In the Arsenal-United game’s pre-match press conference, Jose Mourinho railed at journalists for the lack of respect they afforded him and for that given to Arsene Wenger. He rightly pointed to his impressive haul of silverware, 8 domestic titles and 2 Champions League trophies, cups notwithstanding, spread across three countries over a fifteen year period. Between 2002/03 and 2009/10 he won every league title bar one, in 2006/07. Following friction with owner Roman Abramovich he departed Chelsea in September, 2007 and didn’t contest a title in that year either.
In contrast and never one to let a dig at Wenger pass by unsaid, he implicitly drew attention to his opposite number’s twelve barren years without a league championship; the last way back in 2004, accompanied by one losing appearance in a Champions League final. He intimated that this was a very poor return for a manager at one of England’s grandest clubs. Mourinho has memorably called him a ‘specialist in failure’ and in this light it is not without merit, although context is required before passing any final judgment. The burdens associated with the building of Arsenal’s new Emirates stadium and the accompanying financial restrictions Wenger shouldered have to be placed into his credit column.
Nevertheless, the disparity between the two managers in terms of trophies is such that Mourinho has demanded equality, at the very least, in his treatment by the press; but this is somewhat disingenuous on his part, perhaps deliberately so, for he is manager of Manchester United and is aware the job carries higher expectations than the one at the Emirates. At worst it reveals a complete detachment from the reality in which the world now views him.
When he first arrived at Chelsea in 2004, he was viewed as a breath of fresh air in a Premiership made stale by the continuous domination of Arsenal and United. His wit, charm, good looks and obvious intelligence made him a press favourite, fans of all clubs warmed to his presence and his one-liners and his put-downs were enjoyed by all. He built a machine at Chelsea that went on to break the Arsenal-United duopoly and several Premiership records in the process with players that genuinely looked like they would die for him. And when he departed he did so more or less on his own terms with all those connected with Chelsea, except owner Abramovich, mortified to see him go.
But not everything was rosy during his Chelsea tenure. His frequent sparring with Wenger and Benitez were put down to a cheeky and frivolous spirit, and his constant clashes with referees and the FA were glossed over by the press as emotional Mediterranean theatrics. The outrageous treatment of Swedish referee Anders Frisk however was more difficult to ignore and probably best revealed in advance the true character of Mourinho. On sending off Didier Drogba during a Champions League game against Barcelona in 2005, Mourinho falsely accused the referee of being in cahoots with Barcelona. Frisk subsequently received death threats and was forced to retire from the game, and an unrepentant Mourinho received a touchline suspension for the next round. This incident for the first time showed the dark and perhaps true side to Mourinho’s nature.
The years spent in Italy and Spain did not see him so well received—his humour was not appreciated abroad and he was seen as an egocentric character. Thus far his eloquence allowed him to control the press but at Madrid vested interests ensured he was unable to manage the narrative as before. He engaged in bruising battles with his own players, Ronaldo was publicly rebuked on more than one occasion, but the real damage was inflicted during his conflict with Madrid legends Casillas and Ramos. In dropping the first and quarrelling with the second, Madridistas were quick to turn on him. Mourinho soon found himself isolated at a club still suspicious of his Barcelona roots. He did break the Barcelona stranglehold on La Liga, however, he failed to achieve the prize for which he was signed for, the Decima, their tenth Champions league title, and the powers at Madrid decided he was detrimental to the cause.
On leaving Madrid, Mourinho returned to a rapturous welcome at his spiritual home Chelsea, but this time he arrived the old warrior, cantankerous and greying, not the fresh faced cavalier of times gone by. And it was noted that apart from the trophies, he had failed to build any sort of legacy or structure at the clubs he managed. Nor did he tend to stay anywhere beyond three years. In hindsight, this can be explained by his aggressive personality, one that rubs everyone up the wrong way and the three year rule can be regarded, at least with Madrid and his earlier stay at Chelsea, as the time it takes for him to annoy those in charge.
The eye-poking episode with Tito Vilanova and clashes with absolutely everyone had dealt severe blows to his image, especially within the UK press, which he arguably cherished more than any other. They were already re-appraising him from afar. On returning to England, the press were noticeably less forgiving and quicker to condemn Mourinho. The ground had shifted beneath him and Mourinho was unaware of how much it had. This hit home very quickly during the Eva Carneiro episode.
The incident itself was very straightforward. Drawing 2-2 at Swansea, Eden Hazard was tripped and fell injured in the final moments of the game. Already down to ten men following an earlier dismissal Mourinho was concerned that Chelsea might be reduced to nine if the game resumed with the referee requiring Hazard to be treated on the side of the pitch. Feeling that the injury was not serious Mourinho was aghast when his medical team, including Dr. Carneiro, ran on the pitch to treat Hazard. Perhaps not realising that the referee had instructed the medics to come on he proceeded to blow his top. He was heard to swear at the doctors and later questioned their game knowledge suggesting they were not qualified to provide medical assistance for a football team.
On being made aware that the doctors were actually called on by the referee, Mourinho remained unrepentant. Instead of apologising as publicly as he had berated Dr. Carneiro, he chose to effectively sack her instead. The obvious injustice fuelled a backlash in the press and public. The players, whom it must be noted didn’t feel beholden to Mourinho as the earlier generation once did, were allegedly far from happy with their manager’s behaviour whilst the board stayed, to their shame, ominously silent.
What this episode did in terms of Mourinho’s image was unmask the nasty streak in his nature once more, but, this time, there would be no glossing over his unpleasantness, and an unravelling of the man soon followed. The Carneiro incident seemed to put Chelsea under a spell, and for no obvious reason they found themselves unable to win a game. Mourinho tried different approaches to fix the problems but nothing appeared to work and Mourinho began to turn on his players in the most remarkable way.
Public criticism of players is the nuclear option for all managers and Mourinho amply demonstrated why. In doing so he quickly lost the dressing room, and players who had lit up the previous title winning season like Hazard and Costa became shells of their former selves. Referees and officials didn’t escape censure either, but, this time, the English press didn’t give Mourinho the benefit of the doubt. They sensed vulnerability and did what they always do…go for Mourinho’s jugular. The final straw for Abramovich came when Mourinho accused the players of ‘betraying his work’. Alarmed at the disintegration of his manager the owner chose to side with his players, they would have been more expensive to replace, and sacked Mourinho who left beaten and bedraggled, a shadow of his former self.
Today, whether Mourinho realises it or not, he is no longer the darling of English football. The press will, of course, follow his every word, he is still Mourinho and manager of Manchester United; but, this time, they will not swallow everything he throws at them without question. His one-liners and put downs have become stale, his mind games are transparent, his accusations and histrionics are expected and his excuses thin. Even his fabled powers of coaching appear to be deserting him and he is now becoming subject to the traditional laws of management; that his reputation will rise and fall only with the position his team occupies in the league table.
So, when he complained during the post-match press conference (following Arsenal’s snatching of an unlikely equaliser at Old Trafford) that ‘Manchester United are the unluckiest team in the Premiership and everybody knows it’, it fell on deaf ears. How much sympathy does the richest club in England deserve? Most fans would say not much. Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool could have said the same thing following his side’s failure to win at Southampton, but he chose not to. You will not hear Arsene Wenger spend much time or capital bemoaning bad luck at Arsenal either. He also chose not to respond to Mourinho’s pre-match dig at the lack of respect issue when given the chance, hence the respect he receives from the press that Mourinho yearns for. It is a genuine one that has been built through years of carrying himself with dignity and has nothing at all to do with the size of his trophy cabinet; a point Mourinho spectacularly fails to understand.
It is no wonder that the biggest concerns Manchester United had when appointing Mourinho had more to do with his personality than football—that he has a tendency to become the story at the expense of the club. If he doesn’t apply his undoubted coaching skills to managing United out of the mess that they find themselves in, history will repeat itself. As Madrid discovered, he was more hassle than he was worth and if he doesn’t pick United up soon the Glazers will surely arrive at the same conclusion sooner rather than later. They are a club who, for financial reasons, are more concerned with their image than others, like Real Madrid for example, might be.
Manchester United probably represents Mourinho’s last chance at a club that matches his ego and stature. There was no rush for his signature following his exit from Chelsea, and even then United displayed no haste in acquiring him as manager. If you think about it, there are few places left for him to go to. Given the feeling against him at Liverpool and Arsenal he is unlikely to ever manage there, ditto Barcelona, Man City have Pep and are unlikely to hire a former United manager, Chelsea and Madrid are in his rear-view now, the board at Munich have publicly stated their own distaste for him leaving just the Italian clubs and PSG—footballing backwaters to a man like Mourinho.