The Long Game – Mourinho

“That strikes me as normal in a society that is ill”[1]

“Not every win is a gain.”[2]

It is one of the central paradoxes of sport, and football in particular: the nature of football as a contest means that we want to win, either as participants or as supporters. Yet there is a great sense of unease when the focus on the end rather than the means becomes too strong, and the higher up in football one goes the greater that unease becomes.

The case for the importance on winning above all else is often made by stressing how people “just want their names in the record books”. But this is illogical nonsense. The pure data of the results obtained in competition, even at its most detailed, is nothing next to the tomes of articles and books written about how these results were obtained and how the football in question made people feel. Once a certain threshold of achievement has been surpassed, history does not concern itself with what you won, but how you won it.

Which brings us to José Mourinho. For the first time in his career Mourinho has failed and his career trajectory, until recently rather straight, now has a noticeable kink in it. More than anyone else in the modern game, Mourinho focused on the end rather than the means. This is not a commentary on his tactics, simply a manner of highlighting the fact that Mourinho defined himself not by the kind of football he offered to the public but by the fact that he won. But as several people found themselves asking during his third year in Madrid, what does one call a winner when he does not win? This question, combined with a view of football encapsulated by those quotes at the top of the page, provokes a certain disquiet about Mourinho’s methods, all the more so when you view the situation not from the present, but from the future. How will Mourinho be remembered? How will his achievements be assessed when his career ends and in the decades that follow? Will coaches of the future cite him as a reference the way Jurgen Klopp did Arrigo Sacchi after Borussia Dortmund’s triumph over Real Madrid, or will his legacy be that of someone who took from football in the form of trophies, but did not give in terms of a significant positive contribution, tactical or otherwise. To answer a question concerning the future, we can revisit the past.

Mourinho had historical baggage from the very start of his career. His rapid ascent to the very top of European club management meant that there was an awareness very early on that this was someone who would enter the pantheon of the most successful managers, certainly of his own time and perhaps of all time. The desire to profit from Mourinho’s media-magnetism provoked countless biographies, documentaries and opinion pieces that have given us a wide range of attempts to place the Portuguese in a historical context, often by comparing him to greats of the past.

We have had Mourinho as Arrigo Sacchi, someone who had no career as a player but whose obsession with the game and desire to control the playing area allowed him to become arguably the dominant manager of his time.

We have had Mourinho as Brian Clough, a quick-witted and brilliant talker, as effective at getting the press hanging on his every word as he was at extracting the maximum from players who came to see him as a father figure.

We have had Mourinho as Helenio Herrera, a master of psychology who felt that he was wrongly accused of playing defensively by people who did not understand his system and erroneously associated his football with lesser imitations.

Most notably, we have had Mourinho as Béla Guttmann, the restless genius whose capacity for winning trophies was only matched by his ability to fall out with club administrators.

My personal favourite is Mourinho as Alf Ramsey, a formidably confident and determined individual, but overly keen on turning football into a battle and whose methods were questioned even while he was successful. The great Hugh McIlvanney, long-time sports writer for the Observer and the Sunday Times, wrote a fascinating report in response to West Germany’s 3-1 win over England in the first leg of the quarter final of the 1972 European Championship, the beginning of the end for Ramsay’s England team. Change the names and the parallels are frighteningly prescient of Mourinho’s current position and reputation in football:

“The greatest criticism to be made of Mourinho’s teams is that their really memorable performances, the days on which they overwhelmed the opposition with brilliance rather than grinding them down with dour efficiency, could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand.

It is that truth that is behind the wave of resentment which has risen from Mourinho’s failure with Real Madrid. Cautious joyless football was scarcely bearable even while it was bringing victories. When it brings defeat there can be only one reaction. Obviously, some of those who are offering the noisiest condemnation of Mourinho are being hypocritical, for they were happy enough to ride with him while the results were good.

Those of us who have always had serious misgivings about his approach have neither the need nor the desire to gloat. What is happening now we always felt to be inevitable, because anyone who sets out to prove that football is about sweat rather than inspiration, about winning rather than glory, is sure to be found out in the end.

It is as true as it is unrewarding to say that what Mourinho requires now is not a different team but a different philosophy. His method was, to be fair, justifiable with Porto, when he had more limited resources, but since then it has become an embarrassment.

Mourinho should stop sending his teams on to the football field as if they are going to war. They should start playing the game again.”

With the exception of Clough[3] all of the coaches put forward as historical equivalents of Mourinho have something in common with each other besides an impressive Palmarès: Within a few years of their greatest achievements as managers, they were considered obsolete. Either out of management entirely, no longer desired by major clubs or no longer capable of achieving results.

Just as great teams fall having become parodies of themselves, so do great managers. When taken beyond the elastic limits, the very characteristics that allow them to get to the top either lose their effectiveness or become serious flaws.

The attributes that make Mourinho the winner he is when he wins are also what make him the failure he is when he fails. These attributes were also to be found in the great managers of the past with whom Mourinho has been compared, but having seen what befell them it would not be a surprise if Mourinho’s career from this point is marked more by failures than wins.

But whether he wins or not is, in my opinion, irrelevant. It is the manner in which Mourinho wins or loses, and the football that his teams play in doing so, that will determine his long-term reputation. More significant than the trophies Mourinho takes from football, however many, is the legacy, however small, that he gives to football. Will he be a reference for the coaches of the future? Will he be held up as someone to emulate, or as a warning? The answer will probably be a bit of both. Perhaps they will possess the same drive and attention to detail, but without the abrasiveness that so defines Mourinho. And perhaps, as McIlvanney hoped, they will send their teams onto the field not to do battle, but to play football.

Bobeto

[1] The response of Juanma Lillo to Sid Lowe’s suggestion that it could be considered normal to analyse football matches by taking the result and then explaining it.

[2] Norbert Seitz’s summation of Jupp Derwall’s phenomenally successful yet widely despised West Germany side of the late 70s and early 80s, as quoted by Uli Hesse in Tor.

[3] And even Clough got nowhere near the heights of his achievements with Derby and Forest after 1981. A UEFA Cup Semi-Final, some third place League finishes and a pair of League Cups is hardly a poor return, but having set the bar so high Clough still fits the trend of (relative) decline.

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