For a man with a reputation for being an arch pragmatist, Jose Mourinho has quite the imagination on the quiet. His disdain for football's dreamers is well-documented, yet the clarity of his vision for where he wants his sides to get to is often as clear-sighted as it is prescient. The paradox is he is seen as the quintessential short-term manager, yet history dictates this does him a disservice.
Of course, to take umbrage is only necessary if such a label is deemed disparaging. Such is their even-handed disposition behind the facade of car park TV fury, Arsenal fans might not go so far as to kill for a hit of short-termism, but they would almost certainly put down their quinoa to applaud it.
That Mourinho has won the title in his second season at each of his major clubs—Porto, Chelsea (twice), Inter Milan and Real Madrid—is not some spurious quirk of fate. In Foucault's Pendulum, Umberto Eco wrote, "Everything is repeated, in a circle. History is a master because it teaches us that it doesn't exist. It's the permutations that matter."
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Manchester United's perfect start to the Premier League continues 💯 https://t.co/mQprM5Y7Ei2017-8-26 18:40:35
Bookmakers usually work on the assumption history tends to repeat itself. After Saturday's 2-0 victory over Leicester City made it three wins from as many matches for Manchester United, with 10 goals scored and none conceded, some are offering just 2-1 on Mourinho continuing his remarkable record of delivering a title after 12 months on the job.
Just three games into a six-horse race, those odds are skinnier than a toothpick, even withstanding Arsenal's players having to collectively withdraw from international duty to partake in a mandatory visit to a glue factory.
Mourinho's second-season record is one of those facts so well-documented over the years it has long since lost its capacity to draw wonder. Met with a shrug despite clearly being extraordinary, it's the football equivalent of being informed Michael Jackson had a monkey called Bubbles and slept in an oxygen tank.
To be fair, Mourinho looks as though he might have spent the summer in an oxygen tank. Physically, he appears rejuvenated. There's a bit of the Richard Gere about him again, where last year slumming it in his tracksuit he more resembled a man on gear. In his own words, he's on fire, and so is his team.
Even on those occasions when he delivered a title in a debut campaign, his sides were even better the one after. At both Porto and Inter Milan, he won unexpected UEFA Champions League silverware in second full seasons. Arguably his greatest-ever feat as a manager came in his second year at Real Madrid in toppling Pep Guardiola's Barcelona team, hailed by many at the time to be the greatest club side ever after a four-year dominance of La Liga. He did so breaking the Spanish record for goals and points.
That he left the Santiago Bernabeu the following year fits another trend in Mourinho's career like a glove. His struggle with third-season syndrome demands an article of its own. Ever the contrarian, Mourinho tends to save his difficult second album for his third LP.
Though it stands to reason a manager would do better in a second season when they have gotten to know their players and vice versa (maybe that's the problem) and had the chance to work a couple of transfer windows, statistically, it's surprisingly not the case.
Over the summer Bwin did a study showing how over the past decade 191 managers have been appointed to clubs in one of the big five leagues (Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga, Ligue 1 and Serie A) and still been in the position the following season. Of those, just 71, barely over a third, won more points in their second season than first.
Mourinho is in an elite band of just seven managers who have won a title at the second attempt, after improving on their first season. He did it with Porto in 2003 (though technically this was his first full season having joined in January the previous campaign), Real Madrid in 2012 and Chelsea in 2015. Title successes at Chelsea in 2006 and Inter Milan in 2010 complete an immaculate record of having won five championships in his second season at four different clubs.
No manager has ever overseen an upgrade from sixth place to first, though, as Mourinho is attempting this term. Felix Magath won the Bundesliga with
Penfold FC VfL Wolfsburg in 2008/09, having finished the previous campaign in fifth. Fulham could have done a Leicester City by now had their players not had such an aversion to running in training until their feet bled.
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Jose isn't afraid of speaking his mind 👀 https://t.co/QjCiC0HDPq2017-8-27 10:41:22
Aside from Magath, Mourinho is the only other manager in a second term to have orchestrated a title win from third place or lower in a single season, doing so with Chelsea in 2014/15.
For a little context, over a 34-game season, Wolfsburg achieved a 15-point positive swing from the previous campaign to win the Bundesliga.
For United to match Chelsea's admittedly high title-winning total of 93 from last term, they need to improve by some 24 points. That's eight additional wins. A less daunting way to look at it would be to say turning last season's home draws with Stoke City, Burnley, West Ham United, Hull City, Bournemouth, West Bromwich Albion and Swansea City into wins would account for 14 of the additional 24 points required.
Chelsea boss Antonio Conte, with Juventus, is one of seven coaches—that also number Mourinho—to have retained a title in a second season over the past decade. It is a feat no one has managed in the Premier League over the same period, though the manner of Chelsea's obliteration of Everton on Sunday suggests the Italian could prove just as capable as Mourinho at repeating history.
In a performance in its own way every bit as complete as Liverpool's demolition job on Arsenal a couple of hours later, bar a dose of profligacy, this was Chelsea pretty much as good as it gets. Ominously for the rest of the division, Alvaro Morata is scoring and assisting despite somehow still being criticised, Eden Hazard has yet to kick a ball in anger, and as many as three new signings, as reported by the Express, are anticipated between now and the close of the transfer window on September 1.
Those who suggested Chelsea are firefighting already this season are fire-starting by setting alight their laptops. Idiots.
While United, Chelsea and Liverpool all seem to have found a cohesive attacking rhythm early, Manchester City are still to uncork their mojo. Seven points from nine is a fair return for a side playing well below expectations.
To those who see Guardiola as more pseudo than genius, the Spaniard overcomplicates the game where Mourinho simplifies it. As gorgeously beguiling as City are when on song going forward, it's an entirely different story when the ball is turned over.
An exasperated Guardiola on the touchline can resemble Stephen Hawking giving a lecture on the theory of relativity to a group of schoolkids more interested in trying make a model of the solar system from discarded Coke bottles. Educating Greater Manchester starts on Channel 4 this week, broadcast live from the Etihad.
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Phil Jones’ gargantuan effort is going to give Jose Mourinho (good) selection headaches. 🔒 https://t.co/dfACxKBYYh2017-8-26 19:53:29
On the topic of attacking football, Mourinho announced himself at his unveiling as Porto's new head coach on 23 January, 2002 thus (via Luis Lourenco's biography Jose Mourinho): "I promise that I intend to play on the attack. I promise that we will work towards that goal every day, until we reach a perfectly systematic and automatic model. When that day comes, I promise you attacking football; until then, I promise that I deliberately intend to attack."
It's an interesting rhetoric he employed, one he still uses today. Even back then it's as though he knows it will take time for new players to digest his methodology. The aforementioned could easily have been taken from any number of his press conferences last season. He is confident enough to make a promise, yet at the same time, it's as though he wants to create a certain distance between the state of the embryonic squad he inherits and where he intends to take it.
When he took the Porto job, he said winning the title was a possibility, just as he did when he first addressed the media as Manchester United manager. Within a few months in both roles, he had backpedalled so much eventually he had to be lured back out of the womb. Never one to underplay the size of the job he has on, he described the Porto squad he had taken charge of as the worst in 26 years. Whether all that is about playing with perceptions as much as it is genuine opinion is a matter of conjecture.
It is the title win Mourinho oversaw at Chelsea in the second season of his second spell at Stamford Bridge that has drawn comparisons with the current situation at Manchester United.
During his first term back in west London, he must have promised "next season will be better" more often than Theresa May's robot double uttered "strong and stable" in the buildup to the general election. Mourinho is considerably better at delivering on promises. Indeed Chelsea were strong and stable that year, just as Manchester United appear to be this.
In December 2013, he said of the process of building a team capable of challenging for the title (via the Mirror): "After one season, we can analyse in a cold way, look at 12 months, 60 matches. Normally, teams in their second season have to be better than the first. We're in a transitional period."
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Manchester United are going to have an embarrassment of riches in attack when Zlatan’s healthy. 🔴🔴 https://t.co/i2UChRBGl52017-8-26 21:05:14
The following summer, having guided Chelsea to third the previous campaign (it probably still galls him he couldn't improve on the position he inherited from predecessor Rafa Benitez), he signed Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa. The latter was required to provide the physicality Mourinho always demands from his centre-forwards.
It remains a key part of his famed methodology. From Benni McCarthy at Porto to Romelu Lukaku today, via Didier Drogba, Diego Milito, Karim Benzema, Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Portuguese has always eschewed the vogue for false nines in favour of those who would slap you for suggesting they were anything of the sort.
Fabregas was brought in to add a touch of je ne sais quoi to complement the steely discipline of Nemanja Matic. Three years later Mourinho returned for Matic's steely discipline to complement Paul Pogba's je ne sais quoi. In his three league appearances to date, the Serbian has proved Mourinho's forensic eye for knowing just what is required to elevate a squad comes to the fore after he has worked with them for a season.
That second summer has proved to be the key to his career time and time again. It's where he shapes his team, weeds out those that won't or can't carry out his tactical demands and replaces them with those that can.
There's no doubt he is obsessively studious with how he approaches the transfer market. Mourinho speaks of his targets as a chef might ingredients; no substitute is acceptable. To sign one winger over an intended winger would almost certainly ruin the recipe.
It was selling Ibrahimovic to Barcelona in 2009 and replacing him with Samuel Eto'o, Wesley Sneijder and Milito to turn Inter from the best side in Italy to the best in Europe that demonstrated to the club's board it was probably better to trust his judgement than their own.
Ever since, Mourinho has treated his moneymen as Gordon Ramsay might a station chef who has mistaken salt for sugar when making a cream cake. A special Woodward's Transfer Nightmares is to be shown directly after the window slams shut, featuring poor Ed cowering in the corner of the kitchen after failing to land Ivan Perisic.
Speaking to ESPN FC before Saturday's game, Pogba had said of his partnership with Matic, the early front runner for signing of the season: "I am mostly an offensive player and I think more about attacking. But he [Matic] will be more defending.
"That helps me more be myself. I still do the defensive part, but now I can go forward more and help the strikers. I like to be in front of the goals too."
On Saturday, particularly in the first half, the Frenchman was like a kid on the rifle range of a funfair. Despite having seven shots of varying accuracy, he failed to win a goldfish, as Kasper Schmeichel did a more than reasonable impersonation of his old man. Harry Maguire deserves a mention, too. Again he looked good value for his England call-up. No little promise may yet grow into his gigantic frame.
While the centre of United's midfield for longer than even Sir Alex Ferguson would care to remember has lacked personality, now it is a marvellous mix of power and polish, industry and innovation. Matic has them playing at least 20 yards further up the pitch than last season, mainly via his incessant stepping forward to intercept. This pro-activeness has proved infectious in a previously passive team.
The tempo is unrecognisable from the previous four seasons; it's certainly the best since Ferguson's retirement. Marijuana plants had more get-up-and-go than United under both David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, while even last term United played as though under the influence of a hazy fog.
Leicester's midfield duo of Wilfred Ndidi and Matty James was dwarfed by Pogba and Matic to the extent it looked as though they were a hapless pair of computer game characters pitched against an insurmountable end-of-level baddie. Think Mario and Luigi shrunk on contact with poisonous mushrooms.
There's a lovely decisive simplicity to United this season. The ball follows the path of least resistance, with Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan's cute one- and two-touch play teasing defenders out of position to allow the more athletic Pogba, Lukaku, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford to bound into the spaces vacated.
He seems to have gotten the mix right. Martial and Rashford look like a pair of £50 million winger-cum-strikers competing to dance to Mourinho's tune rather than their own, while Lukaku—despite his penalty miss on Saturday—looks nailed on to hit at least 20 goals injuries permitting.
Ibrahimovic is a decent man to come in to lift things in January should his rehabilitation go to plan, with his 28 goals last term testimony to a talent not yet ready for semi-retirement in America or China.
At the back, Mourinho can prime any two from four talented centre-halves, with United only lacking a consistent left-back (though Daley Blind is better than many give him credit for, and Luke Shaw is surely worth another run when fit) and natural width down the right.
5 - Henrikh Mkhitaryan has equalled the PL record for most assists in his first three apps in a season (5 by Ruel Fox in 1994/95). Creator. https://t.co/snCPKs85wU2017-8-26 18:01:25
Mkhitaryan's assist for Rashford's opener on Saturday was a fifth of the season, equalling a record that had stood for 23 years. The Armenian schemer is the first player since Ruel Fox back in 1994 to create five goals in the opening three games of a Premier League campaign.
Mourinho credits a better understanding between him and the player as being behind the upturn in his form, per Metro:
"In the beginning of last season if he understands me better, he would have started better.
"But at the same time, if I understood him better, I would probably have helped him in a faster way than I did.
"But we spent our time together, working together, learning each other. The second part of last season was good for him and I believe with his talent that this season is going to be even better."
In fairness, Mourinho could have been speaking about any number of his squad. A second-season syndrome unique to the Portuguese appears to have kicked in even earlier than usual.
And that's an ominous sign for Manchester United's rivals.