After his Roma side had lost 1-0 at Bologna, José Mourinho pursued the referee Luca Pairetto down the tunnel, enraged at the bookings that meant Tammy Abraham and Rick Karsdorp would be suspended for last weekend’s game against Internazionale. “I’ll have to invent the lineup on Saturday,” he later told the media. “Luckily, I replaced Gianluca Mancini. Otherwise, he may have been booked too.”
With his captain Lorenzo Pellegrini out with a muscular problem and Stephan El Shaarawy suffering a calf problem, Mourinho had to field a weakened lineup against Inter – and nobody could be in any doubt that that was not Mourinho’s fault. Although it was his decision to leave last season’s top scorer, Borja Mayoral, on the bench.
Roma were 3-0 down by half-time, the first time that has ever happened to Mourinho. That was the final score, only his second home defeat in Serie A, prompting a classic Mourinho press conference. First he refused to take questions, telling journalists: “Your job is a lot easier than ours which is why we earn a lot more than you.”
Then he delivered a brief but characteristic monologue, making clear that a) the task was essentially impossible – “Inter are objectively better than us. This became an extremely difficult match tonight because of absentees”; and b) they had nearly won anyway and would have done if only the players had done their jobs better – “We had three big chances, two of which came at 0-0.” It was not, to repeat, his fault.
Roma sat seventh in the league before this weekend’s fixtures, nine points off Champions League qualification and eight points worse off than at the equivalent stage last season, a situation, in the space of four days, Mourinho had blamed on a referee, injuries, the media, fate and his own players. At which point the temptation is to check the calendar. But no, it is still 2021: Mourinho has been at Roma for only six months. It’s just that the doom cycle comes round quicker and quicker these days.
Once, back near the beginning of his reign, these things took three years. A season to build, a season of fulfilment, a season of recrimination and acrimony. But the friction started to get earlier and earlier until at Tottenham it happened after 18 months. At Roma, it has taken barely 18 weeks.
Phase one, early promise, concluded on 19 September as a run of six straight wins in all competitions ended with defeat at Verona. Phase two, the wobble that in the old days would have led to investment and improvement, came to a spectacular end with the 6-1 Europa League defeat to Bodø/Glimt on 21 October and Mourinho’s condemnation of his second string.
Since when there has been only stagnation and increasing frustration. There has even been talk of him taking over at Everton: the fly cast to see what fish might still be willing to bite. This ends only one way: the only questions are how long the decoupling takes and how toxic it becomes.
In part this is Roma. They finished eighth last season and while bringing in Abraham, Marash Kumbulla, Eldor Shomurodov, Matías Viña and Rui Patrício for Edin Dzeko, Pedro and Pau López at a net cost of £100m may have improved the age profile of the squad, it hasn’t necessarily made it much stronger in the short term.
But mainly it is Mourinho, who increasingly resembles the Wizard of Oz begging the world to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. The Porto players he led to the Champions League in 2004 may still sound like members of a cult, in thrall to a manager who took them to implausible heights (they remain the only Champions League winners from outside the big four leagues since 1995), but fresh devotees are increasingly rare.
Back then his control was such it seemed he could foresee the future, issuing instructions, for instance, for how to respond when a player was sent off against Benfica, as he subsequently was. Mourinho’s Chelsea players spoke of his planning, the preparation for various eventualities. He was, perhaps, the last of the personality coaches, somebody whose greatest gift was his capacity to inspire by charismatic authority.
As that has waned, partly through familiarity and partly perhaps because younger players do not respond to him in the way that, say, Costinha, John Terry and Marco Materazzi did, so Mourinho’s powers have weakened. If he still prepares with the same meticulousness, it is apparent only in his post-match catalogues of his players’ failings.
What makes it worse is that there is no grand philosophy to fall back on, no processes to instil. Certainly from 2008 onwards, Mourinho’s approach has been a negative: he was what Barcelona and Pep Guardiola were not. The school of attritional Portuguese football that moulded him is in retreat. Mourinho, Fernando Santos and Nuno Espírito Santo all feel outmoded, their reluctance to press anachronistic in the modern game.
That has left Mourinho exposed. All managers are to an extent dependent on their capacity to persuade players to buy in to their projects, but those who have a coherent process are less vulnerable to the fickleness of interpersonal relationships. Mourinho, though, does not believe in practising preset moves; rather he prefers to use guided discovery to establish in the players the mentality to make the right decisions. The problem is, if the players do not believe in him, they are far less susceptible to his conditioning.
Which makes Roma’s decision to appoint him baffling. This was not like Tottenham, where the belief seems to have been that there was a squad almost ready for a trophy and all it needed was the final push of a messianic winner. That might at least have suited Mourinho once. But Roma, by Mourinho’s own account, “don’t want success today. They want a sustainable project for the future.” Mourinho has never offered that.
So all that remains is the toxic endgame, as he looks to evade responsibility for declining form. It begins earlier and earlier with every passing job. Soon, there may be nothing else.