Quashing the Third-Season Syndrome

“What is playing well? It is scoring more goals than the opponent, it is to concede less than the opponent, it is to make your fans proud because you gave everything and you win. I want everything. I want to win matches, play well, play young players, score goals, not concede goals.” – Just a snippet from Jose Mourinho’s first press conference as Manchester United manager. Starry-eyed fans all over the globe ate up every word and were convinced the nightmare that was the Moyes and Van Gaal era was over. This, after all coming from the man who in his first Chelsea presser declared himself as the Special One before winning the league while breaking the record for most points achieved (95). Normal service would be resumed at Old Trafford, surely.

Cut to two years later and Jose finds himself coming into the new season as joint favourite to be the first manager to get the sack. Absurd on first viewing considering United came second the season before, their best finish since Fergie. On closer inspection though there is some logic to it as there is a sense of déjà vu mainly owing to the perception that Jose tends to burn one too many bridges from within, usually during his third season at a club. This theory is only strengthened by the seemingly shaky relationship with star midfielder Paul Pogba. Tough love has always been his method of getting the best out of his players. A method that has served him well for most of his career but has not enjoyed the same returns at United thus far and if anything it looks like it could ultimately be the undoing of him. Perhaps the new breed of footballers are not stimulated by this approach like your Drogbas and Lampards did. Case in point, Anthony Martial and Luke Shaw.

Besides the danger of losing the dressing room, the pragmatic football on show at Old Trafford will certainly not do him any favours. You get a sense that with each passing week, with each performance, a few more fans are turning. For many the penny dropped when Sevilla came and knocked United out of the champions league in February. It was bad enough being turned over by a club who are miles behind in terms of financial might but it was the manner of the defeat that compounded their misery, essentially parking the bus at home without even taking the lead in the tie. It is also down to this negative style of play which has led some players to reportedly denounce the idea of joining to United before moving to clubs who play more atrractive football, Kylian Mbappe just to name one. Something that will do doubt hurt the fans deeply as they take great pride in the club’s long running tradition of playing attacking football.

Of course majority of the United faithful knew what they were getting when Jose signed. They were more willing to adopt his ‘philosophy’ – a term they had come to detest thanks to Louis Van Gaal – as they assumed the football can’t have been any worse than what they had had to endure under his predecessor. The most memorable moments of the Dutchman’s reign came mostly during his amusing press conferences and the one time he took to the Old Trafford turf to protest a foul instead of exciting football on field. Granted Mourinho’s football isn’t significantly better but they knew they were getting a serial winner. At the time it seemed like a match made in heaven. Who else was more fit for the job to bring them back to the top of the table again? Even more so considering their cross town rivals had just acquired the signature of Pep Guardiola, seen as the most coveted manager and rightly so as he had only failed to win the league title on one occasion. The only man to stop him of course being The Special One. So much so when Jose did manage to wrestle the league away from Pep in 2012, the Catalan had to take a year’s sabbatical such was the strenuous process of going up against Mourinho.

However, according to almost all of the leading pundits and journalists, it’s more probable that Satan will be ice-skating to work before Jose manages to lead United to their 21st league title. This is due to the myth that is the 3rd season syndrome. There may be some similar patterns taking place but this notion is somewhat flawed if not entirely. In his first spell at Chelsea he led the club to three exceptionally fruitful seasons with 6 trophies and breaking domestic records left, right and center. Early into his fourth season he was sacked primarily as a result of a strained relationship with Roman Abramovich who was starting to meddle tactically by insisting that Mourinho find a way to start Andriy Shevchenko for example. Jose left as the most successful manager in Chelsea’s history and was also undefeated in all home league games.

He then found himself in the dugout at Inter Milan where he enjoyed great success as well leading the Nerazzurri to two consecutive league titles. Inter also won the champions league under him and in doing so became the first Italian club to achieve the treble. Inevitably Real Madrid came knocking and as it is with players, managers too find it difficult to turn down the Spanish giants it would seem. He may not have stayed beyond three seasons at Milan but there was no 3rd season syndrome whatsoever as well further dispelling the myth and even left the club on good terms and shares a great relationship with everyone at the club till date.

Onto Madrid. Madrid is Madrid. There is probably not a more demanding job in world football and Mourinho achieved a decent trophy haul during his time at the Spanish capital. The mere fact that he lasted three seasons in the job is an achievement. He took over during a period of Barca dominance and offered them more of a challenge although it was marred by the nasty scenes often seen in the Clasico matches where Jose was most often the chief instigator. Towards the end of his tenure relationships soured between him and a few influential players. He did managed to lead the team into the semis in each season, something they had failed to do since 2003. It was obvious however that his time at Madrid had run its course. One could be argued that he did help with the groundwork in allowing them to be so dominant in Europe in the coming period.

Mourinho then of course returned to Stamford Bridge and it was recent enough for everyone to remember how it went down. It is only here where the 3rd season syndrome is completely inarguable when his Chelsea team imploded to shocking extent during the campaign of their title defence and Jose once again got his marching orders.

Long has it been speculated that it was always the Portuguese’s dream job to be in charge of Manchester United. He is in danger of falling into the trap of his previous sins by going up against members of his playing staff and will need to address this as well as other issues. The fans will only back him as long as he continues to win trophies with the team applying his style of play. He would do well to improve United’s attacking prowess and allow the players to play on the front foot more. The more pressing matter however would be to improve the young players in the squad with only Lingard who has gone on to new heights under Jose’s guidance. Players like Martial, Rashford and Luke Shaw are among the few who arguably have been stagnant in their development since his arrival.

There are some positives aspects to Jose’s regime so far too. Moving the likes of Wayne Rooney out of the squad with the minimal of fuss in particular was a shrewd move on his part. United also had a poor recruitment strategy since Ferguson’s arrival and there is an obvious improvement in this department with Jose identifying the players who more suit the profile of a Manchester United player in the likes of Pogba, Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez. The tools are definitely at his disposal to come up trumps all he needs to do his get the team gelling in a formation that suits their capabilities.

One of Jose’s biggest strength – as well as his weakness- is his ego. In recent times it seems to have worked to his detriment. It feels like he has fallen out of love with the game. He used to have a mischievous sparkle in his eyes and now just seems sombre. Make no mistake though, he will not want to walk away from United without being seen as a success. He thrives when he is seen as the underdog and a part of him will be fine with being written off because it will only drive him more. He will love nothing more than to prove all his doubters wrong. It is down to this unique characteristic that one could foresee him going on to achieve great things at United. It ain’t over till the fat lady sings, write him off at your own peril.

By: Sukhveer Dhaliwal

Photo: AFP