The best football managers in history are often celebrated for their personalities. Their charisma. Their humour. Their temper.
But ultimately a club stands or falls on its team sheet. The players that these managers have selected.
The thing about Ferguson or Zagallo, Shankly, Clough, even Michels is that they knew which players they needed and how to use them, it’s as simple as that. No one-liner, no piece of motivation, not even a footballing philosophy like ‘total football’ was so all-consuming that they could afford to select the wrong players for the job.
Which bring us to Jose Mourinho.
Let’s boil it down. For once can we just part the personality. Yes he’s clever, funny and charming. But he’s not THAT clever, funny and charming.
What he actually knows to do is how to pick a football team. And to keep that simple. The Simple One. And that is not a skill that all of his peers seem to possess.
His return to Chelsea was met with such fanfare, which he embraced knowingly with his new demeanour of deadpan thespian, that important areas were left in the shadows. At his first media conference on his summer return, jostling for space with 250 of my peers who squeezed into the suite at Stamford Bridge, one quiet comment stood out to me.
Mourinho was asked if was going to keep hold of young Belgian talents Lukaku and De Bruyne.
Suddenly, mercifully the real Mourinho, the one that actually manages a football team not a media circus, shone through. He made it clear. They were staying. He could have reminded everyone he needed to assess things properly. But with the Belgians…he was emphatic. It was a telling moment. This man knew exactly what he had a chance to develop, and had no fear about admitting it. He may also have realized that too many people in the room were in awe at his one-liners to grasp the importance of this clue to his thinking.
De Bruyne spent last season at Werder Bremen, playing well but hardly the centre of attention. Lukaku showed why he’s already an international regular by sparkling at West Bromwich Albion, often looking like he’d be doing a better job than Torres. I still think he can, though Mourinho started the season with him on the substitute’s bench.
He did pick De Bruyne though. And it looked like a brilliant piece of decision making. The 22 year-old winger was superb against Hull, a ball of energy. Easily the best player on the pitch, and when you’re alongside Eden Hazard, the most feted of Chelsea’s Belgian stars, that’s quite an achievement.
I’m not saying he’ll play every game this season, nor that he should. But I am convinced a lesser manager than Mourinho would not have got him ‘up to speed’ so quickly.
Players love playing for Jose Mourinho. It’s an oft used line but that doesn’t make it any less true.
Let’s take the case of Frank Lampard. So marginalised had he become in the first part of last season there was a real chance he’d leave the club.
Mourinho didn’t need to cajole him. Or praise him. Or love him. Though all three may be true. All he needed to do was pick him. Lampard has started the season in the team and is thriving. Mata will start when fit too. Terry and Cahill together in defence with Ivanovic at right back, and of course Cole. I think everyone knows where they stand, and it’s really only the striker position that throws up questionmarks for everyone, Mourinho included.
Manuel Pellegrini has showed early signs that, like Mourinho, he is a brilliant coach who knows how to pick the right players too. More than anyone he needs to get this right. There’s a lot of tough decisions to be made at the world’s richest club. (Interesting how we haven’t heard from Mancini’s misguided adorers for a while – his non-selections of Lescott and Balotelli were surely examples of his failings).
It’s comical to think that Pellegrini or Moyes at United would really care about ‘mindgames’ or whatever the media want to call it. They are busily developing teams and squads and tactics. You won’t find them pinning articles to a dressing room wall.
There are real grudge matches and real mental tussles in sport. For all the skill and excitement Premier League football matches are not necessarily near the top of that list. Watch The Ashes cricket if you want to see something close to ‘psychological warfare’ and ‘mental disintegration’.
And the other distraction Mourinho brings on himself are the ‘clashes’. The touchline gesticulation, the pushing and shoving, the post-match tirades, the tension with the officials. Again – how important is all of this really? The players don’t care. I think he’ll have a far bigger problem if he doesn’t get the best out of Torres but continues to pick him. And I’d expect him to show limited patience in that area,
Mourinho has pretty much always got it right. He’s never lost in the Premier League at Stamford Bridge for goodness sake. When Duff was hot he was in. Robben was in of course. Makalele? An automatic pick. No fuss. No tinkering. Get the basics right, then the most difficult selections provide room for experimentation. But why change for the sake of it? Why undermine or cause uncertainty in players. Mourinho seems to understand footballers as well as the make-up of a successful team.
So you’ll forgive me if I treat the Jose Mourinho show with a giant pinch of salt. Underneath the verbal jousting he knows what matters.
Lee Wellings is the Sports Correspondent for Al Jazeera English based in London. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow Lee on twitter @LeeW_Sport