It certainly wasn’t the Chelsea reunion Jose Mourinho had in mind.
Sitting in the away dug-out at Stamford Bridge for the first time since his two-year spell as manager at Inter Milan, the Portuguese watched on in shocked disbelief as his pedestrian Manchester United side were torn apart by wave after wave of attacking pressure from the Blues as Antonio Conte’s men ran out 4-0 winners a month ago.
As a man who delivered seven trophies in his two spells with the London club, Mourinho received a largely positive welcome as hundreds of fans gathered to meet their former hero before the game; but by full-time, those same supporters couldn’t resist having a cheeky dig as chants of “you’re not so special any more” rang out around the ground. The question now is – did the Stamford Bridge faithful actually have a point?
The Special One Arrives
The humiliation Mourinho and his players received on that fateful day was certainly a far cry from the manager’s glory days at Chelsea. Arriving at the club in 2004 on the back of domestic and Champions League successes with FC Porto, the self-proclaimed “Special One” made an instant impact in London, guiding Chelsea to their first title in 50 years, and setting a string of English records along the way.
Propelled by the goals of talismanic frontman Didier Drogba and an uncompromising defence led by John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho, the Blues accrued a Premier League record of 95 points that still stands to this day, and also conceded the fewest strikes in a season with just 15 against.
Add to that a League Cup victory over Liverpool at the Millennium Stadium, and it’s fair to say that Mourinho’s side were back in the big time.
A second successive league title followed in the 2005/2006 season, and though rumours about a rift with Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich circulated at the start of the 2006/2007 campaign, Mourinho still led the Blues to a League and FA cup double.
The Portuguese had now won every domestic trophy available to a Premier League manager, so it came as a shock when he left the club by mutual consent in September.
A five-year spell in Europe followed, with Mourinho winning two Serie A titles, the Champions League, the Coppa Italia and the Supercoppa Italiana with Inter Milan, followed by La Liga, the Copa del Rey and the Supercopa de Espana with Real Madrid.
In 2013 he returned to London for a second spell, with a largely transitional season paving the way for league success the following year as Chelsea lost just three games on their way to the title.
The Innovation Game
Unfortunately for Mourinho, a wretched start to the 2015/2016 campaign that saw the Blues lose nine of their opening 16 league games and crash out of the League Cup after defeat to Stoke on penalties, saw him again leave the club by mutual consent. With Louis van Gaal also failing to impress at Manchester United that season, Mourinho ultimately took over from the Dutchman at Old Trafford for the start of 2016/2017.
Fast-forward to the present day and Mourinho has made a mixed start to life in Manchester. The club has smashed their record transfer fee to re-sign midfielder Paul Pogba, and the mercurial Zlatan Ibrahimovic has also been added to the team’s wealth of attacking options; but for all their investment, performances have largely been underwhelming, and United sit sixth in the table with 18 points from their 11 games so far.
Mourinho-supporters will point to the long-standing problems in a squad inherited from David Moyes and latterly Van Gaal, but for many others the reality is a little more complex. With successful Mourinho sides in years gone by being built on the simple principles of a water-tight defence and a battering ram centre forward, the football landscape has changed and the game is now a place where true innovators flourish.
Conte showed his willingness to adapt at Chelsea, with a switch to a 5-3-2 wing-back formation heralding a run of five straight wins with zero goals conceded. Jurgen Klopp and Arsene Wenger both share a fondness for forfeiting an out-and-out striker in favour of a flexible front four, while Mauricio Pochettino – like Klopp – is a fan of high-pressing and fast counter-attacking football. Pep Guardiola, meanwhile, is Pep Guardiola.
Teaching An Old Dog New Tricks
The sad truth is that so far at United, Mourinho has merely tried to do what he always has done and it no longer seems to work. The defenders are not of the calibre required for the manager’s blueprint, and a lack of truly creative midfielders beyond Pogba results in United’s build-up play being slow and predictable. Couple this with a static formation and a lack of service to Zlatan, and you have a system destined to fail.
Of course, the true measure of a manger is whether they have the ability to turn things around when times are tough, but on current evidence, Mourinho appears too set in his ways to change.