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'The worst of the worst!' - Mourinho's Roma reign begins amid insults and intrigue

11:00 EAT 15/07/2021
Jose Mourinho Roma Vespa GFX
The Portuguese has proven in recent weeks that he can still talk the talk but, ahead of his first friendly fixture, doubts persists over his methods

Like everyone else in football, Walter Sabatini was stunned when he heard Jose Mourinho was on his way to Roma.

The former Giallorossi director described the Portuguese coach's appointment as "an earthquake", and it certainly sent shockwaves through the dressing room.

"I still can't believe it," defender Marash Kumbulla told Goal last month. "It'll be like a dream to be coached by Mourinho."

It was not just the club's players that were enthused by the news of the two-time Champions League winner's arrival at Trigoria; the fans were sent into raptures.

Former Lazio forward and current Sky Sport Italia pundit Paolo Di Canio was inundated with texts from Roma-supporting friends.

One of his replies, made via voicemail, was uploaded to YouTube and quickly went viral.

"You’ve got the worst of the worst,” Di Canio claimed. "I understand you needed a big name, but it’s like when you sign a player who is finished. He doesn’t even play football; he plays anti-football.
 
"You might enjoy yourselves in a few press conferences, because controversy makes for good theatre, but let me tell you: to reconstruct a team, he’s the worst you could possibly get.

"And I can say that because he was my favourite up until seven years ago, even more so than Pep Guardiola."

It would be easy to attribute Di Canio's scathing critique to sporting rivalry, some sort of expression of jealousy at seeing one of the biggest names in football take charge of Lazio's city rivals.

However, there is no denying that Mourinho has lost some of his lustre over the past decade. 

Guardiola's two greatest adversaries these days are both German, Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel, which perfectly illustrates the current tactical zeitgeist.

Mourinho, though, is neither a disciple of Johan Cruyff nor Ralf Rangnick. He belongs to a more cynical school of thought, which is fine, of course, when it works.

But Mourinho's returns have been diminishing, culminating in him being sacked by Tottenham in April after less than two years in charge.

For the first time in just under two decades, since his spell in charge of Uniao de Leiria, he had left a club without having won a single trophy. In England, the question was being asked as to whether the 'Special One' was becoming a "specialist in failure".

Remember, while he won the Carabao Cup and the Europa League at Manchester United, his Old Trafford tenure ended in acrimony. 

Ask anyone connected with the club and they will tell you that the change in atmosphere since Mourinho was replaced at the helm by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could not be starker: out of the darkness and into the light.

The 58-year-old clearly remains upset about the nature of his departure and how his stint in charge is perceived.

How else to explain his ongoing attacks on Luke Shaw, a United player repeatedly criticised in public by Mourinho who has now proven himself one of the best left-backs in the world?

Tellingly, Mourinho offered a typically staunch defence of his recent results in his first press conference as Roma coach.

"I am a victim of everything I have done before," he argued. "I am a victim of how people look at me now, unfortunately...

"I won three trophies at Manchester United (including the Community Shield) and that was seen as a disaster. 

"I reached a cup final (Carabao Cup) which I was not allowed to play at Tottenham (he was sacked just days before the game against Manchester City), and that was seen as a disaster too. 

"But what's a disaster for me is considered a great success for others."

There is an undoubted element of truth in his argument. Mourinho – just like Guardiola, in fairness – is held to the highest standards of excellence.

Because of his past achievements with Porto, Chelsea and Inter, which were undeniably remarkable, he is expected to succeed in every club, in every country. 

If he does not, the knives come out, which is arguably understandable, because, unlike Guardiola, Mourinho can never point to an exciting brand of football by way of an excuse for poor form.

And that was what made his appointment as Spurs boss so strange, given the club's famous "The game is about glory" mantra is anathema to Mourinho's win-at-all-costs mentality.

Roma, of course, could be considered the Spurs of Serie A: a success-starved club surviving only on the memories of past glories.

It was hardly surprising, then, that Mourinho was given a welcome more akin to a messiah than a manager. Hundreds of fans turned up to welcome him to Rome, while he already has his own mural in the Testaccio quarter of the city.

It all serves to underline that Mourinho remains a mythical figure in the eyes of many Italians because of his historic treble triumph with Inter in 2010. A lot has changed since then, though, and not just in Mourinho's world.

Roma are no longer title challengers. They finished seventh in Serie A last season, 16 points off a Champions League place – an accurate reflection of where they stand right now.

There is, though, talent in the squad and they have been buoyed by his arrival, judging by their impromptu sing-song at a team dinner earlier this week. 

Mourinho will obviously be very familiar with ex-United duo Chris Smalling and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The former should form a decent centre-back pairing with Gianluca Mancini, and while Mkhitaryan did not enjoy himself too much under Mourinho at Old Trafford, the Armenia international is enjoying a new lease of life in the Italian capital.

Elsewhere, Jordan Veretout was arguably one of the best midfielders in Serie A last season, Bryan Cristante played a part in Italy's Euro 2020 success and the extremely talented Lorenzo Pellegrini only missed out because of injury.

From an offensive perspective, much will depend on the fitness of Nicolo Zaniolo and Edin Dzeko, particularly as Mourinho has excluded Javier Pastore, Pedro and Justin Kluivert from his pre-season training squad.

Dzeko is Roma's most prolific centre-forward, but he is 35 now and there were obvious signs of decline last season. Of course, a personality clash with former boss Paolo Fonseca certainly did not help, and the hope is that the Bosnian will be revitalised by Mourinho's arrival.

Indeed, it is worth noting that Spurs striker Harry Kane adored working with the Setubal native, and still has nothing but nice things to say about him, both as a manager and a person.

As for Zaniolo, the 22-year-old attacking midfielder is considered one of Italy's most exciting prospects in years, but he has only just returned from a second knee ligament injury in the space of 18 months.

If he returns the same player, Mourinho will have an exceptional young talent around which he can construct a forward line.

There are a lot of doubts surrounding Zaniolo right now, though, and Roma in general, and the news that Leonardo Spinazzola, one of the stars of Euro 2020, is now facing up to nine months out with an Achilles problem came as a hammer blow.
 
Mourinho would clearly love to strengthen his squad significantly before the start of the season, and goalkeeper Rui Patricio has just become his first signing, arriving from Wolves on Tuesday night.

That is hopefully one weak link sorted, but Mourinho's attempts to address another, in midfield, might end in frustration, with Roma presently struggling to agree a deal with Arsenal for Granit Xhaka, who is clearly keen to move to Stadio Olimpico.

The issue, of course, is that Roma simply do not have the resources to spend big this summer, meaning Mourinho must make the best of the players at his disposal.

He will oversee his first pre-season fixture on Thursday, and is expected to play with a 4-2-3-1 formation. However, he is well aware that the game has evolved and that versatility is now a prerequisite for success in the modern game.

“Football has changed a lot," Mourinho, who has installed a giant screen at Trigoria for training sessions so that players can be immediately shown tactical errors via overhead cameras, told reporters earlier this month.

"Nowadays, it’s more difficult to decide on a single system. You need to be able to change and have more options. Players have a better tactical culture now."

Mourinho claims he has developed too – and matured, insisting he will no longer be drawn into the squabbles that characterised his previous spell in Serie A.

That seems unlikely for two reasons: firstly, he will be going up against a plethora of big personalities this season, from Maurizio Sarri at Lazio to Massimiliano Allegri at Juventus.

Secondly, in the past two weeks alone, Mourinho has already taken shots at a wide range of targets, including Didier Deschamps, Antonio Conte and Shaw (again!).

He is simply not going to stop insulting people. But while he can still talk the talk, is he able to still walk the walk?

He can defend his record at United and Tottenham all he likes, but the sad fact of the matter is that, in both cases, the fans were happy to see the back of him.

Mourinho is clearly determined to silence his critics, like Di Canio, who believe he is finished at the highest level.

He keeps insisting that he is not in Rome for a holiday and, to his credit, he took a massive pay cut to make the deal happen.

He says he is in this for the long haul and, crucially, the club's Americans owners, The Friedkin Group, are willing to give him time to put the Giallorossi back among Italy's elite. 

"They don’t want success today," Mourinho said. "They want a sustainable project for the future, working with passion. That’s why I am here."

He is not just there to rebuild Roma, though; he is also there to rebuild his reputation. 

At the end of his unveiling, Mourinho was asked where he sees Roma in three years' time. 

He replied, "Celebrating." 

"Celebrating what?" came the follow-up question. 

He rather weakly responded, "Something."

Mourinho really cannot afford that something to be his exit.

His appointment may have shaken Rome to its very core, but the problem with earthquakes is they usually leave behind a trail of devastation.