José Mourinho is a manager who thrives on conflict, someone who is never happy unless there is something to be unhappy about. Or at least to pretend to be unhappy about. “Mourinho,” as Manchester City’s chief executive, Ferran Soriano, said when explaining why Barcelona opted for Pep Guardiola in 2008, “is a winner, but in order to win he guarantees a level of tension that becomes a problem.”
Tension is simply how he operates. If it isn’t there, he has to create it and he isn’t too bothered whom he hurts in doing so. One of the problems in discussing Mourinho is that his reputation for manipulation means you have to keep stopping and asking yourself: “Or is that what he wants me to think?” No one doubts the majority of what happens in his press conferences is carefully planned, designed to have an effect.
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The season is three games old (if you count the Community Shield) and already Mourinho has created three furores. First there was there was another episode of Handshakegate, which in its inexplicable longevity has become the Premier League’s version of Last of the Summer Wine.
Then there was the haranguing and suspension of Eva Carneiro and Jon Fearn, in which Mourinho’s motivations remain obscure. It surely went beyond his usual deflection tactics. Perhaps he felt a sacrifice was useful to shake everyone up, to make clear no one is safe from the wrath of José. Perhaps he was just lashing out at a convenient target.
Then there was the substitution of John Terry against Manchester City which, whatever tactical justifications there were for adding the pace of Kurt Zouma, had a symbolic quality – and one of which Mourinho, as keenly attuned to such things as anyone in modern football, must have been aware; after all, it’s not the first time he has done something similar.
At Real Madrid, Mourinho picked a fight with the popular young winger Pedro León after a game at Levante in September 2010, seemingly just to create an atmosphere of uncertainty and prevent complacency setting in. But the more pertinent precedent perhaps comes from the beginning of Mourinho’s career, when he had been at Porto only a month.
In September 2002, Vítor Baía was the leader of Porto. He was 32, he had won seven league titles, he had played for Barcelona and he was the national team goalkeeper. Provoked by Mourinho, he became involved in a training-ground row. To his shock, Baía found himself suspended from all club activities for a month. “That was the turning point in his career,” Baía said. “He was very young and wanted to make a statement – and he did it.
“We had a great relationship, because we had been together at Porto with Bobby Robson, then for three years in Barcelona, with him always as assistant coach, but when he arrived at Porto he wanted to show everyone who was the boss: friends off the pitch, players on it. Performance was what counted, not relationships, so I was not in the best form and was chosen as an example: I was his statement. I was not pleased at the time. Today, after many conversations with him and the assistant coaches from the time, and some players, I know it was all a plan. Everyone knew how to react to me, how to speak to me, everyone was ready. After the month of suspension José welcomed me back with a big hug and I was straight back into the first team.”
These days Mourinho has no need to make clear who’s boss, no need to demonstrate his authority but substituting Terry was perhaps similar to banning Baía in that it reinforced the message that no one is too big, no one too iconic, nobody too close to Mourinho to be safe. (Perhaps Mourinho even justified his decision to Terry by telling him he was the only one big enough to make the statement he wanted to make).
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It is possible Mourinho just thought Terry was not playing very well – although he either could not or would not explain why he had replaced him rather than Gary Cahill – but after playing his Machiavellian games for so long, he can hardly complain if it is assumed there was an ulterior motive, whether that was to signal to Roman Abramovich that he really needs John Stones pour encourager les autres.
The risk is that the machinations become wearing. The level of tension of which Soriano wrote seems to become a particular problem in his third season at a club, as though players, directors and other staff can stomach his antics for two years but no more. Only twice before – in his first stint at Chelsea and then at Rea – has his reign lasted into a third year, and in both cases it ended in rancour.
Perhaps in May Mourinho will be brandishing the Champions League trophy at the San Siro stands that never really warmed to him and we will be praising his ruthlessness in taking big and controversial decisions in August – just as banning Baía began a two-year run of success that brought two league titles, a Uefa Cup and the Champions League at Porto – but at the moment this feels worryingly like the old pattern repeating.
As the irascible and brilliant Hungarian coach Bela Guttmann, a man to whom Mourinho has often been compared, once observed, “the third year is fatal”.
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