailed almost exclusively from Scotland and England, with the sole outlier being the Frenchman Monsieur Arsène Wenger, interestingly one of Mourinho’s nemeses in Britain. Hard not to think that this was because Wenger was the first non-Brit to win a championship in England, something the ego-maniac Mourinho would love to have on his own CV.
But after Mourinho, managers from Spain, Chile and four different Italians were all added to the list of Premier League winning champions, and barring any Coronavirus related cancellations, you can add a German to that list in the form of Jürgen Klopp.
Mourinho wasn’t the first by a long shot, but his arrival in Britain came at a time when the Premier League was starting to become blockbuster. He was every inch the European stereotype British people expected, all ego and arrogance, the total opposite of the scholarly Wenger. Would the English top-flight be the Hollywood-esque machine it is today without Mourinho? Almost definitely yes, but the Portuguese man helped birth what football in Britain is like today, he is one of the most influential managers to ply his trade in Britain.
Which is why we are still so obsessed with him. And simultaneously why he continues to ruin his own legacy.
His descent into petulance sullies his reputation, we start to forget just how magnetic he was in his heyday. Sprinting down the touchline at Old Trafford after Porto had beaten Manchester United, celebrating with Inter fans post-scuffle with Victor Valdes after masterminding an iconic victory over Barcelona en route to an incredible treble or even inventing the park-the-bus tactics to deny Liverpool a first title in 20 years.
The media’s obsession with Mourinho is almost a subliminal ode to just how influential he was at his peak. He helped create the box- office we all know and love.
It’s even weirder to think how his entire perception on these shores came from a mistranslation, or at least misreporting.
His moniker, his entire personality in Britain came from his announcement of being “The Special One”, when in fact what he said was “I am a special one”. A subtle if not unimportant distinction, whether it was a mistranslation or simply not what he meant to say, there is a certain irony that his entire persona is derived from a misquote. And in Britain, the home of sensationalist reporting, it makes a whole lot more sense.
An argument can be made for that press conference of Mourinho’s unveiling on 2 June 2004 being one of the most important things to happen in the history of British football and the Premier League.
The reality is that he is a manager on the decline, unable to adapt to the more modern demands of football or even the newer tactics that develop as players become more athletic as Simon Kuper puts in The Financial Times:
“But the problem for pioneers is that football keeps moving on. It is reinvented every week, as the best teams learn from each other and players’ physical capacities advance. When Mourinho started out, clubs still worried about players drinking too much alcohol. A decade on, they had upgraded to worrying about players drinking too much dehydrating espresso. Medical treatments have also improved. Clubs measure their players’ sleep, and their every movement in training, and give each player a daily schedule tailored to his needs. The result is a new model footballer, a bodybuilder crossed with a sprinter.”
Football has quite literally gotten quicker, leaving managers like Mourinho in the dust. He has been the ultimate pragmatist in football. Despite the ludicrously conservative formation during his in Greater Manchester, he is thought of as a defensive coach which isn’t entirely accurate (think of that marauding Chelsea team for the two seasons between 2004 and 2006), but he hasn’t been able to adapt to the constantly evolving ace of football like other examples of pragmatism, like Fernando Santos or Max Allegri.
All the signs point to his time at Tottenham being as miserable and dour as his time at United, maybe Tottenham fans won’t care, especially if he can do what Pochettino couldn’t and deliver a trophy, any kind of trophy.
There is a sense of finality about the Portuguese manager, a man who knows he’s slightly past his best but continues to fight against the tide. His negativity can be exhausting and the spikiness that seems to increase each year has seen him become an island in football, no longer accompanied by his most faithful of companions in Rui Faria. Together they were two peas in a teeth-gratingly abrasive pod.
Whatever your thoughts on Mourinho now, no one can argue the impact he has had on the world of football. He is the man who delivered a Champions League to Porto and “a special one” who practically transformed the Premier League overnight. He is the only manager to be referred to as a Galáctico while breaking the Guardiola machine and recording the most goals scored in a season at Real Madrid. And let’s not forget his greatest achievement, winning the treble with Inter Milan delivering some of the great tactical performances of the 21st century.
Mourinho’s influence on football is almost immeasurable.
His relationship with the media might have soured since his tumultuous time at Real Madrid but he is still someone who loves to hog the spotlight. Whether he turns out to be a success at Tottenham remains to be seen, one thing we can be sure of though is that our collective obsession remains; The story of his Tottenham tenure will play out on the back pages of Britain’s newspapers.