Jose Mourinho is back: Roma revival shows he is still an elite coach
Donned in a pair of fashion sunglasses, Carlo Ancelotti was puffing on a cigar.
It was the summer of 2022 and an open-top bus was winding its way through the streets of Madrid to the Fountain of Cybele, where the celebrations for a 14th Champions League title were underway. It was hard to believe the coaching all-time great had been in charge of Everton 12 months before.
Ancelotti had been sacked by Napoli in 2019 after the players mutinied and didn’t take kindly to criticism of his management by Gennaro Gattuso, who was managing one of his former clubs, AC Milan. Tottenham overlooked Ancelotti to replace Mauricio Pochettino, a curious ‘what if’ moment considering everything we’ve heard since about these Spurs players needing an arm around the shoulder.
Accepting the Everton job smacked of someone choosing their own decline, the air of resignation running through the twilight of his glittering career. Ancelotti walked along the Iron Men of Crosby Beach like a retiree. Then, out of nowhere, Madrid paid the buyout clause in his contract and Gone Carlo became Don Carlo again, presiding over arguably the most epic Champions League run in recent memory.
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It’s a reminder to supporters and media everywhere that however much someone may appear finished, the look can be fleeting. Ancelotti remained Ancelotti. The Brazilian FA (CBF) wants to make him the country’s first foreign manager this century and the shortlist itself, as disclosed by The Athletic’s Mario Corteganais revealing in as much as it also includes Jose Mourinho. A clash of footballing ideas on the face of it, but don’t forget winning goes to the very core of the Brazilian national team, too.
Mourinho’s career arc has, in some respects, followed the Ancelotti path. Tottenham and Roma seemed to reflect past-his-prime Jose, the winter of his football life. But the job he has done in the Eternal City has been good enough to give his detractors pause for thought and renew interest from old admirers.
Last week, Ancelotti declared his intention to see out his contract at the Bernabeu, but were he to leave, it’s worth noting Florentino Perez tends to knock twice. Real Madrid’s president goes with what he knows and bringing back Zinedine Zidane and Ancelotti constitutes a pattern of behaviour.
Mourinho doesn’t seem ready to move into international football. He left the impression he turned down the Portugal job when it came up after the World Cup and it would be a surprise if he pitched up in Saudi Arabia, either for the national team or Al Nassr, where the former Roma coach Rudi Garcia has just got the sack after a couple of months of working with Cristiano Ronaldo.
Mourinho has a little over a year left on his deal at Roma and while Lazio coach Maurizio Sarri has argued it’ll be a “disappointment” if a coach of the Portuguese’s calibre doesn’t win the league at the Stadio Olimpico, his tenure has already been a relative success. In Italy, the press covering Mourinho has far less baggage than their counterparts in England. It doesn’t mean he is beyond criticism, but he is generally seen as the solution rather than the problem. There is respect. It is owed to his status as arguably the league’s only transcendent superstar.
Roma fans still can’t believe he is their coach. Mourinho departed A league as an unprecedented treble-winner in 2010. In the meantime, no one lifted a European trophy with an Italian club until his return last season.
People may scoff at the Europa Conference League, particularly executives across the Tiber at Lazio, who have dismissed it as a ‘coppetta’ — a tinpot trophy nobody cares about. Is winning Europe’s third-tier competition really as impressive as Eusebio Di Francesco taking Roma to a Champions League semi-final or Paulo Fonseca leading them to the same stage of the Europa League? An Italian proverb says talk is cheap and gets blown away by the wind. What remains are facts, the substance of a trophy, one that was Roma’s first in 14 years. To a fanbase as desperate for something to celebrate as Roma’s, it was massive.
Supporters have come back to the Olimpico in their droves. Every game is a sell-out. The ticket pricing helps but Mourinho has restored pride and belief. He has imperator status and has, in one specific respect, filled the void left by Francesco Totti. Mourinho isn’t a Roman from Porta Metronia with supernatural abilities as a footballer. When he moves on, an entire generation of locals will not suddenly feel like their youth is over. However, as with Totti, it isn’t so much a sense of Mourinho being bigger than the club as much as the idea that he is the club at the moment.
Any uncoupling has the potential to divide fans and owners, especially if Mourinho leaves amid the suggestion the club could not match his ambition and keep the side of the bargain they unexpectedly and quite sensationally struck when they got together 18 months ago.
Lest we forget, Roma have been placed under a strict financial fair play settlement agreement, partially because of the mess left by former sporting director Monchi and losses sustained due to COVID-19, but also the decision to invest more than €100million (£88m; $109m) in Mourinho’s first summer despite the club going without Champions League football for four years now. Pursestrings tightened this season and prestige arrivals Paulo Dybala, Georginio WijnaldumNemanja Matic and Andrea Belotti were either free transfers or loan deals.
“Only Sampdoria and Lecce have spent less than us (this season),” Mourinho said. Nicolo Zaniolo, the match winner in the Conference League final, was sold two months ago and Roma will have to consider sacrifices in the summer. Mourinho could justifiably turn around and argue the project has changed.
In the meantime, he has built on last year. Sixth in the spring of 2022, they’re now third and a second-leg comeback at home, after losing 1-0 at Feyenoord, away from a Europa League semi-final. Mourinho has delivered silverware and the club is on course to return to the Champions League despite shaving €20million off the wage bill.
Sunday’s 3-0 win against Udinese started with a goal from Edoardo Bove, one of five academy graduates Mourinho has integrated into the first team, the pick of the bunch being 21-year-old Polish midfielder Nicola Zalewski.
As weekends go, the last one could not have gone much better. Roma’s captain Lorenzo Pellegrini got over missing a penalty against Feyenoord with a goal. Tammy Abraham came on and ended his 13-game goal drought. Mourinho capitalised on Milan drawing and Juventus and Inter Milan losing, receiving praise for the experience he showed in handling the Europe-Serie A grind.
A crucial save from Rui Patricio to keep Roma’s lead at two goals 🧤❌
Jose Mourinho LOVED that! 😂 pic.twitter.com/nlv7AHablg
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) April 16, 2023
It was Roma’s 13th clean sheet of the year, which gives an idea of how they’re going about their business. Part of the brief when Mourinho got the job was to shore things up defensively, make Roma harder to beat and win some big games. This year has been another step in that direction with the victories over Juventus and Inter, the comeback from 2-0 down to 2-2 against Milan at San Siro and the way Napoli were made to work for three points home and away.
It has not always been pretty. In the past week, Roma’s former player Antonio Cassano described Mourinho’s football as “obscene” and called into question the manager’s career, putting his success down to lucking out with top teams. Mourinho then gave the best character evisceration since the time he mercilessly torched Frank de Boer. “Cassano played for three clubs I’ve coached but at different times. In Madrid, they remember him only for the jacket.
It was January 2006 and Antonio Cassano turned up in a remarkable jacket to join Real Madrid. pic.twitter.com/shuSO4s18w
— Total Italian Football (@SerieATotal) February 11, 2016
“At Roma, he only won a Super Cup and he didn’t even play in that game. You all know what I won at Madrid, Roma and Inter.” It served as a reminder that if you come at Jose, you better not miss.
His team is a reflection of him. At times, the scrappiness grates. The players protest every decision. The yellow cards fly. His coaching staff has often been an embarrassment. Mourinho and his staff have collected 11 red cards this season — 11! — and recently reprised the iconic handcuff gesture from his time at Inter to suggest the system wants to hold him down.
Jose gonna Jose and most of the fans love it. A soft touch under Fonseca, they like how the team no longer allows itself to be pushed around. Mourinho has questioned Abraham’s attitude. He subbed off Pellegrini at half-time after his penalty miss in Rotterdam. He has accused a player of betraying the team. Rick Karsdorp was at least brought back from the cold, as was Marash Kumbulla, the sole survivor of the ‘Bodo/Glimt five’ (Amadou Diawara, Riccardo Calafiori, Gonzalo Villar and Borja Mayoral) who were purged after a humiliating 6-1 defeat in the Arctic circle.
Unlike those precious Premier League players, this Roma contingent has got on with it, still in awe of Mourinho, with the ends justifying the means as progress continues to be made.
The big picture has, for now, eclipsed the worst moments, such as Lazio doing the double over them, which would have been catastrophic for almost every other Roma coach. Paradoxically, even in those defeats, Mourinho has conquered Rome and holds the power.
He has been coy about his future. Roma’s former chief executive Pietro Berardi, who left the club yesterday, said he is convinced Mourinho will stay. “It’s his interpretation,” Mourinho said. “The situation is clear. From a contractual point of view, I still have a year left on my deal. Football is football. At times, contracts aren’t the most important thing.”
How the season ends will no doubt have an influence, as will the plans of general manager Tiago Pinto and owner Dan Friedkin for next year. Champions League football would bring fresh money into the club, but Mourinho’s stock is on the rise again — who can blame him for opting to wait and see?
The Madrid job may come up. Paris Saint-Germain look set to make a change. As was the case with Ancelotti, a return to the loftiest heights of the European game wouldn’t come as a surprise.
Don’t call it a comeback, Mou’s been here for years.
(Top photo: Paolo Bruno via Getty Images)
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