When Jose Mourinho arrived at Chelsea in 2004 and proclaimed, “I think I am a special one” he hadn’t seemed to realise the half of it. His Stamford Bridge unveiling came at a time when he was European champion and had also led Porto to back-to-back league titles, but they were to be only the start of his achievements.
Six years later he would be able to boast four more domestic crowns, two each with Chelsea and Inter, and was king of Europe once more with the Nerazzurri. It was an extraordinary run of success that persuaded Real Madrid that he was the only man in whom they could entrust the task of toppling Pep Guardiola’s seemingly unstoppable Barcelona.
But as Mourinho stares on at Guardiola’s latest runaway train at Manchester City in 2017-18, the Manchester United boss faces the realisation that he is the ‘Special One’ no longer. While it was a slight misinterpretation of his words which landed him that most boastful of nicknames, the moniker appeared well placed up until recent years. Nowadays it is arguable he is just another in a pack of managers attempting to play catch-up.
Comparing anyone’s efforts against those of Guardiola and City right now seems almost unfair. The Sky Blues have an unprecedented number of points after 11 Premier League games, and their goals tally has never been matched in the long history of English football. Moreover, their easiness on the eye has rightly had pretty much every neutral gasping. With Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva in the form of their lives, City look as appealing an outfit as the Premier League has produced in decades.
So simply taking a glance at the table, spying City’s eight-point lead and denigrating Mourinho’s work at United is not altogether honourable. Even had the Portuguese managed to squeeze every last ounce of energy out of his squad so far this season there’s every chance that they’d be still trailing in City’s wake to some extent.
Yet it has been telling that United have begun to lose ground on their neighbours over the past month, given that it has coincided with an inversion of the Red Devils’ earlier style of play. Against only the feckless Crystal Palace have United scored more than once in the opening 83 minutes of their last seven league fixtures since Paul Pogba suffered a hamstring injury in September, with Mourinho responding to the loss of his most important link between defence and attack by counting upon an effective counter-attack from minute one in the majority of games.
Until the Frenchman was struck by injury, Mourinho was being hailed for his ability to get United playing quick, stylish and punishing football and his side entered the last international break only a single goal off the pace set by City. However, he has simply reverted to type over the past month and United’s results have suffered.
While Mourinho was arguably the man that led a new revolution in football by finding a way to frustrate the life out of opponents, the game is fast showing signs of moving on without him. Sport’s amazing knack for evolving while staying the same has ensured that new dilemmas have been thrust Mourinho’s way, and his return of two league championships in the last seven seasons suggests he is yet to come up with a resounding answer.
That is not to say his recent record is terrible. Most managers in football would love to be able to get their hands on a La Liga title and a Premier League championship over a seven-year span. But the crown is definitely slipping. Mourinho is looking set for a third straight season without a league title for the first time in his career and where once his approach came across as visionary, it now strikes as being somewhat behind the times.
He is also struggling to match his bravado of old. He appears increasingly surly when facing the media and has contradicted himself so often of late that only Donald Trump could put him to shame. The latest was his immediate reference to injuries after Sunday’s defeat at Chelsea, having weeks earlier insisted that he was above the “crying and crying” that other managers are guilty of over their casualty lists.
United’s successes in the EFL Cup and Europa League last season were perhaps symptomatic of where they are right now under the 54-year-old. They are a belligerent bunch who can stifle opponents long enough to find their way through a knockout fixture or pair of home-and-away tussles. But keeping it tight away from home is a fool’s game when the target is not to overcome a hurdle in a cup competition but to force pressure upon an otherwise carefree league leader.
Mourinho’s job now is arguably to reinvent himself. Football has always had room for great defensive organisation and will for as long as the game is played, but that does not mean that prioritising such qualities will lead to success without fail. In every job he took before arriving at Old Trafford Mourinho managed at least one title in his first two campaigns, but the times they are a-changing.
Suddenly the prospect of the explosive Mourinho exit by which you can normally set your watch feels closer to many onlookers than a potential United title does. The club knew what they were getting into when signing up to Jose’s doctrine, but the desire to finally return to the very top was seen as reward enough for giving up the attacking principles on which their fans thrive.
The problem there is that Mourinho is no longer at the very top himself, and as much as United are a footballing force scrambling for a way to return to former glories, so too is their manager.