Explaining Mourinho’s ‘Third Season Syndrome’


Jose Mourinho (Frank Augstein/AP)

Jose Mourinho is famous for many, many things. Looking suave, for instance. Or being an abrasive narcissist. Or, more recently, for his dislike of doctors—something many of us can relate to, just maybe in a slightly different way to the Chelsea manager.

As he returns to the scene of his first major success on Tuesday, though, there’s one particular Mourinho trait that stands out right now: his difficulty with maintaining success for more than two seasons at one club.

The connection of course is that at FC Porto, against whom Chelsea will play in the UEFA Champions League, Mourinho won an unequivocally spectacular treble in his second season, thrusting himself and the likes of Deco and Ricardo Carvalho to the absolute top of their sport, before establishing the habit of a lifetime by moving on straight after and thus removing even the possibility of longer term success at the club.

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Via a quirky fixture twist, inviting us towards a dose of nostalgia, we are reminded that the same pattern has repeated itself across Mourinho’s managerial career, just as we start to wonder if the same thing is happening to him again at Chelsea right now. He sets up at a club, then wins big, then either leaves on a high or stays until a third season fizzling-out process begins. We are reminded—just at the wrong moment, three seasons in—that never has Mourinho found real success at a club in his third season there.

At Porto, he left. At Chelsea the first time, he won two consecutive league titles in his first two seasons and did still win the League Cup and FA Cup in his third campaign, but after the destructive, all-consuming dominance of what had gone before, and with the excellence of the squad he had to play around with, the sense at that point was already one of a disappointing conclusion—and that came to fruition when Roman Abramovich introduced him to concept of being sacked a few months later.

At Inter Milan, Mourinho won the Champions League brilliantly again as a part of a stupidly unlikely treble, then immediately left for Real Madrid. At Real, he overturned Barcelona’s La Liga hegemony and effectively exiled Pep Guardiola to the U.S., but by his third season mutiny had set in and seen off any real chance of competing for big titles. This, once you look, certainly isn’t a case of the narrative overtaking the facts: it’s a solid trend in an otherwise great manager’s career.

Now back at Chelsea, two seasons in and with his club 15th in the Premier League table, who wouldn’t be tempted to conclude—with a fixture against Porto as a useful reminder of that past—that there’s something going on here?

The draw against Newcastle United this weekend certainly did little to convince anyone that there will be a quick turnaround in form following a poor start. Arriving after a run of three wins in a week, if anything, the fact that even a slight recovery in results could not stir “The Real Chelsea” hints at a stickier problem than one that will disappear with a marginal lift in confidence. What we could be seeing—and I don’t say this lightly, dear reader—is the return of Jose Mourinho’s Third Season Syndrome.

Of course this isn’t inevitable. Chelsea could recover its form in the coming months and its opponents in the league have been accommodating enough to afford it room for manoeuvre by not making any kind of early charge themselves. But at the very least against Porto this week it would be surprising to see a transformation in Mourinho’s team to something like last season’s level—and such a gap is tantalizing for any observer to witness.

The most low-key explanation for the gap is obviously valuable to a certain extent: winning twice is more difficult than winning once, in any circumstance. Motivation is more difficult to acquire, opponents may be better prepared to face you, marginal factors which moved in your favour last season—a stream of late goals, perhaps— are not necessarily replicable, and so on.

But I still think the particular circumstance of a post-success Mourinho team is relevant. I don’t think what we’ve seen across all of these different Mourinho teams is a generic struggle, exactly, but rather it has to be linked to what makes his teams win in the first place.

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You see, Mourinho loves being an underdog. He doesn’t even love it, he fetishizes it: it’s the reason he ladles out conspiracy theories in post-match interviews, it’s the basis on which he pursued his fellow managers’ transfer spending this summer and it would be difficult to believe that the pursuit of underdog status didn’t form a large part of how he talks to his players. It is everything for this manager to make his team feel that it is it against the world. And yet, once you win, and that same world hands you your medals, that feeling’s quite difficult to maintain, isn’t it?

Mourinho thrives on righteous anger against everyone else and thus so do his teams. Under that setup, the cool, unequivocal justification that comes with winning ends up, surely, as a fundamentally unhelpful antidote to every team talk that built up to every title. And that’s before we even arrive at the rather awkward arrangement that is the fact that Mourinho, the great underdog, has spent more than every single one of his contemporaries in the transfer market over the last decade.

For how long can a prolific and well-resourced winner sell his team the notion that they are underdogs? The answer, for these reasons, seems to be about two and a bit seasons.

This is not to criticize the guy. Mourinho will continue to be a brilliant manager and he has still won more than any of his rivals. Instead, maybe it’s about categorizing him: he’s the absolute best in the short term. In the longer term, he’s had more of a struggle and he’s yet to prove the same. A win against Porto might be useful in this regard.

Ethan Dean-Richards is a London-based writer. Follow him on Twitter

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