It’s tempting to blame José Mourinho’s personality for his sacking by Manchester United on Tuesday. Certainly any football manager who keeps belittling his players in public will not last long.
In fact, though, Mourinho’s failure — United are sixth in the English Premier League, 19 points behind leaders Liverpool — is more in the realm of ideas. The Portuguese has proven an ancient rule of football management: pioneers get surpassed. He may now struggle to renew himself.
Mourinho never played professional football. Instead, he spent 15 years studying the game. He worked out how to close down space, and then counterattack through his opponents’ weak spots.
After he became a manager in 2000, nobody did it better than his teams. He unveiled all his new ideas in his early years with Porto and Chelsea. His mantra was: “If you have a Ferrari and I have a small car, to beat you in a race I have to break your wheel or put sugar in your tank.”
In his first decade in management, his match-for-match winning record was almost unrivalled in football history. He won two Uefa Champions Leagues, Europe’s premier club tournament, plus league titles in four countries, and once went nine years unbeaten in home league games. He and arch-rival Pep Guardiola became the two model managers. Mourinho incarnated defence, Guardiola attack.
But the problem for pioneers is that football keeps moving on. It is reinvented every week, as the best teams learn from each other and players’ physical capacities advance. When Mourinho started out, clubs still worried about players drinking too much alcohol. A decade on, they had upgraded to worrying about players drinking too much dehydrating espresso.
Medical treatments have also improved. Clubs measure their players’ sleep, and their every movement in training, and give each player a daily schedule tailored to his needs. The result is a new model footballer, a bodybuilder crossed with a sprinter.
The post-Mourinho pioneers — notably Jürgen Klopp, now manager of Liverpool — used these evolutions to create a new style. It’s conventionally called pressing: teams try to win back the ball the instant they lose it. And pressing has speeded up conspicuously in the past two years.
Guardiola managed to integrate the new methods. After a brilliant pioneering phase at Barcelona, he quit in 2012, because, he said: “I was on my knees and had no new tactical ideas left.” He took a year’s sabbatical in New York, where he borrowed ideas from everyone from movie director Woody Allen to chess champion Garry Kasparov.
Then, at Bayern Munich, he didn’t simply introduce his own thinking but also learned from high-paced German football. Now, at Manchester City, he is a leader of the pressing movement.
But Mourinho never seemed to want to renew himself, either in his last posting at Chelsea or at United. The Manchester club gave him a Ferrari of his own: about £370m to spend on transfers, and English football’s highest wage bill. United’s average first-team player wage last season was £6.5m, ahead of City’s £6m, and well clear of Liverpool’s £4.9m, according to the website Sporting Intelligence.
Wage bills are the best predictor of league positions: typically, the highest-paying team finishes top. Mourinho’s United had a strong first season, but then disappointed because their tactics had become outdated.
One of Mourinho’s many bon mots was about “parking the bus” defensively in front of goal. At United, he mostly kept his Ferrari parked. As of last April his team had covered an average of just 106km per league game that season, the lowest in the Premier League. Top were Liverpool and City, with 116.9km and 115.0km respectively. And this season United’s players have made fewer sprints than counterparts at two-thirds of the Premier League teams.
Mourinho’s penchant for bruisers — United are now the league’s tallest team — stopped paying off in an unprecedentedly mobile age. In his pioneering days, he had prioritised winning over entertainment. His United offered neither.
In defeat, his personality flaws came to the fore. A Machiavellian and a narcissist had always battled for his soul. Unable to cope with failure, he let the narcissist win. In top-level sport only today matters, yet after United’s elimination from the Champions League last spring he boasted about having won the trophy with Porto 14 years earlier.
Whereas Mourinho used to blame his rare defeats on referees, or conspiracies, in his previous stint at Chelsea and now at United he blamed his players. Last month he accused youngsters Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and Luke Shaw of “lacking maturity”, then delivered a good-old-days sermon about “spoilt kids”. He made repeated digs at individuals, including his most expensive signing, the £89m Paul Pogba, and even took a swipe at the entire squad: “We are not as good individually as people think we are.”
After his final game as United boss, Sunday’s 3-1 defeat to Liverpool, he eulogised the opponents’ physical qualities, singling out several players by name: “I am still tired just looking at [full-back Andy] Robertson. He makes 100-metre sprints every minute, absolutely incredible.” But then Mourinho rarely wanted his full-backs to make 100-metre sprints.
He kept Pogba on the bench that match. After Mourinho’s sacking, the Frenchman tweeted a picture of himself apparently smiling cryptically, then hastily deleted it.
The role of psychology in football is often exaggerated, but Mourinho will have known the risks of undermining his own staff. He will also have known that when a club has to choose between a squad that cost several hundred million and a considerably cheaper manager, the decision is easy. But he apparently could not help himself: having built his entire self-image on winning, he seemed to prefer to be sacked than accept responsibility for losing.
It’s not clear he can recover. In 2004, when Alex Ferguson celebrated his 1,000th match as United manager, the young Mourinho mused: “A thousand games [for me] — nah. I will be in the Algarve before then. At 55, Algarve for sure.” He is 55 now.