Jim White

Jose Mourinho: he’s still very, very special

Jim White

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Never mind the historical revisionism currently coming out of Real Madrid, never mind the withering, lofty contempt of the Barcelona hierarchy who dismiss him as “a disaster for football”, never mind the fact Manchester United preferred not to take up the opportunity to further his career, of this there can be no doubt: Chelsea have signed themselves a brilliant manager in Jose Mourinho.

Mind, you might not appreciate that given some of the things that are being written about him. The new theory about Mourinho is that he is a busted flush. Writing in the Daily Mail, John Carlin, the English language voice of Real Madrid, insisted Mourinho had been exposed at the Bernabeu as an emperor devoid of clothing. Not just a bully and an agent provocateur, but a fraud.

Which, as anyone who witnessed what happened at Old Trafford on 5 March this year will appreciate, is utter nonsense.

That night in the Champions League, Mourinho demonstrated why he has lost none of his managerial mojo. It went like this: when Nani was sent off, Sir Alex Ferguson flew into a rage, storming down the steps of the dug out to deliver a torrent of abuse at the officials. While his opposite number ranted, Mourinho quickly assessed what difference the dismissal would make to the game. Now must of us would not think the presence or otherwise of Nani would have that much tactical influence. That’s why we are not paid £7million a year to manage a top club.

Mourinho immediately saw that United would now be exposed on their left side. So he quickly sent on his substitute Luca Modric with the instruction to run with the ball into the spaces opened up by the Portuguese winger’s departure. It worked to perfection: Modric was like a can opener applied to United’s defence, scoring a belting goal.

It took me nearly 24 hours to work out what had happened. Mourinho did it instantly. And as a result, he won the game. I’m pretty convinced that when his autobiography is launched in October, Ferguson will admit that his sense of failure after that match was a contributing factor in his decision to retire at the season’s end. That night he felt out-flanked, out-foxed and out-witted. Which was an experience rare in his managerial career.

That is what great managers do: they win matches with their thinking. And Mourinho remains one of the best in the game at that. Whatever the claims coming from Madrid, as that March night proved, his power has shown no signs of diminishment.

Sure, he did not have the best of seasons this year in Spain. Winning nothing in a season is not something he has before endured in a career of unrelenting accumulation of trophies. The splits in the dressing room, too, have been unusual for a manager who has always fomented the most extraordinary team spirit. But as Alvaro Arbeloa suggested, the fact that Mourinho had won things at every other club he has managed reflects rather badly on the most talented squad he has ever worked with. Maybe the Madrid players should take a little of the responsibility for their season of indifference.

Splits, rifts, rows: sure, they happened under his watch, sure they were often driven by him. But they are not symptoms of decline. Every career, even one apparently on a perpetual upward trajectory such as his, can stall. But they can be re-started as quickly as they stopped.
Indeed, rather than suggesting Chelsea have bought themselves a busted flush, it could be argued that the timing of Roman Abramovich’s little bit of managerial recruitment is perfect.

Just as Manchester United and Manchester City, the two clubs who have recently moved away from Chelsea at the top of the Premier League, are bedding in new managers, the Russian owner is bringing in someone who needs no introductions, some utterly familiar with his new place of work, someone whose feet will slip comfortably once more under the table.

Someone, moreover, with a bit of a point to prove. Mourinho does not want his career to be defined by the relative lack of success at the Bernabeu (though he would doubtless remind John Carlin that he did win La Liga last season, ensuring a clean sweep of domestic league titles with every club he has ever managed). He would like to deliver another Premier League win. He would like to join Bob Paisley as a three time winner of the European Cup. His list of ambitions is not even close to exhaustion. The idea he is no longer hungry is frankly laughable.

Not that it will be easy at Chelsea. For a start, the Praetorian guard of players he constructed which has driven so much of the last decade of triumph is coming to the end of its effectiveness. And this is a club where, largely thanks to the trophy success he set in train, expectation has grown exponentially. It is a club, moreover, still dominated by a capricious, impatient owner. There is every chance even serial success will not prevent this second marriage ending in divorce long before its four year term has elapsed.

That is the risk he has taken on. But one thing is certain six weeks before the season begins: he has the credentials to win. Because whatever they are now saying in Spain, Jose Mourinho remains a superb football manager.

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