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Substance over style

Rory Smith, New York Times News Service, Dec 9 2017, 22:33 IST
For Jose Mourinho what matters is who wins the league, who finishes first, who breaks the record and who writes history. REUTERS

For Jose Mourinho what matters is who wins the league, who finishes first, who breaks the record and who writes history. REUTERS

Manchester United's players lined up at the edge of the podium, waiting patiently to mount it and lift the Europa League trophy. Around them, their beaten opponents, from Ajax Amsterdam, had arranged themselves into a guard of honour.

Jose Mourinho, United's manager, stood at the head of the line. Behind him, led by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, was a contingent of United's injured players, in club suits or training gear; after them, the team that had played in that game in May at the Friends Arena near Stockholm.

Mourinho mounted the podium first.He shook hands with Edwin van der Sar, Ajax's chief executive; Ed Woodward, United's executive vice chairman; and Theodore Theodoridis, UEFA's General Secretary. Then he approached Alexander Ceferin, UEFA's recently installed president, who was waiting to give him his winner's medal.
Mourinho shook Ceferin's hand, took his medal, then leaned in close for a few seconds, trying to make himself heard in the noise. He had something to whisper in Ceferin's ear.

He was now, Mourinho said proudly to Ceferin, the first manager to receive a winner's medal from three UEFA presidents: Lennart Johansson, Michel Platini and Ceferin. With that, he walked off, smiling broadly, toward his latest trophy.
It may seem a rather arcane bit of trivia, but it mattered to Mourinho enough to mention it to Ceferin and to text it to others in the days afterward.

It mattered because it was another record broken, another piece of history made, by a coach who defines himself by every victory, by every first-place finish.
Mourinho's worldview is a simple one, best encapsulated by a story from the height of the feud between his Real Madrid side and Pep Guardiola's Barcelona. In April 2011 - as the teams were in the middle of a run of four Clasicos in 18 days - Johan Cruyff wrote a scathing critique of Mourinho in a Catalan newspaper.

He was, Cruyff wrote, the sort of manager who "only thinks about the result, not about the game at all." He dismissed Mourinho as a "title coach, not a football coach." It was intended as an insult: For Cruyff, as for his disciple Guardiola, winning alone was not enough; the journey was just as important as the destination.

Mourinho, though, insisted that he took it as a compliment. "Thank you," he said, in response to Cruyff. "All of us here work hard so we can win titles."

That has always been Mourinho's standpoint. He has never had any time for those of his peers who talk about fanciful ideals or high-minded philosophies. What matters is who wins the league or the Cup, who finishes first, who breaks the record, who writes the history. Everything else is sophistry. After all, as he said after that game in Stockholm, "There are lots of poets in football, but poets - they don't win many titles."

It is on this point, of course, that the roots of his long-standing enmity with Guardiola can be found. They have spent much of the past decade in direct competition: for the Barcelona manager's job in 2008; in the Champions League semifinals in 2010; and in La Liga in the years that followed. Now, with Mourinho at United and Guardiola at Manchester City, they are in the same city, in the same Premier League title race and, on Sunday, in the same stadium.

But what makes their rivalry so compelling is the sense that they stand for alternate visions of what football is, or should be: Guardiola, the poet with prizes, and Mourinho, the unapologetic pragmatist; the romantic against the realist; one coach focused only on the outcome, and the other obsessed with perfecting the process. As Italian journalist Paolo Condo puts it in, The Duellists, his book about the pair's time in Spain: "Mourinho wants to win. Guardiola wants to create."

While at Real Madrid, even Alfredo Di Stéfano queried Mourinho's caution; journalist Diego Torres wrote a searing book in which, citing sources among Real's players, he claimed that Mourinho had encouraged them not to keep possession of the ball because "whoever has the ball has fear." Earlier this season, Jürgen Klopp suggested that no Liverpool manager would be able to play as defensively as Manchester United had at Anfield.

Mourinho's response has always been the same: not just to point to all the victories recorded and trophies won, but to take pleasure in stifling his more celebrated opponents.

In Madrid, he suggested that anyone complaining about his style "ask Inter Milan if they are tired of sewing badges onto their shirts." After stymying Klopp's Liverpool attack last year, he witheringly referred to them as "the eighth wonder of the world." He has admitted that winning with style is "perfection," but in the meantime, he insists he is more than happy with proving the pointlessness of poetry. Yet for all the bombast, the criticism does seem to cut Mourinho. In Madrid, he frequently used the record-breaking number of goals - 120 - his side had scored to win La Liga in 2012 as a defense against accusations that he lacked an attacking instinct. How could a team that productive possibly be accused of being defensive? That here, too, he was seeing output (the number of goals) rather than process (the nature of them) did not seem to occur to him.

In an interview with The Times of London this year, Mourinho asked which of the last three Premier League champions - Leicester City, Antonio Conte's Chelsea and his Chelsea - had played "more offensive football. Which played more quality football?" he said. "It was mine, but nobody says."

Similarly, although he has been curiously quiet on the subject of Guardiola in the past few months, Mourinho has taken every opportunity he can to belittle Conte's Chelsea. "If you look at the last winners of the Premier League, they played defensive football, counterattack football," he said of the Blues. After the goalless draw with Liverpool this year, too, he criticised Klopp for not opening the game by adopting a more attacking approach late in the match.

Perhaps this is all simply retaliation, a rebuttal to all those years of criticism for not playing the right way. Perhaps it is an inherently defensive measure, seeking not to lift himself up but to drag others down: I may be cautious, but so are they.

Or perhaps it is a hint that, although Mourinho's career and image are built on the records broken and the history made, he knows that others use different criteria. Poets do not win titles, but they do win praise, and the status of greatness. And what Mourinho, aware of even his most arcane achievements, craves more than anything else is that.

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