Beware of the third year!

Marquee managers Jose Mourinho of Chelsea and Louis van Gaal of Manchester United are in trouble.

Published : Dec 16, 2015 18:07 IST

Time is running out for Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal.
Time is running out for Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal.

Time is running out for Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal.

When does the interminable slide begin? “The third year is fatal,” asserted the legendary Hungarian coach Bela Guttmann decades ago. But surely, seeking a formula to detect entropy is disingenuous.

A look at Jose Mourinho’s career might suggest otherwise. The Portuguese manager lasted a little over three seasons at Chelsea in his first stint at the club, left Real Madrid after three campaigns and now faces a crisis in the third term of his second tenure with the Blues. The pattern may have been meatier if Mourinho had not moved on from Porto and Inter Milan after his second season with both clubs brought Champions League glory.

An agreement with Guttmann, however, would leave a bitter taste in the enigmatic manager’s mouth. After all, Mourinho’s return to Chelsea was meant to give him the only prize he never had. Build a dynasty. Nurture talented youngsters and make them first-team regulars.

However, it hasn’t gone to plan for Mourinho. Old habits die hard. The paranoia is back, so is the siege mentality. Such machinations aren’t abrasive when the side’s doing well; they seem repetitive and farcical when things go wrong. Mourinho could get away with being outrageous if his team conceded just 15 goals in the league all season, as Chelsea did in its title-winning 2004-05 campaign. But the club doctor, media and referees are seen as easy targets when they are blamed for the problems that occur during a crisis.

Mourinho’s troubles, though, don’t resolve the debate that has arguably engulfed football since it came into existence in its modern form. Is it about results? Or is it the process? Do you care about winning trophies the most? Or does stylish football enrich you above everything else?

The question remains unanswered because the problems have not arisen due to the superiority of one ideology over the other. Louis van Gaal, who sees himself on the side of process and entertainment, is in trouble as well. Manchester United failed to qualify from a Champions League group that many thought it would dominate. Furthermore, the side continues to labour in domestic encounters. The dire style of football presented by United every week does not leave even the slightest opportunity for enrichment.

But van Gaal is not in a dither over his philosophy. Not yet, at least. In journalist Patrick Barclay’s biography of Mourinho, the Dutch manager clearly explains why he’s different from the Portuguese manager. “He (Mourinho) has more belief in defence than attack. My philosophy is always — because I believe we must entertain the public — to have attacking play. His philosophy is to win! That is the difference.”

Van Gaal’s argument lies in direct opposition to the claims made by his detractors. Throughout his career he has been criticised for overplaying the importance of possession. As van Gaal sees it, controlling the midfield is key to dominating a game. To make the players understand his detailed vision of football, he needs time.

Van Gaal’s immense belief in the superiority of his methods, though, ensures that public sympathy is not easily available when things don’t go his way.

For a manager who prides himself on his detailed tactical insights, losing matches to goals from a set-piece — like United did against Wolfsburg and Bournemouth in the space of a few days — does him no favours. Van Gaal’s notion of philosophy and process isn’t winning him any friends either.

In fact, even during his successful second stint with the Netherlands that brought third place at last year’s World Cup, the manager was accused of playing reactive football. Although the Dutch side’s lack of strength arguably left him with no other option, the criticisms only made it clear that the ‘process vs result’ question harbours a false dichotomy.

As van Gaal has argued in the past, it is tough to define attacking football. Leicester City raced to the top of the Premier League this season by scoring frequently. The goals, though, have been a result of a reactive approach that doesn’t seek to master ball possession. Mourinho has often told his players in the past — “Whoever renounces possession reduces the possibility of making a mistake.”

Therefore, the crises faced by van Gaal and Mourinho show that the eternal debate has little meaning. In the current context, more significant is their larger-than-life personality that has often caught the public’s notice. Consequently, in times of distress, van Gaal and Mourinho have to face greater media glare. In this sense, their personas are more closely aligned than one would imagine.

In fact, it was Mourinho’s character that won him the admiration of van Gaal and his career breakthrough when the Dutchman was managing Barcelona from 1997 to 2000. Van Gaal viewed Mourinho as “an arrogant young man, who didn’t respect authority that much, but I did like that of him. He was not submissive, used to contradict me when he thought I was in the wrong. Finally, I wanted to hear what he had to say and ended up listening to him more than the rest of my assistants.” It takes one to know one.

But Mourinho, unlike van Gaal, has never put anything above the imperative of success. “My style of leadership is not a style. I try to have a leadership that is adapted to the reality,” the Portuguese manager once said.

The reality is that if the slide continues, both managers are likely to be out of their jobs soon. To be fair, Mourinho hasn’t received the help he needed from the Chelsea boardroom. The club didn’t improve its playing personnel in the summer, even though other clubs made significant investments. Hence, Mourinho’s future at Chelsea may depend on the transfer business in January.

Van Gaal, however, can’t state the same reason for his team’s ills. While he has had to battle a long injury list for the second season in a row, the side didn’t flourish even when he could field his expensively-acquired first XI. Van Gaal has maintained that he is willing to change his methods if a better argument is presented to him. United’s recent results have made a persuasive argument. It’s time to pay heed.

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