“You don’t become a bad manager overnight,” said Steve McManaman of Jose Mourinho after the defeat to Watford on Sunday. Not overnight, perhaps, and not bad, maybe. But you can become a lot worse over the course of a year. Success is never guaranteed. Things change.
With only 14 wins in his last 32 games, and 14 years since his last three-game losing streak, it’s time to consider whether whatever magic Mourinho so obviously used to have in spades has simply evaporated, leaving him as just another manager who is going to screw it all up and get crushed by the Manchester United behemoth.
Perhaps he’s just not very good at managing sides that are failing. United were a long way from being champions last year. As last season proved, he’s not one to take you through a losing streak and emerge victorious. He tried everything at Chelsea to get them into winning mode and totally failed, finally slagging off the players before getting his P45. He’s already started to have a pop at Luke Shaw. How much longer before the rest of them get it in the neck, follow Chelsea’s lead and down tools?
He’s already saying players can’t handle the pressure at United, which sounds an awful lot like a confession of his own psyche, transferred to his squad. Since his Porto days, he has so little experience of failure that it looks quite obvious that he doesn’t have any psychological or practical methods in place to cope with it on anything other than an occasional basis.
Against Watford his team absolutely stank the place up and looked desperate, thrashing around just hoping something came off. But that’s not the Mourinho way. He was always someone for meticulous planning, yet if he still is, there was no evidence of it on Sunday. The whole side looks badly set up and at times, no-one appeared to know what they were supposed to be doing, nor where they were supposed to be doing it. That’s either poor planning on the manager’s behalf or it’s poor discipline by the side. Either way, it doesn’t cover Mourinho in glory. If you want the stats to back this up read Matt’s fine piece.
He certainly appears to be a man transformed from his successful incarnation. To start with, he looks utterly miserable and without the spark of excitement or devilment in his eyes. OK, there’s no fun in losing, but you can’t let it affect you so profoundly, so quickly. I mean, it’s very early in a season to lose your mojo. At times it looks as though he’s actually bored on the touchline. When all you’ve known is caviar and champagne, boiled meat puddings and tea can seem very unglamorous and unappetizing (even though most of us would prefer them).
The undoubted charisma that once radiated has very obviously been knocked out of him. He looks ordinary. Certainly, there’s no evidence he’s not. The humiliation of the Chelsea side he’d guided to a title months earlier, basically stopping playing for him and getting him the sack, can’t have been easy to take. Even the biggest, most gold-plated ego would be tarnished by that. And he must be at least a little bit worried that it might happen again.
And it’s really hard to keep being successful. Football is built on constantly shifting sands. Is he capable of changing with the times? Merely deploying the methods that made you successful previously is already showing signs of being a redundant modus operandi. Sir Alex Ferguson’s extended success was in part facilitated by the way he changed both the way he managed the side and how he managed the players. The old school shouty man gave way to a more psychologically smart man. But football moves even more quickly now.
Manchester United are so clearly malfunctioning on many levels. They look messy and unconfident. Neither of which are traits of a typical Mourinho side. The old Mourinho of 2004 would have shown no mercy to any player under-performing but, when confronted with a whole team under-performing, he already looks beaten down by it. The whole set-up against Watford seemed predicated on the idea of finding a place for Wayne Rooney to play, even though it seems to lock up the whole team, and despite the evidence that Rooney is doing his clumsy potato thing once again. The old Mourinho would have benched Rooney for being poor, straight off the bat. Not to do so looks weak and hints at his concerns that he might lose the dressing room if he alienates the club captain. Even though the side misfiring is obviously not all down to Wayne, failure to deal with the captain’s uselessness becomes both a cause of and emblematic of the same malaise. Mourinho isn’t stupid. He knows as well as we all do how bad Rooney et al are. But the blue shadow of last season’s Chelsea side is surely casting long in the Old Trafford dressing room.
Has he got the guts for the fight that dropping Rooney would necessitate? How many times do you really want to go to that well of despair, and how many times are you able to do so? It must be dispiriting. Here you are at one of the biggest clubs in world football, with a huge budget, right at the time when Pep Guardiola appears to inventing a new football cutting edge, and a whole swathe of other managers all look hungry, innovative and well-funded too. Out of Guardiola, Ronald Koeman, Mauricio Pochettino, Jurgen Klopp and Antonio Conte, Mourinho looks, by some distance, the least inspiring and most tired at the moment.
This will probably be Jose’s last club gig. There’s nowhere to go after United, no more glitter to hoover up elsewhere, except in international management and Portugal have just robbed him of the chance of being the first man to win something with them.
So this is his club swansong. It has to work, or his whole legacy will be tainted by two huge, high-profile and profound failures. And that must also be creating its own pressures for him because he knows he’s falling and he’s falling fast. Maybe he’s conveying that pressure to the team. His worries are now their worries.
Mourinho needs to plug into his 2004/2005 mentality and get hard, really bloody hard. Drop all the useless puddings, whoever they are, whatever their commercial heft is, and start playing players in their best positions. Get bloody serious. Because if he doesn’t get serious and get serious soon, this is all only going to end one way, and that way is badly. And quickly.