It is a sad indication of the recent state of Liverpool that over the past couple of weeks they have seemed more significant as a test case for others than in and of themselves. José Mourinho took his Manchester United side to Anfield and, as he waited and waited and waited for the game “to break”, the watching world waited and waited and waited for something vaguely resembling action to break out. It didn’t and the game finished 0-0. Given Liverpool’s vulnerabilities and given Manchester City’s remarkable form, that felt even at the time like two points needlessly squandered.
A week later it felt even more like two points handed away as Tottenham Hotspur ruthlessly exploited Liverpool’s defensive problems to win 4-1 at Wembley. It’s not quite comparing like with like, of course – it will always be harder for United at Anfield than for Tottenham playing at home, even at Wembley – but the comparison still seemed telling, the limitations of an approach that simply waits for a mistake exposed.
But it does raise the question of why, with Liverpool at such a low ebb, Mourinho should have been so negative. Ten years ago, the former Argentina striker Jorge Valdano proposed a solution. After another hard-to-watch Mourinho performance at Anfield, when Chelsea visited for the 2007 Champions League semi-final second leg, Valdano wrote his notorious article in Marca in which, contrasting the quality of the atmosphere to the quality of the game, he noted: “Put a shit hanging from a stick in the middle of this passionate, crazy stadium and there are people who will tell you it’s a work of art. It’s not: it’s a shit hanging from a stick.”
Understandably, it’s the shit on a stick line that is remembered today but the article goes on. “Neither Mourinho nor [the Liverpool manager that night, Rafa] Benítez made it as a player,” Valdano wrote. “That has made them channel all their vanity into coaching. Those who did not have the talent to make it as players do not believe in the talent of players, they do not believe in the ability to improvise in order to win football matches. In short, Benítez and Mourinho are exactly the kind of coaches that Benítez and Mourinho would have needed to have made it as players.”
Now, clearly, that isn’t universally true. There have been countless managers who have had little or no playing experience whose sides played thrilling football, from Arrigo Sacchi to Marcelo Bielsa to Julian Nagelsmann. Equally there have been plenty of managers with very fine playing careers whose coaching inclination has been to conservatism, from George Graham to Fabio Capello to Diego Simeone. There certainly isn’t any direct correlation between the sort of player a manager was and the sort of football his teams play.
But perhaps there is a truth in the case of Mourinho. It has been noted repeatedly through his career how often his celebrations ape those of players, whether by his knee slides, his animated touchline dash at Old Trafford as Porto manager, running arm outstretched and finger pointed after Inter had prevailed in the Champions League semi-final at the Camp Nou or jumping on Sergio Ramos’s back at Real Madrid. He seems always to have been combating the sense of himself as an outsider in the world of professional football. He hated, for instance, the way he was described by the former Barcelona president Josep Lluís Núñez and by the local media there as “The Translator”.
Or take the way at Porto he described the process of “talking to the media” as “part of the game”. “When I go to the press conference before a game, in my mind the game has already started,” he said. “When I go to a press conference after a game, the game hasn’t finished yet. Or if the game has finished, the next one has already started.” He is inserting himself into the action. He may not be on the pitch but he is participating: he is one of the players.
That sense of alienation can only have been enhanced when he was overlooked for the Barcelona job in 2008. (Although Mourinho has claimed recently he turned Barça down, that’s not the way directors of the time remember it. “He is,” as the former Barça vice-president Marc Ingla observed, “a bit poisoned by the fact he was rejected.”
If Mourinho could not be one of the players, he could at least control the players. He could create a structure, he could make clear it was about him, the player of players, rather than any individual on the pitch.
And yet compelling as the theory of Mourinho as a player manqué is, and that as a result he feels the need to master them at all times, this is not a straightforward case. Both at Real Madrid and at Chelsea, Mourinho was accused by players of not organising them enough in an attacking sense. He resolved defensive issues but did not, as Antonio Conte or Pep Guardiola do in different ways, structure attacks; he left the forwards to improvise – precisely what Valdano accused him of prohibiting. The issue, perhaps, is that Eden Hazard felt the combination of structure in one facet and non-structure in another left even the most creative ill-equipped to improvise.
It has become common to describe Mourinho as a pragmatist, as though his approach is a result of him doing what it takes to win a game with little thought to the spectacle. But the implication of Valdano’s theory is that his reactive approach is actually just as ideological as Guardiola’s, a product, yes, of his desire to win, but also of issues relating to psychology and background, with all the wrinkles and blind spots that may entail. And that, perhaps, is why he refused to take on Liverpool as Mauricio Pochettino did.
The Guardian Sport