Some call it the difficult third album syndrome. Legendary Hungarian Coach Bela Guttman said ‘the third season is fatal’ for a manager. Jose Mourinho is the living embodiment of the issues associated with a long-term club tenure, if indeed we can call three years that in a Premier League where Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger were on the same bench for decades.
It makes more sense in Serie A, where three years can be treated as a dynasty and anything longer positively freakish. If you work for a club like Palermo or Genoa, six months is impressive. Yet Mourinho is, in this if not much else nowadays, Special.
The Portuguese tactician has reached the third season at Chelsea twice, with Real Madrid in-between, and it has gone horribly wrong at this stage in all three of them. Perhaps it is because once you enter the third year of the building process, it’s difficult to argue that you’re on track when there are no real foundations to show for all that supposed work.
Mourinho is not a builder, he is a demolition crew who smiles as he watches others crumble. This is reflected in his attitude on and off the pitch, where the tactics are all about stopping the other team from playing rather than making the most of their own qualities. His Press conferences are surly, bitter exercises in recrimination against everyone and everything, an odd combination of self-aggrandizement and self-pity. Above all, he has lapsed into self-parody and doesn’t even know it.
There must be many reasons why Mourinho always finds himself in this situation once the clock ticks over into a third campaign. He can only sustain his trademark siege mentality for so long before it becomes exhausting for all involved, both those on the inside in a perpetual state of tension and the supposed list of ‘enemies’ who just roll their eyes at him after a while, letting him rage like a toddler who will eventually tire himself out.
Mou always prided himself on being more than a psychologist and media wrangler than he was a Coach, but is too wrapped up in his own hype. He always was, of course – who nicknames themselves The Special One? – but the difference now is that the media and players have stopped finding the rampant egotism fun and instead see it as pitiful.
You can only get away with that sort of comically over-the-top arrogance if you can back it up with results. Since the 2011-12 campaign at Real Madrid, Mourinho has won only one Premier League title, two League Cups and Europa League. All this after spending huge amounts of money on players at clubs that are certainly not minnows. The old routine of saying everyone is against you doesn’t really work at the biggest side in the country. It hit a chord at Inter, the eternal conspiracy theorists of Italy, and to a smaller degree Real Madrid, who see themselves as the ugly stepsister to Barcelona’s Homecoming Queen. Manchester United can’t wear that underdog badge, especially not when compared to their City rivals.
Above all, the former Porto, Chelsea, Inter and Real Madrid boss has been picking the wrong battles. It’s far easier to sack a Coach than a player who cost over $100m and brings in more millions in sponsorships and social media connections. Paul Pogba might need poking and prodding to get him to work harder, but a Coach must be able to show he’s going to improve the player too. Mourinho’s football improves nobody, it just makes them more defensive and negative than they otherwise would be. The Mou doctrine was about forging a tight band of brothers who would go into war together, not let off a grenade inside the locker room every week.
Antonio Conte was running into much the same problem at Chelsea. Like Mourinho, he had increasingly become a dictator to his team, focusing on victory at all costs, regardless of the style, forgetting that no matter how well-paid a player may be, he still has to enjoy his work if he is to thrive. The fans and the media, too, are part of a multi-billion-dollar industry that relies on the general public paying to watch games. It is part sport, part entertainment industry, and the two elements are both absolutely crucial. Even club owners like Roman Abramovich want to see all the money they shell out on players turned into something worth watching. If we are to treat football as theatre, as an art form, then we want to be entertained and those creating it must acknowledge the audience is an integral part of that.
When there are artists of the sport like Pep Guardiola and Maurizio Sarri, it’s difficult to go back to the dull displays of the past. Mourinho has been left behind and rather than adapt to the modern game, he prefers to double down on rage and distraction tactics. He’s just helping to remove the last vestiges of credibility.