There was a time when Jose Mourinho was famed for fostering a siege mentality within his football clubs in much the same way as the great Sir Alex Ferguson. Just as the legendary Scot refused to air Manchester United’s dirty linen in public, Mourinho would blame anything and everything for missteps made on the pitch, so long as it kept his players and staff out of the firing line.
However, in recent times, there has been a significant shift in that approach. No longer does a Mourinho club benefit from the Portuguese’s desire to protect those around him, and where once there would be fingers pointed at referees, governing bodies, buses and omelettes, there are now offensives aimed squarely at those sharing the corridors with him.
It was perhaps natural that in his managerial infancy he should look to form a unit in order to generate extraordinary achievements from standard tools. At Porto, he was able to win a Champions League title with a group of unfancied players at a time when he was a virtual unknown beyond the clubs with which he’d served his apprenticeship as a translator and then a coach.
“Back then, Mourinho was ahead of the other managers. He brought a mentality to the Portuguese players that didn’t exist, which was believing that they could win important things,” ex-Porto midfielder Deco told FourFourTwo.
“It was very good to have Mourinho in the beginning of his career – he had so much to teach, and we also learned a lot. It was a phase in which he could help every player, value everyone and, consequently, he valued himself too.”
That grounding was something he took with him to Chelsea in 2004, with the Blues looking to become a European giant under rich new ownership a full 50 years on from their only previous league title.
In forming unbreakable bonds with John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba, in particular, he was able to replicate the trust between manager and squad which had been such a highlight of his spell at Porto and he did everything he could to publicly deflect even the slightest criticism away from his players.
It was only his difficulties with his employer Roman Abramovich which saw his first spell at Stamford Bridge curtailed after two Premier League successes, and when he built a third winning machine at Inter, it was commonly accepted that Mourinho had found a formula which would serve him well wherever he went.
For many, the night in Madrid when Inter beat Bayern Munich to clinch the European title will be best remembered for his sobbing embrace with Marco Materazzi in the Bernabeu car park after the game. As the reality of his impending exit for Real Madrid was being absorbed, Mourinho and his third-choice centre-back shared a moment which exemplified the bond he had formed with everyone at the club.
“He showed he was willing to die for us, just like a father or an older brother would,” Materazzi would later explain. “And when I say ‘us’, I don’t just mean the players who played regularly but also those who were not in the XI such as myself, a substitute. He was the leader of a family which was ready to face everything and everyone.”
But perhaps that moment with Materazzi marked a turning point in Mourinho’s career. In taking up the manager’s job at Real Madrid soon after, he was morphing into a man who could only truly take up a role at a leading club, and the trick of rallying players around him for the task of overcoming the odds might have to be foregone for a new approach.
At Madrid, he found it harder to convince people that his way was the only way, with most players having arrived at the club used to the smell of success. It was a new phenomenon in Mourinho’s coaching odyssey and one he failed to keep a lid on even after a record-breaking points haul on the way to the 2011-12 Liga title.
It was then that he faced his first mutiny, with the dressing room quickly becoming a toxic environment as he sought to win a battle of personalities with club stalwart Iker Casillas. Publicising his disappointment in the likes of Sergio Ramos only made things more difficult, and he also lost the support of staunch ally Pepe with his decision to exile Casillas in favour of Diego Lopez.
When Mourinho blasted in a press conference that “Pepe has a problem, and his name is Raphael Varane,” pointing to a competition for the defender’s previously unquestioned spot in the first team, he was treading on dodgy ground. Far from rallying players around him, he was now giving them every reason to be suspicious of him.
After the Madrid experiment was concluded and he returned to Chelsea, it was expected that he would find himself back in warmer company. But after another Premier League title success in 2014-15, he walked straight into a buzz saw on the opening day of the following season.
In publicly vilifying medical staff Jon Fearn and Eva Carneiro, Mourinho had crossed the line in the minds of many players. Far from being on the periphery of the first-team group, Fearn and Carneiro were considered as a key part of the unit and the manager’s decision not to let the matter drop only made matters worse.
Mourinho was attempting to prove that he was the man in charge rather than looking to foster the belief in him which had made his early managerial appointments so memorable. Chelsea were no longer the club of 2004, desperate for success and ready to follow Mourinho on whichever path he took them, and he was no longer the fresh-faced unscarred ‘Special One’ coming straight off the back of a European crown.
By the autumn, his team was struggling and the irreparable damage in the dressing room was reminiscent of what he had cultivated in Madrid. This time around it was Cesc Fabregas who led the revolt, with many of the players feeling restricted by their manager’s tactics when they trusted themselves to be both successful and expressive rather than one or the other. Mourinho’s final post-match interview as Chelsea manager was telling.
“I feel my work is betrayed,” he said after the 2-1 loss at Leicester in December 2015 which would be his last game in charge before a second Blues sacking. “I worked four days in training for this match. I identified four movements where Leicester score a lot of their goals and in two of the four situations I identified, they scored their goals. I went through it all with the players; you can ask them.”
Nemanja Matic was said to be another key adversary in that Chelsea dressing room, but the Serb has come back for more of Mourinho this season after his £40 million move from Stamford Bridge in the summer. The midfielder may have felt a sense of déjà vu after the recent defeat to Huddersfield Town when his manager took his incredulity at the team’s performance into the public arena.
“I don’t even remember a friendly match where our attitude was so poor,” he said. “I heard Ander Herrera in his flash interview saying the attitude and desire was poor. Oh my God! When a player says that, or a player feels that, I think they should all go to the press conference and explain why – because I cannot explain that.”
Having already spoken publicly of his dissatisfaction with the performances of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Luke Shaw among others since arriving in Manchester, this is clearly no longer the Mourinho of the past. There is a very distinct difference in the way he handles his players in the public arena compared to those early years as a manager.
The players used to be an extension of himself, something to defend with his life, but now they are spoken of as another external factor Mourinho is unable to control.
On Sunday, he takes his United side to Chelsea needing his team to perform as a unit and attain a hugely valuable three points in their bid to stay with Manchester City at the top of the table. But with the impenetrability of a Mourinho group being a thing of the past, can he find a new way to develop a title-winning harmony within his squad?