Jose Mourinho shows willingness to compromise on style for benefits of winning
Different mindset of the Chelsea manager and Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger is clear for all to see
Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho and his Arsenal counterpart Arsene Wenger have two very different approaches to the game. Photograph: Getty Images.
One of Jose Mourinho’s recurring themes over the years has been his sense of wonder at the way Arsene Wenger can continue at Arsenal year after year without winning anything.
In August, Mourinho said: “I’m not the person to be in a club three or four years without winning a trophy. In this case I wouldn’t need the club to say ‘we’re not happy with you, goodbye’. I’d be the first one to say ‘I gave everything I could but I didn’t succeed, let’s go and try a different thing’.”
Even when Mourinho was at Real Madrid he would aim the occasional barb at Wenger. Last January: “I would love to have that stability at a club. But I think for my mentality I also need the pressure to succeed. And if no one imposes that pressure on me then I would impose that pressure on myself. The pressure to win things.”
Mourinho’s aim when he says things like this is to irritate Wenger, but he is also probably telling the truth. He has never been able to handle losing. Temperamentally, he could not do what Wenger has done, and go eight years at a club without winning anything. There would be some crisis, some explosion, that would terminate the project.
It’s been the pattern throughout Mourinho’s career that whenever he loses there is always some reason unrelated to what has happened on the pitch. The referee secretly met with the opposing manager, or the football authorities are conspiring against him at the behest of Unicef, or the treacherous sporting director is working behind the scenes to undermine him.
Already we can see the rough outline of the drama that will unfold at Chelsea if Mourinho doesn’t win the title. It has to do with the conditions that have been imposed upon him by the club. Chelsea are telling him that this time, it’s not enough to win. He has to win playing attacking football with a team full of young players.
When Chelsea sacked Roberto di Matteo and hired Rafael Benitez as interim coach, their long-term plan was to hire Mourinho’s nemesis, Pep Guardiola. Abramovich wanted to see his team playing proactive, Guardiola football. When Guardiola went to Bayern, Abramovich decided that the next best option was to hire Mourinho to build a Guardiola-style team.
If you didn’t know anything about Mourinho, you could imagine he might be intrigued by the challenge. Having already won so many titles with counter-attacking football, maybe he would be attracted by the prospect of winning in a different way?
More likely, Mourinho was insulted at being asked to imitate his rival. Why the fascination with Guardiola? Why don’t people love Mourinho football? Sixteen major trophies in 10 seasons at Porto, Chelsea, Inter and Real Madrid! Are they not entertained?
Mourinho would only ask the question rhetorically, because the way he looks at the game, entertainment has nothing to do with it.
He is one of those coaches who believes winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. A football team is a machine for producing victory. If a team wins, that means they play good football. If they lose, they’re just losers. Worrying about the style of play is a form of decadence that saps your energy and distracts you from what is important.
From Mourinho’s point of view, when Chelsea say that he is expected not just to win but to win playing a certain way, then all they are doing is pointlessly complicating his task. They’re asking him to fight with one hand tied behind his back.
Mourinho believes in having both hands free. Lately he has been subtly reframing the choice between proactive and reactive football as a choice between failure and success. When Chelsea went four games without a win in September, he reminded everyone that the club had asked him to change the style of play: “When you want to build something different than the players are adapted to and comfortable with, it’s more difficult.”
Tried and tested
When Chelsea lost at Sunderland last week, Mourinho declared that his players were running out of time to prove that they could succeed playing the new style. Much as it pained him, he might be forced to revert to his tried and trusted methods.
“We are going in one direction and the right direction but it is quite frustrating. Football is about getting results . . . It’s something I don’t want to do, to play more counterattacking, but I’m giving it serious thought. If I want to win 1-0 I think I can as I think it is one of the easiest things in football. It is not so difficult, as you don’t give players the chance to express themselves.”
Mourinho’s unforgiving view of the game is not without its costs. A manager like Arsene Wenger, who does believe there is a right way and a wrong way to play the game, is psychologically better equipped to cope with failure.
Wenger’s teams have not won anything for eight years, but they have always defended his footballing principles.
Although he is often sour or petulant after losing a match, the belief that his team has at least tried to play good football gives him the strength to carry on.
For Mourinho, whose only principle is victory, nothing can redeem a beaten side. The defeated manager must find someone to blame, or find a way out.