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What Happened To José Mourinho’s Competitiveness?

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Mourinho’s obsession with winning made him one of the best managers in the world, but where has that fire gone?

Manchester United Training and Press Conference Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

On March 9, 2004 Costinha pounced on a rebounded free kick to silence Old Trafford and send underdogs FC Porto to the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League. José Mourinho sprinted down the touchline to celebrate with his players, a move that angered some traditionalists and earned the praise of others, but nonetheless demonstrated his passion for winning. Porto went on to win the Champions League that season. Mourinho gave his medals to the crowd before leaving the field and the club to further his already historic career in England with the newly rich and competitive London side Chelsea.

Fast forward 14 years. Manchester United are again upset in the round of 16 of the UEFA Champions League, this time by the Spanish serial Europa League winners Sevilla. Mourinho, now manager at United, put out a side that was the opposite of the dominant Manchester United sides he himself had spent so many years trying to bring down, and it failed. He showed little to no emotion on the sideline as Sevilla overcame United’s defense, and by the time they were 2-0 down it was too late in the game for United to make any meaningful attempt to regain momentum. Instead of taking the blame for the tactics Mourinho went on an infamous rant in which he blamed the players for their effort and inexperience, the club for underachieving before Mourinho’s arrival, and the media for failing to understand how it could possibly be his fault. “Football heritage” and experience in the Champions League may not be abundant in the current United squad, but it’s only another of Mourinho’s excuses. Mourinho has spent his entire career battling football heritage, and a lot of the time he won.

So, let’s do what José does and list his achievements first.

Chelsea had a decent side in 2003/04, but were nothing compared to the side Mourinho coached up the next season. They won 2 Premier League titles, 2 League Cups, and an FA Cup in Mourinho’s first stint at the club. His 4-5-1 style with Claude Makelele, Michael Essien, and Frank Lampard changed football in England. Mourinho not only won on the pitch, but successfully played mind games with some of the best in the business. He consistently frustrated and battled with both Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson, whose respective clubs had maintained control of English football for nearly a decade. Arsenal and Arsene Wenger still haven’t recovered from the fall from power, and even Ferguson had to assemble one of his strongest ever squads to regain control of the Premier League.

Then in Italy Mourinho inherited an Inter Milan side which had won 2 straight Scudettos, but were serial underachievers in Europe. In just two years Mourinho won 2 more Scudettos, 2 Coppa Italias, and the Champions League in 2010, the club’s first in over 40 years, which completed the first ever treble in Italian football. He again left after winning the Champions League for the open position at Real Madrid.

He was brought in to rival Guardiola’s Barcelona, and he approached that challenge with arguably his most infuriatingly competitive performance as a manager. Though Barcelona again won La Liga and the Champions League, Madrid won a tense Copa Del Rey final in 2011 and an historic 100-pt La Liga title in 2011/12. His personal battle with Pep drove Barcelona and their fans mad, and Guardiola temporarily stepped away from the game due to the stress of the job.

So where has this passion been since returning to England? Yes, he was electric once again for two seasons back at Chelsea, but everything went to hell in 2015. He was shell-shocked by his own failure, and it has clearly affected him. It’s rare to see teams drop off in such a fashion after winning a major title, but Chelsea were a complete disaster. He went through a sped up version of what we’re seeing now: Poor results followed by player alienation followed by more poor results followed by fan revolt.

Mourinho’s style of slowing down the game and frustrating opponents had worked at many clubs for more than a decade because of the competitive spirit Mourinho instilled in his players and the success of their ruthless and precise counterattacking. However, at one of the biggest clubs in all of sport that spirit has faded and given way to constant turmoil and frustration. United finished the 2017/18 campaign miles behind title winners Manchester City in the Premier League and lost in the FA Cup Final to Mourinho’s former club Chelsea. Fans were rightfully bitter as a side that began the season on a rampage through league and cup opposition failed to keep up their pace only halfway through the year.

Now, as the 3rd season of Mourinho’s tenure at Old Trafford is beginning to unfold, many are now calling for the Special One to be sacked after one of the worst starts to a league season the club has seen in decades. 3 wins, a draw, and 3 losses have seen United quickly fall behind their 3 huge rivals City, Chelsea, and Liverpool in the title race while Frank Lampard’s Derby County were able to pull of an upset over United at Old Trafford in the 3rd round of the League Cup. Normally a fiery and passionate manager, Mourinho has instead become more of an onlooker during matches. His changes either have negative impact or no impact at all, and instead of responding to the adversity with the tenacity that made him famous he now appears tired and overwhelmed. The 3-1 loss to West Ham last week was one of the worst Manchester United performances in recent memory. The lineup made little sense, players looked unorganized and demoralized, and certainly nobody on the pitch or on the bench looked willing to fight for Mourinho.

After reports suggested that Mourinho was on the brink of being fired this past weekend, a dramatic come-from-behind win against Newcastle may have kept him in a job, but perhaps only temporarily. Even that thrilling comeback — partly inspired by Mourinho’s tactical adjustments — was needed because of Mourinho sending out a poorly prepared team in a questionable set-up.

For all his bluster following the win on Saturday, his pre-match comments and his programme notes hit at a beaten man increasingly resigned to his fate. The ultra-competitive José Mourinho was once an irresistible force in football. But as Manchester United fans are finding out, that is not the version currently in charge at Old Trafford.