Past Their Sell By Date?
Harry Richards takes a look at whether managers know the time is right for them to say goodbye and how outstaying their welcome can impact their legacy
Everything and everyone has their time – even the greatest football managers of all time. The likes of Sir Alex Ferguson, Bob Paisley and Bill Shankly were fortunate enough to leave on a high note, but to do so requires a careful balancing act; you must weigh up when either your passion or understanding has dwindled to the point that resignation will improve your legacy.
That is something Arsène Wenger found out for himself, with the fanbase campaigning for his removal as manager for years before he finally resigned. Most Arsenal fans will remember him fondly, for the consistent title challenges and, most memorably, the ‘Invincibles’ campaign of 2003/04. However, it is inevitable there is a sub-section that recalls him more for his sides after 2006: the entertaining but ultimately unsuccessful Arsenal sides.
So far, I have only mentioned managers that define their clubs. Although it is still difficult to time your retirement there, it remains easier at a club where you have been successful for a long time. After such a long period, successful managers might think there is nothing left to achieve. As shown by how difficult it is to retain a league title, it is far harder to motivate yourself and your players to repeat what they have already achieved.
This is when we come to José Mourinho. Whereas managers like Ferguson showed their quality by rebuilding the same club over several cycles, Mourinho embodied a more modern approach of one cycle, and then leaving for a new project. Of course, this is helped by how often he has been sacked, but my point is that Mourinho’s passion is not for a single club, but to have success across every league. At Inter, he won a historic treble and left straight afterwards; his passion was for international success, not building a club in his own image.
That Mourinho’s influence has waned is illustrated by his last three jobs. Returning to Chelsea, despite the 2014/15 title, has had a negative effect on his reputation among most of their fans. His spell at Manchester United, despite the ‘treble’ and impressive 2ndplace finish, ended the same way: a sacking in his third season after dressing room drama and terribly negative football.
Yet, it is still José Mourinho; the aura is still there. Well, it was for Daniel Levy anyway. And, in November, Mourinho looked to be getting the best out of Son and Kane, putting Spurs in with a chance of the title. Now, the title is long-gone, and reports indicate he will be sacked if he does not take his side into the top 4.
Speculation of retirement seems early, but it would be surprising if another top European club took a punt on him after Spurs. Reports paint the picture of a stubborn man, “not bothered about…expected goals” or coaching “offensive patterns” – staples of any modern coach. To credit Mourinho, he did try and change; his arrival at Spurs came with praise of his new 3-2-5 system, inverting Ben Davies, and imitating the front 5s (on the ball) of City and Liverpool.
Yet, Spurs’ press looked disjointed at best and, when Spurs fall back into a low block out of possession, the wide players fall so deep that counter attacks are overly reliant on brilliance from the likes of Son, Kane and N’Dombele or fortunate long balls forward. The unsustainable conversion rates of the autumn have halted, something data analysts with an interest in expected goals predicted and Mourinho seemingly ignored.
Spurs have heavily overperformed their underlying xG numbers in both attack and defence this season but recently, those numbers have dwindled, causing Spurs to slip into what has become a seemingly characteristic slump at most Mourinho managed teams.
He may have embodied pragmatism in the 2000s, but he is being out-schooled at it by the likes of Arteta, Dyche, and Solskjær this season. He is clearly someone with intelligence and passion for the game, so a return to Sky’s studio might beckon, but he is far over his peak now and, given his preference for big jobs, I cannot see a world where he stays in high-level management. Perhaps a nostalgic return to Porto would be possible in a few years when the highly rated Sérgio Conceição leaves for pastures new, but it is not certain they would even want Mourinho, with how they have evolved.
In a way it is a shame; when Mourinho does retire, who will remember him fondly? Managing United and Tottenham has hurt his relationship with Chelsea fans as much as the disastrous 2015/16 season did. Some Inter fans are surely bitter at his decision to leave, given that between his departure and Conte’s arrival the club have not really competed. Real Madrid is not a sentimental club at the best of times, but he called the 2012-13 season the “worst of his career” and generally the last season is the one that stays in people’s minds.
Mourinho embodied the journeyman supercoach, bringing trophies and entertaining moments (if not matches…) wherever he went. Now the trophies have dried up, the question becomes how long it will be before the defining memory of Mourinho will be the stubborn dinosaur, rather than the charismatic ‘Special One’.