3rd May 2005, Liverpool hosted Chelsea in the second leg of an intense Champions League semi-final. It was a blockbuster of a tie in so many ways. History Boys v New Boys, Working class v Yuppies, North v South, but on top of that is was a huge clash between two managers widely considered as two of the best in the game at that time.
Benitez and Mourinho were seen as master tacticians, experts in game control and water tight defending. As it was, the semi-final in 2005 was a fascinating clash, but with just one goal in over 180 minutes of football, it was hardly riveting for the neutrals. But this was a different era in football, and many watched with admiration as two managers played out a game of Cat and Mouse.
Roll the clock forward to May 2018 and another Champions League semi-final is fondly remembered by Liverpool fans, but for completely different reasons. Liverpool’s 7-6 win over Roma was an incredible performance from Jurgen Klopp’s Reds.
Their 5-2 win at Anfield was a dizzying display of attacking football which not many fans had ever seen, even in the club’s dominant years. The rapid-fire football on display that night was also a poignant reminder of just how far the game has moved on since that cagey affair between Rafa and Jose in 2005.
Both men, considered greats in their day, are no longer hitting those heights as their careers threaten to stall just thirteen years on. There is now open talk of Jose having had his day and Rafa Benitez may struggle to land another top job on current form. Is it fair to say that these are men of a bygone era?
This week was not one to remember for Rafa Benitez and Jose Mourinho. Both lost horribly at home, both are mired in rumoured, off-field histrionics with players and neither man is playing a brand of football deemed palatable for the Premier League in 2018/19.
It’s that last one which is most telling. To the apparent bewilderment of both managers, just winning a football match simply isn’t good enough anymore. Mourinho especially has been hounded for his approach to games, deemed overly negative, even cynical at times. It has caused him no end of grief over the past 12 months.
So too has the football played by his competitors. The other five teams in the so-called top six are now committed to open, expansive football. However, it’s the work being done at The Etihad which is causing the most pain for Mourinho.
Under Pep Guardiola, Manchester City have played some truly beautiful football. Winning the league with record 100 points and a cup last season and earning no end of praise for their style, it really is salt in the wounds stuff at Old Trafford.
It really is hard for Manchester United fans to stomach being so far in their rivals shadow. But it’s their manager who some view as the real problem. Like Benitez, Mourinho is a student of the art of containment.
His football is all about rigid displays of rearguard work. His players must hold their positions when the opposition come at them. His back four is reinforced by two deep-sitting midfielders who mop up most of the play before it becomes too dangerous. The issue is though, it’s all geared around stopping the other side, rather than enhancing the attacking abilities of your own players.
It also invites other teams coming to Old Trafford, to sit back and hold, safe in the knowledge that they can weather the fairly mild attacks thrown at them.
United’s fan base is getting worn out with it. Under Van Gaal they had a similar manager and after years of attacking play under Sir Alex Ferguson, the football played by Mourinho is starting to look antiquated and unambitious.
Rafa Benitez has the same problem at Newcastle. He was lambasted for his side’s overly defensive display at home to Chelsea last weekend, with even the previously loyal Geordie fan base starting to mutter their discomfort with the football being played there.
Both managers are bona fide success stories in their own right. You cannot dismiss their legacies on the back of a few results which have not gone their way. Mourinho is a virtual guarantee of trophies, winning major honours everywhere he has been, including at Manchester United. While Benitez has not won as much as his Portuguese counterpart, he has still achieved a lot in the game, winning major honours with five different clubs and forging a reputation as a meticulous, world-class coach in a long, varied career.
As his reputation has come under siege, Mourinho has become increasingly barbed with the press in interviews and press conferences. He has already cut a deeply frustrated figure this season, however, his cantankerous reaction after the Spurs defeat on Monday night is perhaps proof that he is still living off his past successes, rather than focusing on how he can match the football being played by his rivals.
Neither man has ever been committed to the kind of football currently being exhibited by the top clubs in the Premier League. Whether they can adapt and survive, with their older methods remains to be seen. It is looking like it’s going to be a hard season for both men.
They are by no means finished and you’d back them both to turn things around if given time. There is also an argument to suggest that they are the latest high profile victims of bloated expectation and impatience.
Mourinho has won two major honours and got to three finals with Manchester United. His second place finish was also the best the club has managed in the years since Ferguson’s retirement. Benitez also dragged a team of mostly Championship standard players to mid-table safety upon their return to the Premier League.
These are hardly the fruits of terrible managers, but memories are incredibly short now. As is the patience for men so committed to their ageing methods.