Jose Mourinho flashing the old charm with chance to return to the big time

Jose Mourinho flashing the old charm with chance to return to the big time

They usually come out of nowhere, but reduce everyone to sniggering laughter – even if some of it can be a bit guilty. Jose Mourinho still stays in contact with other managers as well as former colleagues and there are often moments where he feels the need to comment on someone else in the game, and sends out a message featuring the most cutting descriptions. Some of it can be unprintable. All of it is really sent to amuse the recipient.

It shows the old mischief is there. It shows the old charm is there. It’s also working on people anew.

As Mourinho prepares for his sixth European final, and a return to the fixture that launched his career, there has been a general goodwill across the game for the old master to win again. Part of it is that the halo has fallen from some of the rivals that were supposed to have consigned his ways to the past. As Jurgen Klopp gets into arguments with journalists and Pep Guardiola publicly criticises players as well as his own supporters, there’s a growing argument that “everyone just becomes Jose in the end”. All great managers have that bright early rise where they can do no wrong, that peak when their legend is preserved but also their ways are set, followed by an inevitable pride that sees them get highly prickly about any criticism or drop-off.

Part of it, however, is that Mourinho himself has moved into a new career stage. He’s no longer a threat, at least to the elite. In England, he’s largely out of sight, which makes his sudden returns to attention remind us of the legend that used to be there. Everyone forgets the old battles.

The twist, of course, is that there are many who feel that Mourinho is using this to launch himself back into the big time in a similar manner to Carlo Ancelotti. Paris Saint-Germain are circling.

It’s also why it’s so fitting that so much around this Europa League final has brought Mourinho’s career full circle, while also bringing a tour around recent major moments.

It was after all the Portuguese’s last match against Sevilla, notably in Europe’s premier competition of the Champions League, where he made that notorious appeal to “football heritage”. The phrase could well describe this fixture in Budapest, given that Mourinho has never lost a European final, and Sevilla have the greatest record in the Europa League.

It was instead a typically lashed-out defence where he attempted to argue Manchester United should not be so critical of an elimination to such a club, since they’ve suffered so many defeats in Europe, one of them to his Porto. The comments had the added intention of reminding everyone of his great career, but they really showed how he had little choice but to point to the past. It wasn't happening in the present. That defeat didn’t get Mourinho sacked but it was seen as a key moment when he eventually departed Old Trafford later that year.

There was a feeling within the game that also marked his exit from the very highest level of clubs, as showcased by the jobs he has taken since. Both Tottenham Hotspur and Roma have seen the Champions League as a great ambition rather than their natural home, while Serie A itself is no longer anything close to the main show that the Premier League is.

It’s been that gradual decline, where a manager suddenly finds himself away from where it’s really at. Except, at Roma, there have been gradual steps back. Mourinho won the Europa Conference League last year, to deliver the club’s first continental trophy, and now has them on the brink of a second, superior trophy in Budapest.

Mourinho was in a relaxed mood ahead of the Europa League final in Budapest (Getty Images)
Mourinho was in a relaxed mood ahead of the Europa League final in Budapest (Getty Images)

Some of the reasons for this, however, are also the reasons why Roma have again failed to finish in the top four and why he has fallen from that elite. While top clubs now expect an ideology that proactively imposes a pressing-possession game and adheres to process, Mourinho is still mostly focused on reacting to individual opposition. Sources with knowledge of his work with Roma say that “he is still a manager more afraid of losing than excited by winning”. That has been reflected in a well-drilled but constrained 3-5-2.

The approach has seen Roma look stale in many league games, especially as there is little development in terms of attacking construction. It's why his team are so dependent on individual moments of inspiration, like from Paolo Dybala against Feyenoord. That’s been heard before. Some of the other effects, however, have also been seen before.

The difference comes in the rarefied air of Europe. It is as if that unique atmosphere of a night under the lights brings the incredible concentration necessary for Mourinho’s gameplan. That is why Roma have been so difficult to break down in the Europa League, in contrast to Serie A.

That’s what he did in virtually all of his most famous wins, from that famous Champions League semi-final against Barcelona with Internazionale, to last year’s Europa Conference against Feyenoord, and his last Europa League trophy with Manchester United against a young Ajax.

This is how he has such a good record in finals, and a flawless record in European finals going back to that first Uefa Cup against Celtic 20 years ago.

Mourinho has been linked with PSG (Getty Images)
Mourinho has been linked with PSG (Getty Images)

There were fair questions as regards Mourinho’s overall outlook for a club like United when he got the team to adapt to the movements of a teenage centre-half such as Davinson Sanchez in 2017, but the point was it represented an obvious route to victory on the day.

There remain few better at picking out the gaps in an opposition side and forensically acting upon them. This may not be productive over a season. It can be inspired in any given game.

This has struck some at Roma, especially since one belief was that Mourinho would gradually start to play a more expansive game if he was assured the time and space he didn’t have at previous clubs. It just hasn't really worked that way.

There is an argument being made that a Europa League may represent a fitting ending, especially as coaches like Antonio Conte and Roberto De Zerbi are all interested in the job. If anyone at Roma was even considering a change, though, it would be rendered completely irrelevant by the supporters. They adore him. There would be uproar if he left. There will be adulation if he lifts the Europa League.

Mourinho is currently finalising his plans for Sevilla, but a problem is the Spanish side have a force of their own in this competition. That especially manifested itself against Erik ten Hag's United. Mourinho will require something extra, some of that old motivation. That is what has really elevated his tactics in the past, the emotional intensity in every moment.

That is something he can still draw out.

It may yet see PSG bring him back to that elite strand of club. The charm is still there.