In one respect, of course, José Mourinho is right. Modern football is for ever trying to read too much into too little. One bad week – three poor results – is nothing compared to his previous career. Manchester United supporters, perhaps, will welcome his belligerence in attacking the “football Einsteins” who have “tried to delete 16 years of my career”. After a start to the season in which he has at times seemed slightly cowed, Mourinho has shown that there is fight left in him.
Others will wonder, though, whether an edgy 3-1 victory in the EFL Cup against a third-tier side is really the platform on which to be mounting such a ferocious defence of his position. What does that say about how hurt he has been by the criticism of the past week? What does it say about the self‑confidence that was once his trademark and one of his key attributes?
The Einsteins line is intriguing. Even said sarcastically, it is a strange insult to choose. Five years ago when he was managing Real Madrid, Mourinho approvingly cited Einstein before the first leg of their Champions League semi-final against Barcelona. “One day he [Einstein] said that the only mechanical force more powerful than steam, electricity and atomic energy is will,” Mourinho said. “That Albert guy was not stupid. With will you can achieve things.”
Was he, in this case, using Einstein as a synonym for “genius”? Or was it more specific than that? Is he following the more general trend of rejecting experts? Was he attacking some sort of distant boffin he imagines slaving in a lab to come up with theories to attack him? Sharp as John Giles and Christophe Dugarry may be as pundits, Einstein isn’t the first word that comes to mind to describe them. It was the final line of the answer that perhaps gave the truest insight. “The new football,” Mourinho said, “it’s full of Einsteins.” The new football? What’s that? When did it begin?
Precisely what he meant is perhaps less significant than what the line implied. It was an acknowledgement of age, of the fact that there was an old football before that he, by implication, preferred, a time before Einsteins. He is not the swaggering young gunslinger radiating vigour and upsetting the established order any more. And that, really, is the problem with the reference to his 16-year career, as Mourinho must know. After all, nobody could really call Arsène Wenger “a specialist in failure” if they took the entirety of his career into account. The jibe stung because of the clear drop-off in Wenger’s results over the past decade. But Mourinho, too, has seen a decline; it’s not as obvious as Wenger’s and he may offer circumstances in mitigation, but it is there.
Between 2002-03 and 2009-10, Mourinho won seven league titles and two Champions Leagues; in the six seasons since he has won two league titles and no Champions Leagues.
It is not particularly surprising. Sir Alex Ferguson and Valeriy Lobanovskyi are obvious exceptions who skew the perception, but very few managers have success at the very highest level for more than a decade. It is a difficult, tiring job that requires constant re-evaluation and evolution. The will becomes diminished. It is far too early to suggest that Mourinho is finished at the top, but the doubts are growing.
In a world in which pressing, at the top end of club football at least, has become the dominant mode, Mourinho’s preference for reactive football in big games is an outlier. It is too simple to say the game has moved on, but equally he can no longer be said to be at the cutting edge. That contributes to a general crisis of image and that impinges on his capacity to mould others to his will.
We’ve got used to him. His attacks on rivals, directors, referees and the authorities once provoked shock; now his every utterance is filtered through the recognition that he likes to play games. That is confusing because there have been times recently when he clearly has lost control of himself only for his outbursts of emotion to be treated as part of some strategy of manipulation. Either way, the impact of his public statements has been diminished; Mourinho no longer commands the narrative as he once did.
At the same time, a case can be made that he no longer commands players as he once did. Talk to those who played for him at Porto and it’s like talking to members of a cult: they still regard him as a quasi-messianic figure. His reigns at Chelsea and Real Madrid, though, ended in rancour and there have already been rumblings at United.
His greatest results have come when leading outsiders, players with points to prove, galvanising them behind a cause. It is harder to do that, perhaps, when you are in charge of the richest club in the country. And harder to do that with modern players, who for Mourinho are arguably a bigger problem in new football than the Einsteins.
Paul Pogba arrived at United and announced he wanted to win the Ballon d’Or. It is one player and one interview but the focus on the individual prize did seem to exemplify a growing mentality.
At some point super-clubs become interchangeable, historic identities eroded behind a quasi-franchise model founded on growing the brand across the globe, and when that is the case there is no reason for a talented player to care which helped him to his ultimate goal, particularly if that is the Ballon d’Or rather than the Champions League. And if a player feels no great emotional commitment to a club, if he does not buy into their cause, for how long will he put up with the abrasive managerial style of a Mourinho?
That, more than anything else, is what makes Mourinho’s public criticism of players – three times in his past six league matches, stretching back to his final game in charge of Chelsea – such a concern. Where once he was a master at drawing attention to himself, of deflecting blame away from players, he now seems regularly to offer their failings as an excuse, and that at a time when players have never been less willing to accept negativity.
The world has changed and Mourinho has perhaps not changed with it. He remains, of course, a formidable coach. The situation at United is far from irredeemable, but Pep Guardiola’s instant impact at Manchester City only serves to highlight the growing questions about a coach who has always seemed damaged by what happened in Madrid, who perhaps has not quite adapted to the fact he is not the bright young iconoclast any more.