It’s 2 July, 2004. In front of camera flashes, José Mourinho says “I think I’m a special one.”
It’s 10 June, 2013. José Mourinho tells the press at his first press conference back at Chelsea “Call me the Happy One.”
It’s 5 July, 2016. Mourinho arrives for his first press conference as Manchester United manager. “We’ve had various incarnations since you’ve been in England — you’ve been the Special One, the Happy One — what does Manchester make you?” It’s the first question of the day. “I don’t know,” Mourinho says, “Really.”
It’s 21 November, 2019. The first question at Mourinho’s debut as Tottenham Hotspur manager is less of a question and more of a set-up. The new boss, in bright purple training top and deep blue-purple gilet, is reminded “You said in the summer that the first news conference in your new job you’d be smiling, and you certainly are.” He acknowledges the comment, then moves onto a 100+ second, makes-good-copy answer about Mauricio Pochettino’s continued welcome at the club. A quick joke about working at Sky, and then the actual answer, “I enjoy what I did, but this is my life and this is where I belong and this is what really makes me happy.”
With José Mourinho and his career in the English game, is there any place to start other than his media personality? Mourinho the manager and Mourinho the man of media performances are so inescapably linked that, according to a Miguel Delaney tweet, there were more people present for his first presser at Tottenham Hotspur than there were for Spurs’ Champions League final press day last May.
All signs from his career point to Mourinho knowing, understanding on an almost intuitive level, how to work the media. The story is a little more interesting than first glance, though, because in that first day in front of the English his iconic line in full reads:
…Again, please don’t call me arrogant because what I’m saying [he’d been talking about his achievements at Porto] is true. I’m the European champion… so I’m not one of the bottle [I think he means ‘a bottler’?], I think I’m a special one.
The self-confidence was underpinned with something approaching humility, at least self-awareness, but it was the ‘special one’ hook that stuck. If it matters (for historical accuracy it does, although that’s hardly integral to a mythology), the moniker of ‘the Special One’, with capital ‘S’ and capital ‘O’, was given to him by the press.
By the time he returned to Chelsea, almost a decade later, he, of course, played into that. It was ‘the Happy One’, with the ‘the’ and the implicit capitalisation, from his own mouth.
It had become such a key part of the Mourinho mythos that it was the very first thing he was asked in his first United presser, the media eager for the rule of three to be completed. They wanted to be able to trace the lineage of Mourinho: The Special One, The Happy One, The ??? One. But Mourinho was not willing to play ball.
And now, in 2019, that urge in us to know what ‘One’ he is has died, or at least diminished. Is this in part because of the way that Mourinho’s own status as a manager has diminished, taking a hit during his time at Old Trafford, the club and the dug-out that he was supposedly coveting the most? Possibly. He’s still catnip to the commentariat, but he no longer, apparently, needs a nickname. Maybe nicknames are just passé.
It’ll take some time for us to know how José Mourinho’s Tottenham will look. He’s only had half a week with the squad so far, and football teams are always something of a work-in-progress anyway. They are the most organic of art forms.
He also said in his opening press conference that he didn’t want to make big changes, that he wanted to respect the base that had been worked on by Mauricio Pochettino for the last five-and-a-half years, and followed that up pre-match, rather curiously claiming that the changes he was making for the game were neither really about player motivation nor tactics.
They certainly weren’t anything major on the tactical front. Spurs lined up in a 4-2-3-1, their most-used formation of the season according to WhoScored. There were nuances — for 20 minutes or so, Harry Kane played like a true striker, before returning back to his more usual role of late of dropping deeper and playing more like a No.10; for slightly longer, Serge Aurier pushed up as a true right-wing-back with left-back Ben Davies holding back to form a back three in build-up, but that disappeared as the match went on too — but the biggest differences seemed to be in performance levels of individuals.
That may have been helped by the match-up though. I’ve been playing the latest Pokémon game a lot recently, so type match-ups are at the tip of my brain: Tottenham, with their excellent technical, positional, speedy attacking midfielders were like the fire-type against West Ham’s porous midfield and static defensive line steel-type. Tottenham used Dele finding space between the lines and Son runs from depth. It was super effective! The opposing West Ham United fainted.
That match-up was certainly crucial to Spurs going 3-0 in front (although in the last half-hour of the match they collapsed somewhat, being outshot 9-1 after scoring their third, which Mourinho put down to fatigue post-game), but I’m still not sure how much of this match I should expect to see from Mourinho’s Tottenham going forward. It is, after all, just one game.
From the praise and geeing up of Dele Alli to the vocal respect for Pochettino, it all feels a bit like Mourinho is on a form of charm offensive.
The amount of times he’s mentioned ‘happy’ or ‘happiness’ in his first few press conferences has been notable, and despite his claims that the Tottenham players were perfectly well motivated during this season so far, they bookended the match in his BT Sport interviews.
From before the game: “I like the ideas but I also like to work the ideas and this today was more about ideas than to work them, so let’s see if we can find happiness.”
And after: “The boys are happy and that’s what I really wanted, I wanted them to be back to happiness and nothing better than to win a football match and be happy.”
And from his full post-match press conference, on Dele Alli’s flick in the lead-up to the second goal: “You only do that if you are focused, committed, ultra confident, if not you give up when you have bad feeling, sadness, you don't do that piece of skill. It is amazing, but it only comes when from an emotional point of view everything is positive.”
Happiness is key.
Interestingly, after having played down any tactical changes that he was planning on making before the match, this is how he started his answer to a question on whether he’d rebuild the team or just make small changes:
I think sometimes you see 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 and sometimes people think it's the same. It's never the same because with the same positional, tactical base, the most important thing is the dynamic you bring. I think I want to do my things. I've started to do my things. I hope that you don't understand it very well and don't speak about it a lot, but you know [the] positional play is different and very adapted to the players.
[NB: god bless football.london for transcribing full press conferences, though I have slightly tweaked their version]
A little later in the same question: “I think Dele feels very comfortable in this role, with freedom but following principles and things that we do in training.”
The mentions of positional play and playing principles is an interesting departure from the noises Mourinho had been making pre-match, although he did also say in that above answer that the tactical base was the same.
On the changes that he did make, he also said the following to BT after the game, referring to the little time he’d had with the squad and their fatigue after an international break: “We were bringing to the game things we trained a little bit but we spoke a lot about.” How much of this positional play and the principles Dele was following were based on conversations, or video analysis, and how much on work out on the grass on the training field?
This probably gives more of an insight into the managerial and coaching process than it does Mourinho. Fresh off a win and a good first hour, though, and he clearly feels more comfortable talking about his influence on this team, rather than just giving credit to Pochettino’s.
But let’s move away from the match itself again. Aside from the fact that, to paraphrase Forrest Gump, British football press is as British football press does, it’s peculiar that José Mourinho’s nicknames have been so tied to emotion and yet his media performances have tended to be credited with being deliberate ‘mind games’.
‘The Special One’ (read: ‘arrogant’), ‘The Happy One’, BBC Sport social media has shared one clip from after the West Ham game with ‘The Humble One’. Mourinho talks in relatively long, often rambling answers that make great copy for journalists but those performances shouldn’t be taken to mean that he’s a master operator.
As potential case-in-point, there’s been an interesting mini-story around his first few days in charge of Tottenham. In his opening press conference he made a comment about Dele Alli, and how he’d asked the English midfielder whether it had been Dele or Dele’s brother who’d been playing recently.
“He told me he was Dele,” Mourinho recounted, “‘OK,’ I said. ‘Play like Dele.’”
But Dele was asked about this post-game.
Yeah, he made a joke about it but a lot of people have been talking about that for a few years now so it’s nothing new for me. I think I’ve been performing well so far this season despite the results; I think individually I haven’t been playing that bad, I’ve just got to keep getting better.
A lot of people say to me am I going to find my old form, but I don't want to find that form, I want to get better than that, improve, and reach my full potential.
And then he was asked: “Do you think you answered that [questions about your form] today then?”
I don’t know, you never know. People might think I played bad today, people might think I played good but, for me, we won so I’m happy.
It seemed uncomfortable; it seemed like a player who didn’t consider himself to be in a rut (and some Tottenham fans will back him up on that) being asked why he was.
Dele may well have benefited from a geeing up behind-the-scenes, but the way that that has played out publicly comes across less like a planned pep talk and more like an unplanned anecdote.
Why is Mourinho — a man whose touchline antics quite clearly show him to be an emotional person — afforded such leeway that his comments to the media are deliberate, Machiavellian manipulations? Is it because he’s a man, and as a society we’re less likely to attribute men’s actions to the whims of emotion? Is it the legacy of Sir Alex Ferguson, and the British football press’ desire for someone to fill that ‘mind games’ void? Probably a bit of both.
But if we read Mourinho’s press conferences, and even his internal man-management, through the lens of someone who’s pulled this way and that by his feelings, most things make more sense. Sure, feuding with elements of the dressing room to elicit a response is a management technique, but one that requires a strong degree of feel and feeling. And when this feuding seems to get out of hand, it would seem to me to make more sense for it to be because of too much feeling rather than a plan gone awry.
The public spats — let’s call them ‘spats’ — with Luke Shaw make, to me, a lot more sense when viewed as a boss who’s angry and frustrated and, perhaps, is letting that get the better of him than as a thought-through plan to push the right buttons and get the player performing as desired.
Or, to delight the press and use a couple of basic literary references, perhaps it’s time we stop imagining Mourinho as an Iago, able to turn to the audience with a knowing smile and detail his plan; rather, a Frankenstein’s monster, who’s so overwhelmed with the emotions coursing through him that he stumbles and murders his way to a bargaining position with his maker.
In his on-field tactics, Mourinho is clearly an intelligent man; but in terms of his off-field persona he is, and seems to have always been, The Emotional One.
It took 16 minutes into his very first press conference as Tottenham manager for Mourinho to be asked about the ‘The’ tag. He’d answered an earlier question, about what he’d learnt during his time out of the game, by saying that he’s humble enough to self-assess, to self-analyse, to review his mistakes in the hopes never to make the same ones again.
“Fifteen years ago […] you said you were the Special One,” a new question began, “I’m not looking for a label — you say today you’re really humble, but that brashness that you had 15 years ago is what made you the greatest manager. Are you worried that if you’re going to be humble maybe you’ll lose some of that?”
“No,” he said, shaking his head, and then, while answering further, broke into an amused, rather than cheeky, smile, “I was always humble, the problem was that you never understand that. I was always humble, in my way.”
He was. It takes a certain amount of arrogance to proclaim oneself publicly as humble — humility tends to be assumed — but it wasn’t José Mourinho who called himself The Special One.