When the ball fell kindly into the path of a clever run from Porto’s Dmitri Alenichev in Gelsenkirchen’s Arena AufSchalke during the 2004 Champions League final, many sat back in amazement at what was about to be rubber stamped on the pitch.
In many ways, Porto’s veteran attacking midfielder personified what Jose Mourinho had done with the Portuguese club during two years of startling success. The young coach had walked into an ageing dressing room full of established players at one of the nation’s biggest clubs and completely revitalized everyone there.
At the time of his appointment, the 1987 Champions of Europe were adrift in the table and underachieving. The turnaround instilled by Sir Bobby Robson’s former translator ushered in a new era of super coaches in European football. People began sitting up and paying serious attention to this wonderfully arrogant and ice cold winner emerging in Portugal’s second city.
Mourinho’s crowning Champions League glory in 2004 with Porto was a victory that had the manager’s cutting edge methods embedded into it’s ticker tape. Through a shrewd combination of sports psychology and what was to become dubbed as “periodisation” Mourinho was able to take a group of older players and completely refine their approach to the beautiful game.
The Portuguese had his players intensely focus on periods of play during a match. Defensive scenarios, transitions in play and attacking pivots where studied in meticulous detail by the keen eyed young coach. His players would press in vital pockets but maintain defensive discipline and a compact shape out of the possession. His use of ball playing centre backs allowed for rapid transitions up the pitch to a front three that were neatly laced together by the deft touch of Deco in a false nine position.
Mourinho was obsessive in his approach with Zlatan Ibrahimovic noting in his autobiography that the Portuguese would know the boot size of the oppositions third choice keeper. This fastidious approach saw the former amateur footballer from Setubal manage some of the finest names and biggest clubs on the continent. He would go onto win a staggering 12 of his 14 major finals, claiming league titles in Italy, Spain and England.
Mourinho’s legacy to football over the past two decades is non-negotiable. However, as we enter a new decade dominated by high pressing, bolder, expansive football the Portuguese is in serious danger of becoming left behind and horribly antiquated.
Scarred by the politics of Real Madrid’s toxic corridors of power; he failed quite dramatically to reverse the fortunes of Manchester United after leaving Chelsea mired in mid-table mediocrity back in 2015.
Gone was the shrewd thinker, vested in the psychological power of lifting his players. What we often saw was a jaded manager, lashing out at the infrastructure around him and alienating players, whom he once had idolizing him in the dressing room.
The grumpy, cantankerous interviews would be an acceptable pay-off for a majority of sensible supporters if the football they were being treated to was cutting edge, ruthlessly effective and enthralling to watch. Alas, Mourinho appears to be guilty of standing still whilst others overtook him and modernized their methods.
An intense focus on discipline and restrictive, segmented play, has increasingly left his sides more than a touch predictable and not so easy on the eye. Now charged with reinstating Spurs to the top four Mourinho is at a cross-roads in his long and successful career.
There have been some encouraging signs of course. Dele Alli’s form has picked up markedly since Mourinho has come in with goals and assists being recorded with much healthier frequency by the youngster. Spurs have edged out of their 14th place malaise as well and sit in the knock out stages of the Champions League with a seasoned veteran at the helm in Europe’s elite competition.
Even his interesting choice of assistant manager suggested Jose was ready to learn some new tricks. Joao Sacremento is an exciting young coach who many hoped would bring a fresh perspective to the 56-year-old’s approach in North London.
Sadly though there are signs that Mourinho is still partying like it’s 2003/04 all over again. Just ten league games into his tenure Spurs, there have been demoralizing defeats away to Manchester United as well as home reversals to Chelsea and Liverpool.
Particularly in those defeats in their own back yard, Mourinho’s side were flat defensively, ponderous and predictable in possession whilst inviting highly capable attacking sides onto them for more than two-thirds of the 90 minutes. In the opening half hour of their 0-1 defeat to Liverpool, they completed just 54 passes compared to the visitors 223 and yielded more than 70% of possession.
Yes, Spurs grew into that match and were unlucky not to grab a point but you cannot help but look at the way they set up under their manager as a bit retro.
Absorbing pressure and springing the counter in highly disciplined, detailed performances, is still a fine art to master in certain situations but in today’s rapid game of ceaseless mobility and breathless transitions, it is hard to see Mourinho’s methods fitting in on a consistent basis.
It is far too early to make any big calls about his Spurs tenure but it is fair to say that his methodology, once so cutting edge and efficient, is starting to look badly dated and increasingly irrelevant at the top tables of football.
One of Mourinho’s first acts in winning over the Porto dressing room, who were likely highly cynical of a cerebral rookie, was to pin up a banner declaring “Nobody Belongs Here But Us”. For so long that maxim rightly applied to the Portuguese at the elitist of levels in European football.
Yet as we enter a new decade, it is looking increasingly likely that, unless he can move with the modern times, Mourinho may no longer belong anywhere near the summit he once sat so proudly atop for so long.