Failure in sport is a relative measurement – relying on expectation, competition and personal ambition. What makes the most prominent figures in sport standout is that, to them, failure is absolute. This shapes Jose Mourinho’s win-at-all-cost mentality, constructing a blackhole in which most things are swallowed whole.
Set to inherit the Manchester United hot seat from Dutchman Louis van Gaal, the ‘Special One’ can sink his teeth into a project he’s had designs on for a while. Amid various reports of presentations outlining where United can improve made to executive vice-chairman of the club, Ed Woodward, he’s spent some time planning his steps.
Having allegedly spent four months off the market, through a £4m incentive from the Mancunians, Mourinho simply won’t allow failure to be an option – being the serial winner he is. The stakes are perhaps higher at this stage than he’s previously experienced. As Miguel Delaney points out, he’s reuniting his rivalry with Pep Guardiola, Arsène Wenger still probably won’t shake his hand and his differences with Liverpool are going to escalate.
All this points in the direction of another Mourinho mind manipulating masterclass for most of the season. Press conferences are an arena in which he thrives and tosses any form of morality out of the window. He plays by his rules and tries to cripple the opponent before they even set foot on the pitch.
Herein lays his biggest opportunity but so too a potential vulnerability. Mourinho places an inordinate amount of emphasis on the mental side of the game, waging unnecessary wars to get under the skin of his nemeses.
That extends to his relationship with players. In his book on the Portuguese manager, Diego Torres details how Mourinho sometimes provokes players to do one thing to get an opposite reaction. Public outcries imploring his team’s performances were normally a good way to force a reaction out of them. Fact or fallacy, the story goes that he talks to the players with his back to the sun so that his players have to squint and focus more on what he is saying.
For these things to have their desired effect, Mourinho will have to command the complete respect of his squad. Otherwise, working in this kind of an environment is notably taxing on players. Constantly sending subliminal messages to the United players can be a very roundabout way of getting them to do his bidding. This approach may not be as compatible with a team rebuilding itself as he’d like to think.
The regimes that preceded him at Chelsea, Inter and Madrid were relatively successful ones. Ranieri had laid the foundation of the Abramovich-era in west London, Roberto Mancini’s Inter won two Scudetti on the bounce and Pellegrini had achieved a record number of points at Real Madrid only to finish behind Guardiola’s Barcelona. Yet every time Mourinho was the upgrade.
Cue Ed Woodward trying to save face with his latest appointment. Filling the void left behind Sir Alex Ferguson was one initially planned to least disrupt the conditions of the club. Moyes was the long-term, stable option that was meant to keep the engines humming but he barely got the key in the ignition. Louis van Gaal was more concerned with the mechanics under the hood than spending time behind the wheel. Mourinho’s appointment is the opposite of all that. United want success immediately.
In the media storm that followed van Gaal’s departure there were reports that pointed to a weak relationship with his players. His methods were too involved, were unnecessarily complex and his approach to performance critique was too personal.
His squad were tired of this and had to complain to the manager through senior players. He didn’t want players to play ‘intuitively’. Their success should start and end with the system in place. In a team of such marked individual quality, suppressing that creative freedom was always going to be a challenge. That’s where the best man-managers earn their stripes – like Diego Simeone and, of course, Jose Mourinho.
In his most recent spell at Chelsea, the two-time Champions League winner did that to players like Willian and Eden Hazard, to win the league. But leaving their poor season behind them, the United players are probably not prepared for another mentally arduous campaign. One that works in a different way but is potentially toxic. A bit of liberation may suit them.
Or a figure they can trust in. Though, by the time he was sacked from the west London club late last year, all his work from previous seasons – building up an image of himself – was undone. Laid bare in front of an entire football community that held him in such high esteem. He had failed spectacularly. His approach requires all the players to believe in his interpretation of the cause absolutely. Something not all of them may be prepared to do; Juan Mata comes to mind.
This position of perceived weakness may be lessened with the manner LVG was chased out but still exists. Mourinho’s opponents have already been selected for him and they know he rejoins the ring a little bruised. So does his aura carry the same sting? Will he manage to command the same influence in his favourite arena, the press room?
With full transfer autonomy and a fresh relationship with club hierarchy, he has the tools to try pull this off. That along with with a £200m pot of gold to dip in and the possibility of a fired-up and loyal Zlatan Ibrahimovic could give the players reason to believe in him. He’s been brought in to change things from day one (which suggests he may not be there very long) and has to hit the ground running.
That’s going to be made a lot more difficult without full control over familiar instruments like the press and his persona. He’s mentioned that he will uphold the club’s traditions, which will hinder his natural approach. And stepping into a more tactically developed league with overall greater quality, Mourinho’s time at United will be his biggest challenge.