Why Jose Mourinho is jealous of Antonio Conte's progress at Chelsea
Pity poor Jose Mourinho. He just can't win, but boy, can his team draw. He has become the Special 1-1.
Manchester United have not lost a Premier League game since being humiliated 4-0 by Chelsea at Stamford Bridge almost six months ago, a streak that has lifted the team from seventh in the table to the nosebleed heights of fifth. How is it possible that 21 matches without a loss have only advanced the needle two whole places?
Well, for one thing, with the notable exception of Arsenal's spectacular implosion, the rest of the teams above them have stayed the course. For another, 10 of those undefeated games ended in draws. As a result United have gone from five points behind Chelsea, who were in fourth place on Oct. 23, to 18 points adrift of the presumptive champions with eight games remaining.
Oh, how it must gall Mourinho to look in his old team's rearview mirror and see his stubbled face receding faster than Antonio Conte's hairline in his playing days.
No wonder the Portuguese man o' war is not his usual cheery self as he faces the prospect of a third defeat to a club he once ruled with such preening self-regard in two different incarnations.
At least this Sunday's game is at Old Trafford, where the Manchester United faithful are so relieved their manager's name isn't David Moyes or Louis van Gaal that they're willing to forgive the fact that the most expensively assembled team in the Premier League is still four points outside of a Champions League berth. But supported or not, Mourinho can't tolerate being upstaged by anyone, let alone by a younger, better-dressed man who has walked the league with a team that nearly stumbled into the relegation mire on Jose's watch. He's like a jilted lover who can't bear to see his ex with a new stud.
Even though he publicly maintains that "for me, it's one more game," don't believe him. After losing his first two meetings with Conte by an aggregate score of 5-0, he will be desperate to prove a point -- and that is likely to be the sum total of what United emerges with after 90 fractious minutes.
So let's look at what separates Conte's Champions-in-Waiting from Mourinho's Drawables other than, you know, 17 points.
One plays the game on the pitch, the other on a psychological minefield
It's not like Conte is a stranger to managerial feuds -- he has had mudslinging bouts with the likes of Rafa Benitez and Fabio Capello, among others -- but he's tried mightily to avoid locking egos with the peerless master of the dark arts. Of course, it's a lot easier to laugh at Mourinho's barbs when you have the luxury of looking down at him in the standings, and the jibes themselves are so risible.
Take, for example, Mourinho saying that Conte's exuberant touchline celebrations during that 4-0 beat down at Stamford Bridge showed a "lack of respect" for his opponent. Conte is too much of a gentleman to point out how ironic that statement is, given Mourinho's famous knee-slide in front of Sir Alex Ferguson after Porto's shocking upset of Manchester United in the 2004 Champions League round of 16.
Fast-forward to their second pas de deux in March, an FA Cup quarterfinal at Stamford Bridge where more vitriol than love rained down upon Chelsea's one-time savior. It was clear from the outset that Mourinho's entire game plan was based on stopping Eden Hazard, Chelsea's creative dynamo who fell out with the Portuguese in his waning months at the club. Mourinho targeted the Belgium international for what I like to call the "Gentile Treatment" in honor of the eponymous Italian enforcer Claudio Gentile, who committed an astonishing 23 fouls on Diego Maradona at the 1982 World Cup and somehow remained in the game even though Howard Webb wasn't refereeing.
After Hazard was hacked to the ground in quick succession by Phil Jones and Ander Herrera, Conte squared up to Mourinho on the touchline and unleashed a fusillade of expletives for which you didn't need Google Translate to understand. Stamford Bridge erupted with full-throated chants of "Judas" to which Mourinho defiantly responded by holding up three fingers to signify the number of Premier League titles he won for the club. After the game, which Chelsea won 1-0 to knock United out of the FA Cup, Mourinho's bitter-o-meter went to "Full Egomaniac."
"Until they have a manager who wins four Premier League titles for them, 'Judas' is number one," he proclaimed to the media. That math may well be true, but the fact that he felt compelled to defend his record showed that he wasn't immune to the hostility radiating around his old stomping ground.
Who's getting under whose skin, Jose?
Just because Mourinho says so doesn't make it true
Lest we forget, Mourinho is the man who introduced "alternative facts" into English football when he insisted that his team drew 1-1 with Hull in the EFL Cup even as the scoreboard flashed the 2-1 score in favor of the Tigers. "We didn't lose," Mourinho said with a straight face. "It was 1-1. I only saw two goals."
In fairness, Mourinho did get one thing right when he argued that Chelsea have an advantage over teams like United, Man City, Spurs and Arsenal because the absence of European football (and whose fault is that, Jose?) enables Conte to spend more time working with his players on the training ground. But the rest of Mourinho's blatherings are alternately paranoid and downright loony.
"I'm not surprised by Chelsea's success," Mourinho sneered. "I'm surprised because I thought they were demanding a different kind of football." (Translation: "Waah, Roman Abramovich was mean to me.")
It's true that in vintage Mourinho tradition, Conte's players tend to sit back, waiting for the opportunity to hit an opponent on the break, but that is only one arrow in their tactical quiver. The Blues have scored 65 goals this season, second only to Liverpool and just to thoroughly rub it in, 19 more than United can boast.
Perhaps the most farcical of Mourinho's contentions is that Conte is simply reaping the rewards of the team that he built in his last two years at the club. Not only has Conte created a radically different system -- the three man defensive wedge with which Conte transformed Chelsea's season after early losses to Liverpool and Arsenal -- but he is deploying his men at positions they didn't play under Mourinho.
One of Conte's most astute moves was to turn Victor Moses -- a journeyman midfielder whom Mourinho had no use for and who was loaned out to three different clubs -- into a starting wing-back who can unleash his devastating pace to maraud forward and track back without getting caught out. "I find it incredible that a player like Moses was underestimated," Conte said in a not-so-sly dig at Mourinho.
Conte also made a couple of huge additions to the spine of the team that he inherited: the much-derided David Luiz, who was still tainted by his disastrous performance in Brazil's 7-1 humiliation against Germany in the 2014 World Cup semifinal, and the much-coveted N'Golo Kante, who chose Chelsea over Arsenal among other suitors.
Then there were the Mourinho favorites like Oscar and John Terry, whom Conte did not see playing a role in his Chelsea reboot. It takes an assertive personality to essentially call time on the Chelsea career of the club's 36-year-old captain, who has been leading and legend-ing the Blues for half his life. But Conte abjured sentimentality by boldly phasing him out this season.
You get the feeling that if Mourinho was still at Stamford Bridge, Terry would have been out there until he needed a walker. Conte saw no place for him in his more mobile and aggressive back three. There is no question, however, that should Chelsea win the title, England's Brave Butthead will be jumping up and down on the podium as he hoists the trophy to the heavens for the fifth time.
But it's the galvanizing effect Conte has had on his current band of players that stands in stark contrast to their stagnation under Mourinho. No one epitomizes this sense of revival more vividly than Hazard.
Liberated from the gloom of Mourinho's reign as well as anything resembling defensive duties, Hazard is once again buzzing around with joyful abandon, rediscovering his relentless attacking menace.
There's probably only one player in the entire league who could shackle Hazard, but unfortunately, Kante plays for Chelsea. The French international, who was the muscular linchpin of Leicester's miracle season, does the work of three midfielders and is virtually impossible to knock off the ball. Conte has also managed to divert Diego Costa from his brief spell as a WWE heel back to a fearsome striker who has battered his way through opposing defenses en route to scoring 18 goals in all competitions.
With Pedro reverting to the electric form that made him a world-class winger under Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, Cesc Fabregas quietly accepting his role as the world's best 12th man and Luiz jettisoning his "Sideshow Bob" routine in favor of a calm, authoritative presence at the heart of the Blues' defense, Conte's men are in full stroll to their title parade. Isn't it funny what can happen when you just let players concentrate on the game?
Still, Mourinho has made United better
After the bumbling chaos of the Moyes interlude and the rigid, joyless stint of Van Gaal, Mourinho has brought back a bit of the swagger that always made United so watchable. If Mourinho somehow gets United into the Champions League either by finishing fourth in the Premier League or winning the Europa League, the season will be deemed a qualified success. He has already won silverware, albeit the EFL Cup, which some may consider a modest return on a summer investment of $196,877,000 (for three players!), but there is no denying that it's pretty impressive to go unbeaten in the league for six months, the number of draws notwithstanding.
"I found a sad club when I arrived," Mourinho told the BBC, thereby implying that he had inherited a bowl of thin gruel, which through his shrewd acquisitions he'd turned into a feast of world-class talent. As usual, it's a delusional argument as it's the one player for whom he paid nothing that has overcompensated for the underachievement of his pricey recruits.
I mean, where would Mourinho be without Zlatan Ibrahimovic? How many times this season has the 35-year-old Swede bailed out United, carrying them across the line on his broad shoulders and silky man bun? He has scored 28 goals in all competitions, with nine of them either sealing a win or breaking a tie. United have won 16 of 21 games in which he's found the back of the net. Take Ibra out of the equation and there is little doubt that Old Trafford would be showing Mourinho the kind of love Arsene Wenger is receiving at the Emirates.
What Ibrahimovic's brilliant season has done other than keep United in the hunt for a Champions League place is paper over the cracks in a team of disparate parts struggling for an identity and lumbered with an aging Wayne Rooney. At least Mourinho's marginalizing of the former England captain has not been met with the same outrage that greeted his cold-blooded treatment of the now-departed Bastian Schweinsteiger.
The international soccer community was so aghast by Mourinho's bullying of the German World Cup winner that Dejan Stefanovic, a FifPro member from Slovenia, went so far as to say "In Slovenia, we would have indicted Mourinho and asked for the highest penalty, three years in prison." Doesn't Stefanovic know there's no way that anyone, even potential jail-mates, could stomach Mourinho's antics for more than two seasons?
Perhaps Mourinho's most curious piece of player management, however, has been his handling of Luke Shaw, who before a long-term injury was considered England's most promising left-back. Even on those rare occasions when Shaw got on the field and performed well, Mourinho was critical of the 21-year-old. After coming on as a substitute in last week's match with Everton (which naturally ended 1-1), the manager forgot himself and actually complimented Shaw's performance before recovering to deliver the hammer blow.
"Because he was playing on my side of the pitch, I was able to do his thinking for him," said Mourinho. "I was making every decision for him. At 21 years old, he needs to have a better understanding, and he needs to accelerate the process."
Mourinho is not the first manager to question Shaw's fitness and work ethic -- both van Gaal and Mauricio Pochettino who coached him at Southampton had previously expressed reservations -- but nobody else felt the need to publicly humiliate him in such harsh terms.
But this has always been the Mourinho way. By throwing a player under the bus that he has not parked in front of his goal, he thinks it will motivate the rest of the team. United supporters are hoping that this managerial tactic works out better than it did in his last spell at Chelsea.
David Hirshey is an ESPN FC columnist. He has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and written about it for The New York Times and Deadspin.