He has become a constant stalking horse with his presence as one of Sky Sports’ alpha males. But unlike Gary Neville and Graeme Souness, who have both vowed never to return to football management, Jose Mourinho is not yet done with the job that made his name and fortune.
His TV persona is relatively gentle, with the odd characteristic barb thrown in; he still cannot help himself. There have been some lengthy tactical discourses to show that he has not lost his eye for the piecemeal details of a football match. His whitening hair, small frame and occasionally off-kilter diction can give him the appearance of football’s version of Yoda.
No longer able to sell himself as the young rebel without a cause of his mid-2000s zenith, he has moved into the territory of elder statesman. ‘Been there, done that, knows all the tricks but by no means done with the game’ is the sales pitch. Should anyone require a manager of that profile, then he will be willing to take a call.
“I need a project where the feeling is I play to win,” he told the excellent Coaches Voice website. “If someone gives me a wonderful, incredible, amazing, 10-year contract and tells me ‘the objective of the team is to stay in the first part of the table, if you finish seventh or eighth or ninth it is perfect, that’s not for me.”
That signals a continuing ambition to chase for the highest honours, ruling out the mid-ranking clubs who might fancy Mourinho’s star quality adding to their global appeal. When a man has got used to travelling first class, the standard carriage is to be avoided.
Mourinho once brought Porto and then Chelsea from being also-rans to trophy-gobbling machines but would appear to have little appetite for empire building. And with England being his “natural habitat”, as he has repeatedly said since before his second spell at Chelsea, and with his primary residence being that Belgravia pad in central London, that does not leave too many open vacancies to fit his LinkedIn profile.
A couple of well-placed stories this week have suggested that Mourinho has his beady eye on Arsenal, the top-six club whose manager appears most vulnerable, if Manchester United are to be discounted and Daniel Levy’s views on spending at Tottenham would seem to rule out that option.
Unai Emery cannot seem to catch a break.
Even a fine performance from his younger players saw a lead squandered prior to a penalties defeat at Liverpool in the Carabao Cup after a 5-5 draw.
In that game, Mesut Ozil gave an exhibition of what had been granted less than 75 minutes in the Premier League. Before being taken off prematurely, Ozil offered a dimension to Arsenal’s attacking play that has been lacking all season. The team’s best two players are Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette but neither have received decent enough service from a malfunctioning midfield.
Within that central unit, Granit Xhaka’s outburst at fans betrayed a fraying relationship between those on the field and those paying through the gates. The choice of Xhaka as team captain, and via an election process, hardly suggested a strong hand from the manager. Xhaka’s performances have not been good enough to guarantee him a first-team place, let alone the armband worn by Tony Adams, Patrick Vieira and Frank McLintock.
The most negatively tweeted manager in the Premier League is none other than Emery, his 75 percent proportion well ahead of Marco Silva’s 67 percent in second place. The Spaniard has failed to win over Arsenal fans. He remains a stranger to them, and the halting English cannot fully take the blame. Claudio Ranieri got by just fine when in his early days at Chelsea, while Fabio Capello’s best days with England came when he barely spoke a word of the Queen’s. Those in Spain would tell you that Emery, even when riding high with Valencia and Sevilla, was not a man to galvanise fans with bon mots and rallying cries.
Whereas Mourinho definitely used to be, and perhaps could be again. His early days at his new employers see a charm offensive to win over the club’s fans and media. At United, where his persona was a little more dour than the stand-up act of his return to the Bridge, he still had the populist’s touch, gaining credence as the man who could rescue the club from the mess that Ed Woodward and Louis van Gaal had left it in.
It didn’t last, of course. It never does. But Mourinho’s current sales pitch is to be the experienced head who can deliver success quickly, and keep the pressure off the owners, as he will take the full heat as the front man. Could that work at Arsenal? It seems unlikely, not least because he spent so long lampooning the club. He always kept a respectful distance from United, having fancied showing Alex Ferguson how it should be done. He would enjoy doing the same to Arsene Wenger, with a lower bar of success to jump over, but It remains unthinkable.
Mourinho wants money spent big and on big players, in terms of physique and standing within the game. His approach would seem to go against a club that, like Chelsea and United, has decided to blood youngsters alongside experienced players. Stan Kroenke, until this summer and the £75m signing of Nicolas Pepe, has not exactly shown himself willing to spend freely.
And for Mourinho, there can never be too much money spent.
When all was crashing down around him at Old Trafford, Mourinho’s style of football was used against him, just as it once was at Real Madrid. Arsenal is a club of similar attacking pretensions, though that was not always the case. George Graham’s team of the late-1980s and early-1990s was known for its defending and 1-0 scorelines but it is remembered almost as fondly as Wenger’s greatest days. Success can always dampen the need to see flashing blade football.
And it is success that Mourinho offers at the top of his CV. Even at United, he won a European trophy and a second place in the 2017-18 season he has repeatedly lionised. Emery, approaching rabbit in the headlights status, one that would be familiar to those who followed his time at PSG, does not offer anything like the assurance Mourinho can bring.
Still, though, Mourinho ending up at Arsenal could never be anything but an uncomfortable marriage, a throw of the dice for both parties.