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16 Mar 2018

Manchester United: Mourinho's negativity could destroy him

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 Car-crash press conference

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From idea to practice

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An inherent weakness

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'Football heritage'

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Beautiful pragmatism

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Swallowed by fear

(Photo credit: Tsutomu Takasu)

To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.

-Joseph Chilton Pearce

It is easy enough, in the present climate, to invoke the notion of 'negativity' when the name Jose Mourinho is raised in a conversation.

"Oh!" you might say. "That's the thing about Jose Mourinho... he doesn't set out to win games... just to not lose them!"

Of course, in the wake of Manchester United's inglorious dumping out of the Champions League at the hands of Sevilla, these sorts of critiques may well be justified.

But what is sneaked in under the guise of a discussion about the Portuguese manager is the idea that lying beneath this so-called 'negative approach' is a specifically tactical attitude which emphasises the pragmatic over the idealistic.

Mourinho, it is thought, is the archetypal pragmatist and, on this season's showing, he has been shown up by the idealist Pep Guardiola.

In fact, this could not be further from the truth. Of the two managers, Mourinho is the more classically idealist: it is just that the idea that he embodies in his approach is the idea of negativity. 

And, as has become increasingly obvious as the season has gone on, this negativity could be about to destroy him.

Car-crash press conference

"I understand that for many, many, many, years was really, really hard for the people who doesn't like me. Here he is again, here he wins again."

The sermon was coming to a conclusion. It had been 12-and-a-half minutes long and had included a list of biblical proportions. You know the kind: "And then 2011 begat a defeat against Barcelona and 2012 begat a loss to Athletic Club, etc. etc.'

He came to the benediction: "For 10 months I win nothing. The last title that I won was 10 months ago. I beat Liverpool, Chelsea, I lose against Sevilla and now is their moment to be happy.

"I learn that in my religious formation, be happy with others' happiness, so be it, I am a really happy guy."

At this point, you might question what Mourinho has learned in his religious formation about lying. But contained in this short homily, is the basic outline of the Portuguese's negativity, which is this: humans gain strength from other people's weakness, happiness from their sadness (whatever he claims), life from their death.

From idea to practice

It is from this basic idea that Mourinho's tactical approach to the game pivots.

In 2014, Diego Torres published a book, The Special One: The Dark Side of Jose Mourinho. In its pages, he documented Mourinho's Seven Commandments:

1. The game is won by the team who commits fewer errors.

2. Football favours whoever provokes more errors in the opposition.

3. Away from home, instead of trying to be superior to the opposition, it’s better to encourage their mistakes.

4. Whoever has the ball is more likely to make a mistake.

5. Whoever renounces possession reduces the possibility of making a mistake.

6. Whoever has the ball has fear.

7. Whoever does not have it is thereby stronger.

In each of these tenets of Jose Mourinho's philosophy, the reciprocity is there at every step. There is no annunciation of a positive principle, the whole system is designed to be responsive to an opposition.

Whatever else the eschewing of possession means, it stands as a cipher for 'allowing the other team to set the terms of the debate'. For it is only with the ball that you impose a positive style upon the game itself. 

An inherent weakness

Of course, the inherent weakness of this approach comes from the very fact that it is reciprocal. 

And this is where defeats to teams like Sevilla, Newcastle United and Bristol City become instructive. Because when your style is dependant upon the opposition setting the tone, then the teams who are content to adopt an equal and opposite negativity can cause problems.

Which isn't to say that these sides didn't come with gameplans to disrupt Manchester United: all three outplayed Mourinho's side in their own way.

However, as the match against Liverpool showed, Mourinho's tactics rely on scoring first and then having enough to manage the game-state through to a conclusion. 

When chasing the game, the reciprocal negativity loses much of its attraction.

'Football heritage'

Back to Carrington. "There is something that I call football heritage," Mourinho intones. "The last time Manchester United won the Champions League, which didn't happen a lot of times, was in 2008."

"I give you... more. In the last seven years, the worst position of Manchester City in the Premier League was fourth. In the last seven years Manchester City were champions twice and if you want to say three times, they were second twice. That's heritage.

"Do you know what is also heritage? Is that [Nicolas] Otamendi, Kevin De Bruyne, Fernandinho, [David] Silva, [Raheem] Sterling, [Sergio] Aguero - they are investments from the past, not from the last two years."

Reciprocity again. If you mention Manchester United, I mention Manchester City. If you blame Jose Mourinho, I turn the finger on Pep Guardiola.

But this is where the implicit pragmatism of Pep Guardiola comes in. Mourinho is happy to admit it. Nicolas Otamendi, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling. You could also bring Fabian Delph into it. All of these players have come into their own since Guardiola began coaching.

Of course, if you're Mourinho, you view these players as having intrinsic value which was already there when Guardiola arrived. But that is not the full truth. Each of them had this intrinsic talent nurtured by the Catalan, allowing him to make them central to one of the best teams in Premier League history.

Beautiful pragmatism

Here's the thing: it is Pep Guardiola who makes do with what he has; who builds teams from what he has. Behind the aesthetic nicety of Manchester City, there are stories of salvation. 

Yes, Guardiola has spent millions on his defence. But when Benjamin Mendy ruptures his ACL, Fabian Delph is brought in; when John Stones gets injured, Nicolas Otamendi as rehabilitated.

This is pragmatism at its finest. Look at Guardiola's teams through his career. There is always a realisation that progress can be made, new things learned, old wineskins filled with new wine.

As a result, there is not a prototypical Guardiola style of play. This Manchester City team is different from the Bayern Munich team and the various iterations of the Barcelona team. 

The germ of an idea is there but the reality is shaped as much by the building blocks he was given to work with as the multi-million pound extensions that were added at a later date.

Swallowed by fear

There is no need to rehearse the failures of Jose Mourinho's approach. They are endlessly rehashed at each point of his career where his negative posturing pushes another dressing room, another boardroom, another fan base past the point of no return.

At Carrington, on Friday, we saw the next episode in the reality TV show that Mourinho's managerial career has become. We know what happens from here. It happened in the last series.

But as time goes by, Jose Mourinho is in danger of destroying himself through his idealistic negativity. 

The fact of the matter is that, in the end, you cannot hope to succeed when you are entirely consumed by the fear of failure. At some point, you have to let go of your fears and offer something positive. 

Yes, it could end in disappointment. But it is only once you lose your fear of failure that you can truly offer something creative to the world.

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