Amongst historians, there is never-ending debate over whether it is the will of unique individuals or the circumstances surrounding their rises to power that drive the journey of mankind.
Was Adolf Hitler born to commit the gravest of crimes against humanity, or did the aftermath of the First World War make such atrocities inevitable? Did Winston Churchill’s cunning help win World War II, or were his aforementioned adversaries always doomed to fail?
The history of the Premier League, in philosophical terms at least, is far more clear. The ideas accompanying great managers who go on to achieve great things always trickle down and become adopted by their peers. Sir Alex Ferguson wasn’t the greatest tactical innovator ever to grace the Premier League, but he knew when he was confronted with a progressive idea and he always acted accordingly.
The two most influential figures in this regard are Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho. The former’s views on training, health and aesthetic football revolutionised the English game – and lead to three Premier League titles, including the legendary Invincibles campaign – and catalysed the transition from the beer-soaked 1990s to the professional era the Premier League now resides in.
But as with any successful revolution, his revolutionary ideas become stale, mainstream and eventually conservative. The Gunners are stuck in their title-less malaise because they’re still plagued by the same fundamental flaws that eventually unwound the Invincibles over a decade ago. Likewise, when it comes to fitness and diet, the rest of the Premier League has caught up – in fact, others are now leading the way.
No Premier League manager has capitalised on those flaws with more ruthless efficiency than Jose Mourinho, whose record against Wenger remains eight wins, six draws and just one defeat. It’s no coincidence that Arsenal’s last Premier League title in 2004 came just months before the Special One arrived from FC Porto.
He was not the first but certainly the most prolific in using a five-man midfield to outwit the 4-4-2-obsessed Premier League. It bemused the rest of the division as much as it did Arsenal, and Chelsea walked to consecutive titles virtually uncontested.
But that was ten years ago and after an unceremonious exit from Real Madrid, followed by the most spectacular of implosions at Chelsea, Mourinho’s system of five in midfield, balanced full-backs and an old-fashioned centre-forward isn’t as annihilating as it once was.
Indeed, the Premier League’s philosophical timeline is moving into a new era and despite the undeniable illustriousness of his CV, not to mention the unrelenting power of the transfer budgets at his disposal, Mourinho risks being left behind.
Manchester United’s clash with Liverpool, a team forged around fresher-faced ideals of high-pressing, midfield mobility and lightening pace on the counter-attack, might be the strongest indicator yet of an outdated Mourinho mantra.
It’s a clash of styles befitting either side of the greatest rivalry in English football: Jurgen Klopp’s rip-roaring, energetic young blood versus Mourinho’s sturdy and systematic old cronies. You can’t imagine a 35-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic, or for that matter a 30-year-old Wayne Rooney, fitting into the Reds’ overtly flexible attacking line-up, just as you can’t imagine Daniel Sturridge or Roberto Firmino getting the nod up front from Mourinho.
Of course, a division in philosophy doesn’t mean one is necessarily better than the other and there has been a progression to Mourinho’s ideas in recent years – most notably the adaption from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1. But this discussion is by no means exclusive to Monday’s North West derby.
Klopp’s Reds have been on the rise since he took over in October 2015 and their ruthless start to the season is made all the more incredible by the fact their net spend for the summer was -£500k.
It’s a similar story at Tottenham Hotspur, where Mauricio Pochettino has forged a title-chasing side on similar ideas, posed with the same problem of limited financial resources. Even Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, who have annihilated everything else in their path this season including United, couldn’t handle Spurs’ pressing in the final third.
Mourinho, meanwhile, has spent hundreds of millions of pounds at Chelsea and Manchester United yet – barring one title winning season – struggled to achieve superior results. More than the man himself, for there is no doubt the Portuguese is an incredible manager with an incredible mind, it’s a sign of his ideas entering their natural decay.
Other schools of thought, meanwhile, are creating teams worth far more than the sum of the transfer fees of their individual parts. In the same vein, that suggests a greater efficiency to Klopp and Pochettino’s methods.
And if what we already know about Mourinho’s United is anything to go by, Liverpool could leave them on the receiving end of a Blitzkrieg demolition at Anfield.
United’s approach to the Manchester derby was to sit deep and soak up pressure, but City’s work-rate and intensity in the Red Devils’ half saw them accumulate a two-goal lead within 37 minutes. Whilst that Barca-esque energy off the ball remains an appealing aspect of City’s game, it’s far more prevalent in Liverpool’s because they have the players for it.
Evidence thus far, not only the City defeat but also Mourinho’s calamitous final season at Chelsea, filled with ageing legs and static football, suggests the United manager’s philosophy isn’t built to handle such relentless pressure. It’s not just a concern for Monday’s game, but the entirety of the Special One’s planned four-year stint at Old Trafford. The Premier League is moving on.
There are other signs too of Mourinho becoming outdated, beyond the nightmare end to his second Chelsea spell and an underwhelming start to the season with United.
Indeed, there is a clear split between Mourinho from the start of his Porto tenure to winning the treble with Inter Milan – arguably his greatest managerial achievement – and from the beginning of his Real Madrid stint to the present day. Fees spent on players have steadily risen but so have the number of sackings, whilst his win rate and the number of trophies across the board have notably decreased.
Likewise, the ‘Mourinho generation’ if you will, has come to its natural end. The players who served as a platform of his success – Ricardo Carvalho, John Terry, Paulo Ferreira, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, John Terry, Wesley Snjeider and Samuel Eto’o – are all now well into their 30s. Some are picking up final pay cheques in distant leagues, whilst others have retired completely.
It’s rather curious that even at United, a club with the financial firepower to sign any youngster in world football, Mourinho began the season by placing his faith in the fading-out greats of the last generation, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney, rather than starting afresh and building a youthful, vibrant squad.
Over the last few years, that hasn’t been Mourinho’s style – but that’s precisely the point.
Whilst his views on formations and a defence-comes-first style led to the coup d’état against Wenger all those years ago, Klopp, Pochettino and their vibrant brands of modern, energetic, entertaining football are heading the charge to capitulate Mourinho and his ageing ideals.
I’m not suggesting Manchester United are certain to lose on Monday night; much of football’s beauty lies in its unpredictable nature and for all the criticisms this article has thrown his way, Mourinho is still the master of the bitterly-fought away draw.
But defeating him at Anfield, a fitting battleground for a showdown between the army of the decaying, conservative royals and the revolutionary forces who will soon come to power, would be the new order’s greatest gain yet on the old guard.