When José Mourinho had his greatest success, it was because of his pragmatism, and while that side of his personality may be increasingly difficult to discern in his training, it remains at least in his career choice. Now that the biggest clubs are beyond him, it makes sense to chase those clubs one notch below the elite. Others may have been too proud, they may have resisted for the better, but not Mourinho. And so, after Tottenham, he follows Roma.
American businessman Dan Friedkin bought the club from another America, James Pallotta, last August, and while the new ownership kept Paulo Fonseca as coach, the feeling throughout the season was that he was likely to be replaced this summer. Fonseca met with executives on Monday and his departure was announced Tuesday morning, just hours before it was revealed that Mourinho had signed a three-year contract.
It is a decision that, at first glance, makes little football sense. Serie A is a different world than the Premier League, and it may be that Mourinho’s low blocking could triumph there, but he is a very different type of coach than Fonseca, who preferred a modern, high-pressure game.
“A great champion who has won trophies at all levels, José will bring tremendous leadership and experience to our ambitious project,” the club wrote in a statement. “The appointment of José is a great step in building a long-term and consistent winning culture across the club.”
That sounds a lot like what a club president would have said a decade ago. But Mourinho hasn’t won a league title since 2015, since winning a League Cup and a Europa League. Mourinho won trophies, but not recently. However, the idea that you are a born winner, whatever that means, remains, as if success is somehow a personality trait, rather than something to work towards, something that requires constant adaptation to the changing demands of the game.
Mourinho has always been a difficult personality, someone that players often tire of, someone who has been repeatedly accused of looking after himself more than the needs of the club. The initial impulse cycle, followed more and more rapidly by disappointment and acrimony, is familiar. Modern gamers seem not to respond to you the way they did about 15 years ago.
In part, that is simply a matter of time. Customs and habits change: one generation is not the same as the previous one. But it’s also about how Mourinho has changed. He was always on the side of chaos, a dark charmer willing to do whatever it took to win, but missing out on Barcelona’s 2008 spot seemed to change that. Suddenly he became the anti-Pep Guardiola. If Guardiola played a high line, then Mourinho sat deep; if Guardiola played with the ball, then he played without him. Repeatedly at Tottenham this season, advantageous positions were squandered as their side fell deeper and deeper, inviting pressure as to make it clear that the old ways could still work in the modern game. They couldn’t, or at least not in the way they were executed by the Spurs.
Mourinho inherits a Roma squad that is perhaps more nicely described as experienced. Chris Smalling and Henrikh Mkhitaryan played for him, not particularly happily, at Manchester United. Pedro played for him at Chelsea. Then there are Davide Santon, Stephan El Shaarawy, Javier Pastore and Edin Džeko, the kind of veterans who might answer the trick from Mourinho’s latest mission.
But the most obvious narrative will be his battle with Antonio Conte, who has just brought Inter to the scudetto for the first time since Mourinho was in charge in 2010. Conte replaced Mourinho after his second spell at Chelsea (after Guus’s interregnum interregnum). Hiddink) and made little secret of his disdain for his predecessor, with whom he exchanged repeated criticism after Mourinho moved to Manchester United.
However, realistically, Roma will not challenge Inter anytime soon. At the moment, 27 points and six places separate the sides, and unless Mourinho enjoys an extraordinary Indian summer in his career, that gap will not be close to closing next season. This feels like a defining job for Mourinho. He’s only 58, but it already seems like one last chance at redemption. If it fails here, where does it go next? One of the not quite elite in Spain, like a Seville or a Valencia? Or maybe back to Portugal? Maybe a national team?
From the point of view of Roma, Mourinho’s appointment will attract attention; whether it brings success is another question.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.