Has football surpassed Jose Mourinho?
Jose Mourinho may still be a master tactician but his man-management skills are from a bygone era24 December 2018 | Matthew Galea
Jose Mourinho is a manager who has enjoyed near unprecedented success over the course of a magnificent managerial career, but his sacking from Manchester United is his most spectacular failure yet.
A week ago last Sunday, Mourinho's United was demolished 3-1 at Anfield by Liverpool, mustering just six shots to Liverpool's 36. Six days later, last Saturday, that same United squad, under the guidance of club legend and new caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, United dismantled Cardiff 5-1, enjoying 74% of possession, taking 17 shots with nine of those on target.
So poor was Mourinho's United – a team which he oversaw spending of over £370 million on 11 players – that his failure at the club has left many wondering if the game has left the two-time Champions League winner in its wake.
While few will argue that Manchester United's squad is equipped to compete with the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool over the course of a 38-game season, there is no denying that, for all the faults within the club and with the failure to sign a world-class centre-back, Mourinho had a squad that should have been performing far better than it was under his guidance in the Premier League.
Under Mourinho, Manchester United was routinely criticised for its lack of fluidity, defence-first focus and an inability to create clear-cut chances.
The Portuguese manager has always had a rather unfair reputation as a defence-first coach, but most of his title-winning Chelsea and Real Madrid teams were far and away the best goal scorers in their respective leagues during title-winning seasons.
United never looked anywhere near as good going forward under Mourinho as some of his previous sides, but he did build a United team that – until the current season at least – was tough to break down and defeat.
In his first season with United, Mourinho won two trophies as well as the Charity Shield and had the second best defensive record in the league despite a sixth-place finish. That season it was an incredible 15 draws which held United back.
In his second season, the introduction of Romelu Lukaku – who banked 27 goals that season – helped to turn a lot more of those draws to wins as United ascended to second in the league and their best points tally since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson. It was enough for the club to reward the manager with a new five-year deal.
On the evidence of his first two seasons, it would be hard to argue that the game has bypassed Mourinho. Even with a sub-par Manchester United, Mourinho proved he could match almost any team over 90 minutes.
The changes he made at half-time of the derby against Manchester City when United turned a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 win, show that Mourinho is still a fantastic tactician.
Despite the progress Mourinho made over his first two seasons, United completely regressed in his third, but was this regression about Mourinho's failings as a coach or a person?
From day one of the 2018-19 season, he was on a collision course with star player Paul Pogba, asking him to “understand” why he had played so well for France at the World Cup as opposed to for United. He tried to force Anthony Martial out of the club against the club's wishes, he continued to publicly criticise his players and he failed to build on the solid tactical groundwork he had made in the first two seasons.
Compounding this public showing of frustration was, as though he was unsure what his best team was, with Mourinho constantly chopping and changing his line-up and formations, switching from his preferred 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3 and then 5-3-2 set-ups.
No doubt much of these changes were to help facilitate line-ups which did not feature some of the players Mourinho had so publicly fallen out with.
Mourinho's failure at United is not so much a demonstration in football moving on tactically and stylistically from Mourinho. Instead, it shows that Mourinho's fear-before-respect style of player management is fast losing its place in the modern era amidst the ongoing rise of player power.
Today, the best managers are brilliant visionaries and astute tacticians, but they are also kings of a new style of man-management.
They understand that the modern day player is a touch more sensitive and a lot more powerful than that of generations gone past. They know when and how to criticise and when and how to praise players. They understand that making the narrative about themselves will only serve to isolate them from the very people they need to perform to succeed in their role.
In the Premier League, managers like Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, Mauricio Pochettino and even Eddie Howe have fostered strong bonds with their players and their squads – an undeniable factor in the sparkling football all of their sides are capable of playing.
Mourinho is as sharp a football brain as any of those managers. In fact, he is probably miles ahead of most of them when it comes to understanding football, understanding how to build a title-winning squad, and how to prepare for any given opponent.
At very rare times, the Manchester United which was beginning to formulate in his image was a formidable opponent.
But Mourinho's insistence on being the main story at Manchester United, his poor conduct as a club employee and his inability to foster productive relationships with his players proved his ultimate undoing.
Mourinho was rewarded for a strong start with a new contract and he repaid the club with pettiness which hurt his standing in the boardroom and further soiled his relationship with his players.
Whatever one thinks of the modern day player and their sensibilities, without their support, the manager is nothing.
Mourinho succeeded in isolating himself from a squad of players who became increasingly less convinced in his style of football and increasingly frustrated with his outrageous commentary in the media.
It is a far cry from his days as Porto manager and his first reign as Chelsea manager. Back then, a more energetic and youthful Mourinho – while every bit as exuberant – created meaningful relationships with his most important players and defended them from all sorts of criticism. His players repaid him with respect, trust and uncompromising commitment to the cause.
At United, Mourinho invited pressure and criticism on the club, hung individual players out to dry and constantly told anyone who would listen that his players – the same people he needed to perform for him to succeed – were not good enough.
It took Manchester United's caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer less than a week to give his club's players and supporters a much more optimistic outlook on the season ahead.
United resembled something like what it used to in the days of Ferguson as they ran rampant in Cardiff, smashing the Bluebirds 5-1. Early days for Solskjaer, sure, and beating Cardiff should not be anything worth writing home about for United, but no one can deny that a return to much more attack-focused game plan brought the best out of so many of the players Mourinho failed to inspire during his tenure at the club.
The game of football will always have a place for sharp minds like Mourinho, but until he re-embraces the importance of keeping his players motivated and happy and understands that respect has to be re-earned at every new club he works for, it remains to be seen if there is a dressing room ready to accommodate him.
jose mourinho, manchester united, paul pogba, ole gunnar solskjaer