9th March 2004 and 26th May 2004, two dates that live long in the memory, two dates that made someone in their professional field the hottest possible commodity, two dates that launched the career of one of 21st-century football’s most prominent figures.
The first of the two dates saw Costinha score a 90th-minute goal at Old Trafford in the 2nd leg of FC Porto’s 2003/04 UEFA Champions League Round of 16 match against Manchester United. The defensive midfielder’s goal made it 3-2 on aggregate to the Portuguese side, eliminating Sir Alex Ferguson’s troops in a shock result.
The second of those dates was in Gelsenkirchen at Veltins Arena where Porto, after eliminating Manchester United, Olympique Lyonnais and Deportivo de la Coruna en route, defeated Didier Deschamps’ AS Monaco side 3-0 in the UEFA Champions League final. Goals from Carlos Alberto, Deco and Dimitri Alenichev sealed a 2nd Champions League/European Cup triumph for Os Dragões. Still to this day, the Northern Portuguese outfit are the last team from a non-Big Five European league to win club football’s greatest prize.
Both these victories were of course masterminded by Porto’s then-manager Jose Mourinho. The Portuguese tactician had a reputation as one of football’s up-and-coming young managers due to Porto’s 2002/03 UEFA Cup final victory over Celtic FC. However, Mourinho backing this up with a barely believable Champions League triumph the following campaign made him the “in-demand” manager in world football.
It was a triumph that catapulted Mourinho to managerial stardom, nearly 17 years on from that magical night in Gelsenkirchen, Mourinho’s achievements in club management speak volumes. Three English Premier League title wins over two spells with Chelsea FC (2004/05, 2005/06 & 2014/15).
Four English League Cup triumphs with both Chelsea and Manchester United (2004/05, 2006/07, 2014/15 and 2016/17). One English FA Cup (2006/07). A treble of UEFA Champions League, Serie A and Coppa Italia with Inter Milan in 2009/10. One Copa del Rey and one La Liga title with Real Madrid in 2010/11 and 2011/12 respectively. Finally, one UEFA Europa League title with Manchester United in 2016/17.
At the start of the 2021/22 campaign, 58-year-old Mourinho takes on the 10th managerial challenge of his glittering career at his 9th different club following his hiring by Italian Serie A outfit AS Roma announced just this week. It promises to be an intriguing and potentially defining time in the Italian capital for the man who proclaimed himself “The Special One” in his first press conference as Chelsea manager in 2004.
Arresting a Concerning Managerial Decline
Mourinho has been responsible for some of the most memorable campaigns in the history of all the teams he has managed. The aforementioned 2003/04 UEFA Champions League triumph with FC Porto was one part of a domestic double, which saw Os Dragoes win their 20th Portuguese title. With Chelsea FC the following season in 2004/05, Mourinho led the Stamford Bridge outfit to a championship-winning 95 points. An English top-flight record which stood until 2017/18 when Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City broke it with 100 points from their 38 games.
Mourinho famously led Inter Milan to an historic treble of Serie A, Coppa Italia and UEFA Champions League in 2009/10 before leaving to take the Real Madrid job at season’s end. With Los Blancos, Mourinho completed a sensational 2011/12 La Liga season winning the title with a record 100 points from 38 games.
In addition, this campaign also saw the Santiago Bernabeu outfit scored 121 goals in their 38 games at an average of 3.18 per game, a record that still stands to this day. Finally, Mourinho’s second season of his second spell at Chelsea in 2014/15 made it seem like the Portuguese had never left Stamford Bridge partway through the 2007/08 campaign in controversy. Mourinho celebrated a third Premier League title with the Blues as well as a third League Cup victory.
If ever one needed a greater example of the phrase “what a difference a year makes”, Chelsea’s 2015/16 was a perfect example. Following speculation of a much-publicised breakdown in relationship with several key Chelsea star players, the Stamford Bridge outfit’s title defence collapsed spectacularly. After a 2-1 loss against Leicester City on Premier League Matchday 16, Mourinho was relieved of his duties for a second time as Chelsea manager, with the side lying a shocking 16th place in the standings.
2015/16 was not just an unravelling of Mourinho’s second spell, it could be argued that it represented the beginning of a slow decline for the “Special One”. 2016/17 saw Mourinho resurface as Manchester United manager, replacing the sacked Louis van Gaal in the Old Trafford hot seat. His first season in charge of the Red Devils saw a League Cup and UEFA Europa League triumphs despite a lowly 6th placed finish in the Premier League.
The following season saw an improved 2nd place finish in the Premier League, yet no trophies. However, much akin to the 2015/16 campaign at Chelsea, Mourinho’s third season at Manchester United in 2018/19 fell apart. After a Matchday 17 3-1 away loss against Liverpool, Mourinho was dismissed as manager with the club lying in 6th place in the standings. After coming in part-way through the 2019/20 Premier League campaign at Tottenham Hotspur to replace the sacked Mauricio Pochettino, Mourinho took the North London outfit from 14th place after twelve matchdays to an eventual 6th place finish.
After 12 matchdays of the 2020/21 Premier League campaign, Tottenham stood atop of the Premier League following a 1-1 away draw against Crystal Palace. However, since then, Spurs’ season collapsed. Come the end of the Matchday 32 match versus Everton which finished in a 2-2 draw, Tottenham opted to part company with Mourinho, having dropped to 7th in the Premier League standings.
At the conclusion of the 2020/21 campaign, it will have been 6 full seasons where Mourinho has failed to win a league title. The end of this current season will also be the 4th consecutive campaign where Mourinho has failed to win even a trophy of any description, let alone a league title. It is evident that Mourinho’s magic touch is slipping, his managerial career in danger of taking in a permanent decline.
Roma Might Represent the Best Opportunity Mourinho Could Have Hoped for Given Recent Seasons
Upon Mourinho’s sacking by Tottenham on 19th April, the whole footballing world was gripped in a state of shock with the breaking news surrounding the short-lived and now collapsed Super League. However, speculation on Mourinho’s future following his dismissal was also a strong talking point in the sport’s circles. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that the “Special One’s” next move came as a surprise to everyone, both in how quickly Mourinho made the decision to return to front-line management and the eventual next destination for the Portuguese tactician.
Just over two weeks had lapsed before Mourinho’s sacking by Spurs when on 4th May, the 58 year-old was announced as the new manager of Italian giants AS Roma for the 2021/22 season onwards on a three year contract. Mourinho will replace his fellow countryman Paulo Fonseca at the helm of the Stadio Olimpico in his 9th different club job as a football manager, taking charge of a host of promising youngsters such as Gonzalo Villar and Nicolò Zaniolo.
Over the past two decades, the Giallorossi have carved out a strong reputation in European competition, having proven to be frequent qualifiers for the UEFA Champions League in this time. Since the new millennium, Roma have participated in 12 editions of the UEFA Champions League. Their most famous run in this competition of course came in 2017/18, when they famously knocked out FC Barcelona in the Quarter Finals before falling to eventual finalists Liverpool in the Semi-Finals.
Domestically, Roma are also viewed as one of Serie A’s big boys. In fact, since the 1996/97 campaign, Roma have never finished below 8th in Italian football’s top flight. Second place seems to be the preferred position for the capital outfit, Roma have recorded nine runners-up finishes in Serie A during this period of time. Yet despite these impressive statistics, the Roman club lag way behind Italian football’s so-called “Big Three” of Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan. Whilst Juve have 36 Scudetti to their name, Roma have just three, their last coming under the management of Fabio Capello in 2000/01.
Throughout a five-season spell between 2013/14 and 2017/18, Roma recorded three 2nd place and two 3rd place classifications under the management of firstly Rudi Garcia, then Luciano Spaletti and finally Eusebio di Francesco. The closest they came to winning Serie A in this time was 2016/17 under Spaletti, where Giallorossi finished as runners-up, just 4 points behind Juventus in the Turin outfits streak of nine straight Scudetti between 2012 and 2020.
However, in recent seasons, Roma have regressed, this aforementioned run of top three classifications was broken in 2018/19 with a 6th placed finish. Despite the arrival of a new manager in Fonseca for the 2019/20 campaign, Roma once again missed out on Champions League qualification, only managing a 5th place finish in Italy’s top flight. Despite a run to the semi-finals of the UEFA Europa League in 2020/21, Roma’s domestic season has fallen apart. After a 3-0 home win over Udinese on Matchday 22, Fonseca’s troops lied 3rd in Serie A and looked set to be dining at European football’s top table next season.
However, Roma have won just three times domestically since and have slumped to 7th in the standings. They are way behind the six clubs above them and so far are only in a Europa Conference League qualification spot for 2021/22, UEFA’s new third-tier club competition which begins next season. However, not even this consolation prize is assured yet, Sassuolo are breathing down Giallorossi’s necks and could overhaul them in the final weeks of the campaign.
The possibility of finishing 8th would mean no European football at all for Roma in 2021/22 and the club’s lowest finish since 2004/05. A season which saw four managers, Bruno Conte, Luigi del Neri, Rudi Voeller and Claudio Cesare Prandelli occupy the Giallorossi managerial dugout. This slump has without doubt contributed to the decision by the club hierarchy to replace Fonseca with Mourinho. It might have been a shock to many to see Manchester United defeat Roma so convincingly over the two legs of their Europa League semi-final, yet when one scratches beneath the surface, the winning margin maybe was not such a surprise.
Ironically for Mourinho, Roma’s slump over the past few seasons is reminiscent of that experienced by his old employers Tottenham in recent seasons. Spurs under Mourinho’s predecessor Mauricio Pochettino recorded four consecutive top four finishes between 2015/16 and 2018/19. However, 2019/20, where Mourinho came in halfway through the campaign saw a drop to 6th and in 2020/21, Spurs, under the now caretaker management of Ryan Mason are likely to finish at highest 7th place, however, they could drop even further down the Premier League standings in the last few weeks of the season.
After the wheels fell off spectacularly at Manchester United during the Portuguese’s third campaign in charge in 2018/19 and the recent spell at Spurs which barely ever looked like revoking prior successes right from the start, Mourinho is now in a state of flux as a manager. None of English football’s so-called “Big Six” are likely to employ him in the future.
Nor would offers come from Spain’s “Big Three” of Real Madrid, Barcelona or Atletico de Madrid, Italy’s big three of Juventus, Milan and Inter would also likely give Mourinho a pass should a vacancy appear. Mourinho has been forced to look lower down the food chain, Roma might well have represented the best offer available to the Portuguese in the club game given his decline in recent seasons.
Despite the Decline, Roma Might Be Ideal for a Rebuild, However, Don’t Expect Lavish Spending
Manager in decline from his past achievements, club in decline from the finishes & achievements in both domestic and European football over the past few seasons. It seems at first glance like the hiring of Jose Mourinho by AS Roma is a desperate panic appointment. However, despite the recent drop-off by both Mourinho and Roma, there are signs that a partnership between the two entities from 2021/22 onwards may actually prove a chance for resurrection.
Roma undertook an ownership change in August 2020. Selling up was former American 86.6% majority shareholder James Pallotta, chairman of the club between 2012 and 2020. The purchaser was 56-year-old compatriot Dan Friedkin through his company The Friedkin Group. Despite Friedkin’s reported net worth of USD 4.1 billion in the year 2020 according to Forbes Rich List, it is likely Mourinho may not have access to anything like the levels of funding he once previously enjoyed at the likes of Chelsea.
According to their latest financial accounts released in October 2020, Roma recorded a loss of EUR 204 million for the 2019/20 campaign with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic reported to have had a colossal financial impact on the club. Whilst one expects some transfer activity this summer for the Giallorossi, given these reported figures, Mourinho will likely have to sell certain players before he can make signings. A situation which is often much easier said than done. Whilst the pandemic was an aforementioned stated factor in Roma’s financial difficulties, it can also be argued that their transfer dealings over the past few seasons have not helped them.
The summer of 2018 was a particularly damaging one in the transfer market, when the club ironically had Monchi, so often Sevilla’s transfer genius as their director of football. Transfers to the Stadio Olimpico that summer included Patrik Schick, Steven Nzonzi, Javier Pastore and Justin Kluivert. These four purchases cost Roma in excess of EUR 110 million in transfer fees. Whilst this spending spree was financed by the sales of Alisson Becker, Radja Nainggolan and Kevin Strootman for in excess of EUR 125 million, all four aforementioned signings have proved a disappointment.
Forward Schick, who cost a reported EUR 42 million from UC Sampdoria noted only 8 goals and 3 assists in 58 matches for Roma before being sold for a cut-price EUR 26.5 million to Bayer Leverkusen last summer. Nzonzi, a EUR 26.65 million transfer from Sevilla has spent the last two seasons on loan at Galatasaray SK and Stade Rennais and will likely be sold for a considerable loss this summer.
Most damaging of all though has been Pastore. Now 31 years of age, the Argentine playmaker arrived in the Italian capital for a reported transfer fee of EUR 24.7 million from Paris St Germain, having previously shone in Serie A for Palermo. However, Pastore has been persistently plagued by injuries. Strong doubts persist about whether or not he will ever be the same player as at Palermo. Most damaging of all though from Roma’s point of view is that Pastore is contracted to the club under June 2023 and reportedly earns EUR 4.5 million per season net, meaning he will prove very difficult given his decline, age and injury record to shift from the payroll.
Mourinho therefore upon his arrival at Giallorossi will have to gradually move on deadwood. In addition, he must refresh the squad over the next few seasons with young talent in addition to swooping for bargain-priced players or free transfers to improve Roma’s squad. In a way, in some aspects it is probably a return to how Mourinho operated all the way back at his first major managerial job at FC Porto. Already talk of a clear-out at Roma is gathering steam, one of the high earners Henrikh Mhkitaryan is being linked with a transfer to Zenit St Petersburg this summer.
However, despite these grim financial realities for Roma, they are likely not alone amongst Italian clubs in facing a summer of cutbacks with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic highlighted as a likely strong factor. In March 2021, Gazzetta dello Sport reported that Italian clubs have between them a figure of EUR 2.8 billion in accumulated debt. Inter have the highest debt figure and their majority shareholders, Chinese company Suning Holdings Group recently ceased operation of their Chinese Super League club Jiangsu Suning due to recent financial troubles.
In addition, deposed Serie A champions Juventus face the very real danger of missing out on the riches of UEFA Champions League football for 2021/22. A possibility which could with the financial impact that Covid-19 has caused really hamper Juve’s efforts to revitalise an ageing squad. Football all across Europe one feels will be affected greatly by the pandemic for at least another summer in 2021.
Catching runaway 2020/21 Scudetto winners Inter may well be tough next season, however, encouragingly for Mourinho and Roma, the chasing pack behind look within reach. Currently, almost as many points separate 2nd placed Atalanta from Roma in 7th place than those that separate Gian Piero Gasperini’s troops from Inter at the top of the league.
Bridging the gap to Champions League qualification is certainly within the realms of possibilities for Mourinho and Roma. Furthermore, securing Champions League qualification with a top four finish and its riches could help Mourinho and the club to bring in extra quality needed to potentially challenge Inter in 2022/23.
Now aged 58, Jose Mourinho is now coming into a crucial stage of his managerial career. After recent disappointing/underwhelming managerial spells at both Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, it’s a very fair argument to suggest the Portuguese is a spent force in club management. Even if they don’t possess the size or reputation of a Juventus, Real Madrid or Manchester United, Roma are still a good-sized footballing institution taking into account past successes and recent classifications.
Mourinho’s recent career is stalling and this opportunity at Roma is one which he has to grasp with both hands. Should he fail at the Red & Yellow half of the Stadio Olimpico, the Portuguese tactician will surely be consigned to at best solely future coaching assignments in the international arena.
Someone of Mourinho’s reputation will likely drop no lower than a Roma-level institution in the club game. New, young coaches are emerging on the scene with each passing season, clubs will not ignore these new upstarts in favour of Mourinho should this spell in the Italian capital fail.
Quite simply the “Special One” is drinking in the “Very last chance saloon” when it comes to club management. Will Mourinho revive his magical touch, or will his decline become complete in the Eternal City? Whatever happens, expect talking points and fireworks along the way.
By: Richard David Pike
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Tottenham Hotspur FC