Meet Nice José: Mourinho’s Radical Rebrand Is a Welcome Move

Meet Nice José: Mourinho’s Radical Rebrand Is a Welcome Move

Friday, 7 September, 2018 - 07:45
Charm offensive: José Mourinho again greeted the Manchester United fans at Burnley. Photograph: Peter Powell/EPA
London - Barney Ronay
There may have been more rivetingly awkward televised football interviews in the last few seasons than José Mourinho’s rivetingly awkward post-match exchange with the BBC’s Juliette Ferrington on Match of the Day 2 on Sunday. But not many of them. And none as rivetingly awkward in quite the same way – awkward to an end, pointedly awkward, awkward with a certain kind of gain in mind; and above all, just really awkward.Ferrington put it to Mourinho that Romelu Lukaku had told her his manager was a totally different man on the training pitch. At which point it all went a bit fuzzy. Mourinho paused. He took a breath. Something weird seemed to be happening to his face. The eyes were the same, still ablaze with the familiar righteous fury, the eyes of a notoriously vengeful star federation president about to unleash the unimaginable fury of his planetary destructor beam on the cowering scum of this peace-loving rural idyll.

But Mourinho’s mouth was doing something strange, curling just a little at the edges, in what appeared to be an unaccustomed “up” direction, almost like a smile. “People who know me, they like me,” he mumbled eventually, a bead of sweat breaking out on his forehead as through sheer force of will he summoned up what might have been a genial twinkle. This was something new. This was novel, and even a little disturbing. This was José being nice.

It is, of course, necessary to issue general apologies at this point. Yes, it’s another José Mourinho article. Let’s face it, this is to be expected at the start of a Premier League season that has so far been a fairly room temperature affair elsewhere. Like United, Mourinho remains an object of fascination, in part because he has always intended this to be the case. And partly also because this latest gambit, new Nice José, José of the people uniting the fans, is so clearly a plan, something that has been discussed and settled on to change the weather around the club.

This was evident from the moment at the end of the Tottenham game when Mourinho stayed to applaud the home crowd very publicly, smiling like a shark at a birthday party. Mourinho was there again applauding the fans at Burnley, as he generally does, but more pointedly this time, a surprisingly urgent figure suddenly, transformed into a footballing version of Victor Laszlo in Casablanca, an elegantly turned out man of the people, populist in a grey zip-neck sweater. The players are on board too. “United now more than ever” David de Gea tweeted on Thursday night. A few hours later Eric Bailly went with “Now More than Ever … Together”. Jesse Lingard offered the hashtag #UnitedTogether.

This feels like a welcome move on many levels, both personal and tactical. United were expected to beat Burnley at Turf Moor. Sunday’s performance may mean nothing at all, a brief spike in a parabola of sullen decline that most assume will culminate in a toxic farewell within the year. But taken together with the first half against Tottenham last Monday there was something structurally different, an altered angle of approach.

Persona, attitude, the styling of his managerial personality: this is important to Mourinho, a major part of his professional voodoo. Finding an approach, a set of tactics and a persona that fits with his players is key. Something about the way Mourinho has presented himself in the last week speaks to the way he has done this, successfully, in the past.

The fact remains Mourinho has only ever really been his best self, only achieved extraordinary things when he has been the underdog, when his team have come from outside the elite to beat the elite. Most obviously at Porto, but also at Internazionale where a mixed team of might-bes and old lags won a first European Cup in 45 years. Even Chelsea were a club ready to be led in 2004, moneyed arrivistes driven on to a first League title since the days of Ted Drake.

Mourinho got so good at managing top-level underdog clubs he was allowed to manage top-level overdog clubs. And it is here the congealment set in. Mourinho wants to disrupt, to destroy your expensively acquired plans and impose his own will. It requires constant drilling, players who are willing to suffer and an audience willing to take pleasure in a little darkness. This best Mourinho was a populist outsider. At Real Madrid and now at United he has been an un-populist insider, become the kind of man he had always hated, or sought to bring down.

And so on to new Nice José, the populist underdog, the unity candidate. To his credit, and however awkwardly, Mourinho is making efforts to unite his base, to create a winning spirit, to re-forge those bonds. Best of all this coincided at Burnley, and for half a game against Tottenham, with a more José-looking team, a return to the pared-down, hard-running football of his best XIs.

Lukaku played less with his back to goal, and instead ran with real verve and intelligence into space on either flank. At times he was devastating, an old school Mourinho-style leader from the front in the style of Diego Milito or Didier Drogba. Behind him Paul Pogba had the right kind of entourage, two defensive midfielders allowing him to pass more, make the play, show his range of angles. Last season Pogba was 19th on the list of accurate long passes from central midfield in the Premier League. Currently he is fourth this season. Against Burnley his link-ups with Lukaku were instant and incisive, direct football in the best Mourinho sense.

Two years ago Antonio Conte reconfigured his Chelsea team to devastating effect over the autumn international break. It may be too much to expect something similar. But Mourinho is at least trying something else here, a little grudging charm where the snarls had begun to drag everyone down, and a slight, perhaps incidental modification of his team along simpler, more classically Mourinho lines in its past two matches.

The charm offensive may, in the end, prove a bridge too far but at least there is some hope, whatever the outcome of his third season, that Mourinho will not leave United without ever having really wrestled this team into something resembling one of his own.

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