There is a bittersweetness to seeing Jose Mourinho back in Premier League football.
The salt-and-pepper hair is almost white, the quips are not as free-flowing as they were; there is a sense of age and time’s arrow having bowed someone who once stood so tall above the rest. And the playbook is far too familiar.
Even this week’s early sacrifice of Eric Dier in Tottenham’s Champions League recovery against Olympiakos lacked novelty. It was a special move he regularly employed back in his mid-2000s heyday.
Someone once so dominant has taken on the role of a football management Red Adair.
Tottenham may be ambitious but Daniel Levy’s turning to Mourinho was one of those link-ups to which phrases like ports in a storm and marriages of convenience are attached. Neither man enjoys comparisons to the other, but Mourinho now seems to have been forced to accept a journeyman status that Rafa Benitez, his greatest rival of that mid-2000s has had for some years now.
Think back to that time, and it is difficult to think of one without the other.
They became almost interchangeable. Benitez got the Liverpool job that Mourinho had wanted but later ended up taking over from Mourinho at Inter Milan in 2010, and a team that his predecessor had wrung the last from in winning the Champions League as part of a Treble.
In turn, Mourinho’s second Chelsea coming followed Benitez’s spell as interim manager.
In 2012, Mourinho and Maicon, one of his Inter stars, were caught on camera giggling about ‘El Gordo’, provoking an intervention from Mrs Benitez, Montse, while Rafa would simmer at the mention of his rival’s name, biting his lip but barely hiding his contempt.
“He was doing what he had to do, and I was doing what I had to do,” he said of Mourinho in this month’s issue of Four Four Two, trying his best to dampen down the rivalry.
That interview came as part of a publicity drive, or at least a series of interviews to remind that Rafa is still around, and available for work if it should be required. And in the meantime, he is at Dalian Yifang F.C on the shores of China’s Yellow Sea, cooped up in a hotel, as has been his life pretty much since he left Liverpool in 2010.
If Mourinho became known as the Lowry Hotel’s permanent resident equivalent of Fawlty Towers’ Major Gowen when at Manchester United, then his exposure to room service, late-night menus and keycards is nothing on Benitez, who left his family on the Wirral as he sought his fortune across the globe.
In Naples, he lived in a hotel next to the training ground in which he was pretty much the sole resident.
In Newcastle, he had a decent quayside view of the Tyne from his window.
It was in taking that Newcastle job that Benitez and Mourinho’s paths diverged. Whereas Mourinho has only accepted blue-chip clients, Benitez, having been sacked by Real Madrid, took Mike Ashley’s shilling, and with that, appeared to lower his horizons.
In terms of reputation, at least within England, his spell at St James’ was actually an enhancement.
His commitment in the face of such difficulties melted some previously hardened hearts. Newcastle dropped into the Championship through little fault of his own, and then roared back as champions.
He then kept up a squad that was still built of largely second-tier talents, and twice over, too.
A manager with an austere reputation outside of Merseyside converted another port city to his quirky charms. Beneath the awkwardness, those who know him say he is good company, and the pressmen in the North East certainly enjoyed chatting to him; off the record, he is said to be great fun and often hilariously indiscreet.
But the job offers have not exactly flowed in from elsewhere in the Premier League. West Ham once seemed a fait accompli but within the current speculation over Manuel Pellegrini’s future, it has been reported that his previous discussions with the club’s ownership did not result in much warmth between the two parties.
Everton’s imminent vacancy to follow the fall of Mourinho-lite Marco Silva seems unlikely given previous associations, but they could do a lot worse, especially as the current names linked are a return for David Moyes and Mark Hughes beyond that.
Arsenal’s problems could well find a cure in a manager who knows how to organise a defence and to construct a midfield. Especially now that there is a vacant hotseat at the Emirates Stadium!
Why has Benitez dropped out of vogue?
Like Mourinho, his philosophical hinterland lies in the football of the 1990s and early 2000s, a time where defence was key, perhaps as a result of the dominance of Italian clubs for much of the years preceding that.
Both had – and have – approaches which aimed to lock down matches. “We were creating chances, we were controlling the game” is a mantra Benitez has repeated in three different languages, and has probably attempted in Mandarin by now, too.
Football has moved on from that, with Pep Guardiola the revolutionary with Barcelona from the late-2000s, and Jurgen Klopp’s heavy metal thunder with Borussia Dortmund from the early 2010s being widely facsimiled across Europe.
Attacking, expansive football is desired by fans and owners alike.
Those two managers are now the two dominant forces in the Premier League, flashier and cooler than Benitez’s studious devotion to having no image at all beyond that of the committed football man.
His Newcastle team were rarely entertaining to watch and were safety-first to a fault at times. Only in the last few matches of his reign did he allow his team to play off-the-cuff, demob-happy with relegation averted and perhaps in the knowledge that he would be setting off to the East.
Moving to China, where he is working with the likes of Salomon Rondon, Yannick Carrasco and Marek Hamsik, might have slightly dulled his folk hero reparation on Tyneside but the money he is earning will help secure the finances of his family, and probably those of the next generation, too.
At 59, he is hardly done in terms of age, and the overriding theme from his interviews in China have been an undimmed appetite for the game.
Compared to those usual suspects like Moyes and Hughes, Benitez offers something a cut above, with experience of working with the best, but also of bringing great feats from lesser players.
Who else can talk of turning Djimi Traore into a Champions League winner?
In this age of the football manager as a millennial project manager, a frontman for an operation that takes in glitz, glamour and social media likes, Benitez is probably a man out of time. But he remains someone whose experience and aptitude cannot be ignored.
Like Mourinho, the call should not be too long in coming.