FFT Columnist Neil Humphreys wonders what life would be like if Jose Mourinho had landed at either of Manchester's two EPL clubs
The familiar story goes that Manchester City wanted Jose Mourinho in 2009 to succeed a flagging Mark Hughes. Club executives allegedly baulked at making an offer, supposedly dissuaded by the ambitious manager’s long-term goal of succeeding Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford.
If you prick Mourinho, he bleeds trophies. If you prick either David Moyes or Manuel Pellegrini, they bleed uncertainty and indecision.
But it didn’t happen. The Special One was not the anointed one. Both Manchester clubs missed out on Mourinho, a mistake that continues to haunt and taunt them, usually from the dugout or the latest press conference. There really was only one man for Manchester City and Manchester United. He just happened to be the same man.
If you prick Mourinho, he bleeds trophies. If you prick either David Moyes or Manuel Pellegrini, they bleed uncertainty and indecision. No wonder their fans are getting the needle. The accusation of dull conservatism frequently levelled at the Chelsea manager is not only misinformed, but misdirected. No Mourinho line-up will ever be as cautious as the decision taken at both Old Trafford and the Etihad not to hire him.
He takes more calculated risks than Moyes and Pellegrini with a remarkable success rate. Just consider Manchester City’s Champions League and FA Cup exits in the same week. Had Mourinho been in charge, the outcome might have been different. Martin Demichelis wouldn’t have made those pivotal mistakes. He wouldn’t even have featured.
Demichelis doesn’t get close to a Mourinho first XI. He doesn’t get within the same postcode. The Portuguese pragmatist is loath to leaving an unpredictable character in such a critical position. Up front, he at least has a buffer. Fernando Torres and Samuel Eto’o’s mercurial form can be covered by his inverted winger system. Eden Hazard, Andre Schurrle and Oscar can make up the shortfall.
Chelsea’s men are part of a modern, child-friendly circus. Everyone has a safety net. No one flies solo. Demichelis’ high-wire act never gets a chance to sabotage the show if Mourinho is ringmaster. No one is left exposed at the Chelsea Big Top, least of all John Terry. Last season, he was washed up and cut adrift. This season, he has been a revelation; his renaissance a direct result of his manager’s calculated risk strategy.
Terry defends deeper now, masking his lack of pace but amplifying his experience and instinctive positional sense. Such an approach inevitably creates space in the critical area just outside the penalty box D, an area now marshalled by the muscular Nemanja Matic who plays the obedient monster to Dr Frankenstein in the dugout.
(Mourinho's) arrogance rides roughshod over a player’s reputation within a club. His charisma drowns out dissent.
Mourinho filled his round hole with a round peg with legs like giant redwoods to protect his slowing skipper and offer greater flexibility to his relentless, rotating attacking triumvirate in midfield. His Premier League charge is being mounted by redoubtable recruits like Matic.
Pellegrini gift-wrapped Demichelis in a pony-tailed bow and presented him to Wigan and Barcelona. A muddled Moyes grabbed Marouane Fellaini. For good measure, he also took an unwanted Juan Mata off the hands of a delighted Mourinho and left the confused Spaniard to fight it out with Wayne Rooney for the No.10 spot.
Mourinho rarely buys, picks or uses unreliable quantities like Demichelis, Fellaini and Mata. That’s why he’s seven points clear at the top of the Premier League and Chelsea are the only English side with a realistic chance of progressing in the Champions League. Loyalty blinded Pellegrini’s judgement when it came to his long-standing lieutenant Demichelis. Insecurity affected Moyes’ handling of Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Robin van Persie.
Mourinho’s unstoppable ego has no time for such trifling concerns. His arrogance rides roughshod over a player’s reputation within a club. His charisma drowns out dissent. Terry has a role to play, so he’s in. Ashley Cole offers less dynamism than Cesar Azpilicueta, so he’s out. That’s Mourinho’s way. Any other way is a road to nowhere.
Such calculated risk-taking defines Mourinho. Critics who listen only to the broken record of Chelsea churning out sterile, cynical displays through leaden, controlled automatons miss the Blues’ subtle evolution into a title-challenging force.
CHELSEA'S RECENT DEFENSIVE FORM
Mar 9: Chelsea 4-0 Tottenham
Mar 1: Fulham 1-3 Chelsea
Feb 22: Chelsea 1-0 Everton
Feb 12: WBA 1-1 Chelsea
Feb 8: Chelsea 3-0 Newcastle
Their defeat at Sunderland in the Capital One Cup before Christmas felt like the beginnings of a slow death. While Arsenal’s pretty midfield triangles were prancing past opponents and City’s striking pistons pumped out goals for fun, Chelsea were threatening to get lost in a wilderness of inconsistency.
So Mourinho went to work. He pulled Terry and Cahill so far back they could practically feel Petr Cech breathing down their necks. He signed Matic. He snagged an extra midfielder into a 4-3-3 formation until the soft goals disappeared and the confidence returned. Chelsea could concede possession, but not goals. Only then did the Blues switch to a more stable 4-2-3-1. Only then were the likes of Hazard, Oscar, Willian and Schurrle given the ball with all the excitable glee of kids on an HDB void deck and told to go and play whilst no one was looking.
Recent opponents such as Tottenham, Everton and Manchester City have been considered “unlucky” for dominating possession against the Blues only to come away with nothing. Mourinho must stand over his whiteboard rubbing his gloved hands together and cackling like a megalomaniacal villain.
In the executive boardrooms at both City and United, there should be a collective, rueful shake of the heads for the one who got away. Pellegrini made mistakes in the Champions League that Mourinho wouldn’t make. Moyes has been making mistakes all season that most experienced title-winning managers wouldn’t make.
It is often said that you can’t miss what you never had. City and United fans might disagree when they watch Mourinho hold the Premier League trophy aloft in two months time.
Neil Humphreys is the best-selling author of football novels Match Fixer and Premier Leech, which was the FourFourTwo Football Novel of the Year. You can find his website right here.