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And therein lies probably one of the most fascinating aspects of The Special One's trajectory thus far.
Much has been said and written about Chelsea's misfortunes this season. But the truth is that, in fact, this downward spiral was not that hard to envision - that is, if you pay some attention to more than just the immediate results. What was once a coach with a great eye for detail and tactical innovation (albeit a more subtle one) has become a shadow of his former self, relying exclusively on his dressing room management skills - à la Luiz Felipe Scolari.
- 1. The Beginning
Mourinho was given his first chance at a marauding Benfica and he immediately transformed the team, at every single level. However, the fact that he didn't stay there for more than a couple of months didn't help us understand just what he was capable of.
He needed to get to União de Leiria, by then an average mid-table club in the Portuguese top tier, to really make his mark. By December 2001, his team were already flying as high as third, two spots ahead of his eventual employers FC Porto, who rushed to sign him before anyone else would. But what impressed a few (including this column, admittedly) the most was not necessarily the table standings, but rather how he had got there, with proactive football, unafraid of anyone and eschewing altogether the tenets of the typically reactive football played in Portugal in the early seasons of the century. He was a breath of fresh air. The players loved to play for him. Some of them shone like they had never done before (and some of them never would again).
Despite some revisionism laid out by a few football writers as of late, both União de Leiria and FC Porto played much more than just controlled, run-of-the-mill football under a very inspirational coach, like some would have you believe. Mourinho paid excruciating attention to detail (as the famous leaked report by then-opposition scout André Villas-Boas) in an attempt to always get the upper hand on his opponents.
He was indeed inspirational for other coaches, as he seemed to bring a fresh new approach to football and its coaching. Even though he didn't preach anything revolutionary, he seemed to be one of the few who represented the entire package - not only was he able to preach possession-based football and training sessions where the ball was ever present, he also had a penchant for press conferences and soundbites, a supreme confidence in his skills and the air of someone who was going places, all rolled into one.
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Mourinho always had the collective, the group in the back of his mind. In one of the best books written about his career and approach, the Portuguese coach explained how zonal marking was the only option to defend set pieces, since it held the whole team responsible for the play's outcome - once again the group before the individuals. He went on to talk about the principle of complexity (how the relations between the different individuals in a team changed the team dramatically and how any coach should pay attention to it).
On another book, he talked about the Guided Discovery, i.e. how the coach had the responsibility to lay clues for the players to find out the best answer to a specific problem was, Mourinho himself knowing all along what he wanted the answer to be. He bragged about how he wanted to dominate matches or at least control them, if domination was not an option. He talked about how he wanted his teams to press high and then rest with the ball. Players were delighted with his innovative sessions. In short, he sounded much more like the coach Xavi had got to know at Barça.
- 2. Top of the World
Everyone knows how the story goes by now. After winning the Champions League, Chelsea's new owner wanted Mourinho to lead his team and wouldn't take no for an answer. The Portuguese was an instant success, from his very first press conference. He won his players over in a heartbeat and indeed, in the first matches of the off-season, it was already possible to see many of the movements that Mourinho had implemented at FC Porto.
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- 3. Always Brightest Before The Night
Mourinho decided to go to Inter Milan as the luminary that would set the oft-floundering Massimo Moratti's club on their way back to glory. And that Mourinho did. But that was also where you could sense things starting to fall apart a little bit, a very hard proposition to sustenance when everyone knows Inter ended up winning the Italian League and the Champions League in the two seasons that the Portuguese coach spent in Italy.
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- 4. The Tipping Point
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On the contrary, this is about how he got to those results - often times with a much more reactive brand of football, resorting to have his team play exclusively to the strengths of Cristiano Ronaldo, even when it had costly implications on the rest of the squad and their playing style. It seemed Mourinho was involving, going back on all the principles that had brought him such a high level of success.
Man-marking at set pieces became the norm everywhere. Transitions became the team's livelihood. Ceding initiative to opponents soon became the traditional way for Mourinho's side to have the upper hand. Sérgio Ramos or Pepe (neither of whom excel in the build-up phase of play) as the team's holding midfielder was not an unusual sight and denounced the team's focus. Controlling matches with frustrating underhand tactics was not uncommon either. A man so steeped in his principles of positive football and collective thinking seemed to have sold his soul in exchange for more and more trophies.
- 5. The Return to England
It is hard to fathom matches that are more made in heaven than Mourinho and the United Kingdom. Each party delivers what the other one wants, craves, loves and hates - in equal parts. And because Mourinho came back with a vengeance amidst claims of being The Happy One, it was even harder to get the point across that this was a different Mourinho, more interested in managing things from his tower and less willing to impose his football on his adversaries.
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Clearly Chelsea will bounce back from this stupor and will probably progress from the group stage at the hands of FC Porto themselves. The 7 defeats were clearly a statistical blip. But blaming all of that on a thin squad or the typical 10-year cycles of successful managers seems to be a lazy exercise of reasoning, of a certain blindness to what had been taking shape beforehand. It remains to be seen just how far José Mourinho can take this squad and how he will be able to mend some of the fractures that already started to appear in the dressing room.
This piece is no way destined to draw attention on all of José Mourinho's falls, but rather how his path has been a slippery slope and how there has been some evidence that such a blip might not be too far off. The siege mentality that the Portuguese usually implements on the clubs he manages tend to work, but it's a scorched earth approach that often leaves many of its members burnt - particularly at a time where player power is at its height and it's increasingly difficult to confine footballers in a "one for all and all for one" mentality for too long.
It is this column's opinion, however, that unless Mourinho reverts his recent trajectory in terms of pure footballing approach, the titles that seemed to be coming his way so thick and fast will tend to spread out eventually, maybe sooner rather than later, as he fails to innovate and make his football as dominating as the approach Mourinho himself adopts at press conferences, where he is still "el puto amo". If he does not step up his game, players will soon catch up with it and start losing faith in his skills and it will be increasingly hard to see his players weep over his departure.