During his two and a half years at Real Madrid, Mourino has ran off a sporting director, provoked opposing coaches, attacked an assistant coach, refused to speak to the press, alienated his club’s captain, and won a trophy or two.
Yet this year just may be his greatest balancing act yet. Why? Because he’s chosen to play with the most dangerous fire of all.
The balance between manager and players is pretty simple. A club cannot possibly afford to fire all its players. However, firing a single coach is pretty easy. Thus, players hold all the cards. Accordingly, most bright coaches avoid criticizing their own players like the plague. During post-game pressers, journalists vainly try to pin a coach and provoke a negative word or two if a player has stunk up the pitch. Managers refuse to take the bait: even if a player had a bad game, they can’t run the risk of a ruined relationship.
Plus, on another level, most players can’t be blamed without the manager being at fault. At least a little bit. If a player “struggled with injury,” then why did he get picked to start? If a player looks bad due to the tactics of the game, then, duh, guess who chose the tactical game plan: the coach. The flame of “player blame” burns he who wields it. Also, the coach’s boss, the club’s owner and/or President, normally signed that player. And oftentimes a coach has a hand in the acquisition of a player.
For Mourinho’s first year, the story was simple: we can’t stop the Barca juggernaut, we can only hope to contain. The 5-0 shellacking at the Camp Nou would’ve sent lesser men like Bern Schuster or Juande Ramos packing. Mou stuck around, played a cynical Inter-esque approach in the King’s Cup final, and snagged a trophy. Despite nobody really caring about the King’s Cup for about two decades, Madrid celebrated like it was the decima. Fans flocked to the cibeles and laughed as Sergio Ramos dropped the trophy. “Ha ha, it’s okay……it’s only the King’s Cup.”
Enter year two. Mou’s men rampage through La Liga and they record a 2:1 win at the Camp Nou. The house of horrors has now become a home away from home. They lose in the Champions League semifinals on penalty kicks, but Mou revives his Chelsea-speak about “focusing on the league.” A manager must “set priorities.” The league, according to Mou, rewards the best team and hard work. The Champions League, by insinuation, does not.
Enter year three. Mou’s men win the Super Cup, but get off to a rotten start in La Liga. Soon, Barca builds an insurmountable lead. All of a sudden, Jose talks the same gabber about “priorities,” but this time it’s The Decima. Even more interesting, he criticizes his players after a few hard fought losses and draws. True, the team sorely misses Khedira, Marcelo, and Higuain, but didn’t Mou loan Essien as cover? Didn’t he spend way too much money on Coentrao as a backup left back? Won’t Karim Benzema someday come good if we all just really really wish it true?
So, Mou turned the tables, flipped his priorities, insulted his own players, and….they’ve changed course. Yes, Casillas and Ramos appear ready to tear his head off at any time, but the 3-1 win at the Camp Nou (and 2-1 home win in La Liga) have probably added a layer of Kevlar to Mou’s vest. Why? Why can Mou bend the rules? How does he survive? Because Mou lives on another planet. One of relativity.
In Madrid, few care about tables, points, and team morale. Some seasons, you’re great but not as good as Barcelona. Other seasons, you’re miserable but just ahead of the Catalans. And that’s enough.