Jose Mourinho’s recent decline has tarnished a flawless legacy

Sport

Here we are again, wondering what next for Jose Mourinho after another sacking. There was time when a club choosing to end their working relationship with the man called ‘the Special One’ was rare, but after Roma became the fifth club in succession to do so, Mourinho finds himself at a crossroads he must have never thought he’d arrive at.

As recently as 10 years ago, when Mourinho was halfway through the first season of his second spell at Chelsea, he could have claimed to have been the best manager of all time. His achievements in dominating across Europe until that point, from winning the UEFA Cup and Champions League in 2003 and 2004 at FC Porto before going on to become the first man to win league titles in England, Italy and Spain with the Blues, Inter, where he won an unprecedented treble, and Real Madrid, before going on to add another Premier League title at Stamford Bridge in 2015, still put him in the conversation. But a malaise and decline over recent years has tarnished what looked like being a flawless legacy of unbridled glory at the elite level.

There have been bright sparks, winning the Europa League with Manchester United in 2017 and the inaugural Europa Conference League with Roma in 2022. But a disastrous end to that initially heroic return at Chelsea, with the club sat in 16th place and fighting amongst themselves just months after lifting the title, both began Mourinho’s fall from grace and summed up the problems he has endured since. At every club since then, and even before, there have been stories of fall outs and arguments with players. His demeanour with the media went from being charming and charismatic when he was at his best, to edgy and prickly; as if he had a chip on his shoulder.

These things happened even when Mourinho was at his peak, but usually after he’d already created a winning team. He’d either leave of his own accord for a bigger job, wandering round Champions League celebrations with both Porto and Inter looking slightly disconnected, as if he was marking the occasion knowing Chelsea and Madrid were calling, or depart after a difficult third season of a cycle, when cracks began to show. But knowing it wouldn’t be a long-term relationship, clubs would still hire Mourinho because he was all but a guarantee of trophies and little else mattered.

Now, as the negative elements of his approach become more prominent, he is no longer a man who wins wherever he goes. There is also a school of thought that his tactics, built on defensive solidity, fast counterattacks and a merciless winning mentality that made his teams horrible to play against, are no longer relevant in a high-pressing, possession-based world. Top clubs want to be proactive, not reactive; one pattern from Mourinho’s career is he has always felt more comfortable bloodying the noses of the big, rather than taking charge of one of them.

At Real Madrid, there was an acceptance of his methods because his remit was to end the dominance of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, which he did. But he was never universally loved because he didn’t act or make his team play like Los Blancos should. He faced similar issues at Manchester United, while Guardiola got the better of him at City, but their struggles recently have perhaps altered perceptions on his time in charge at Old Trafford, particularly because he was very vocal on what he thought the issues at the club were.

It is no surprise that Mourinho himself says the only supporters he didn’t bond with were those at Tottenham Hotspur. It is hardly surprising; he was never an ideal fit for a club that had built itself an image of a long-term plan, developing young players and playing high energy football. They ditched that for Mourinho, seduced by his winning record, and then sacked him a week before a League Cup final against Manchester City, a team he had a good record of beating.

The ‘Jose Mourinho’ brand is no longer enough. When he brought his circus to town, it was tolerated, even celebrated, because he brought results. He leaves Roma as an incredibly popular figure with fans; he is worshipped in Italy generally dating back to his ‘Inter’ days. But he has again faltered in the league this season, having spent big and brought an expectation.

Working at Roma after his bruising Premier League experience was supposed to reinvigorate Mourinho. He showed he still has flashes of genius, but they increasingly come with fraught relationships, bitterness and a maddening inconsistency that suggests he may now be confirmed as yesterday’s man.

Author: Mark Hayes