Life is hard when you play for Jose Mourinho.
Is it any harder than playing for Jurgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola, whose players are asked to almost run themselves into the ground at times when their teams are forced to press the opposition relentlessly when Manchester City or Liverpool aren’t in possession? And is it any harder than playing for Antonio Conte, who demands intense concentration and tactical discipline at all times?
The difference is that Mourinho seems to believe that life is hard, too. Like a man who’s been burned too many times before, the Manchester United manager looks to have a survival of the fittest approach to football. Especially this season, where his side appears to be made up of the biggest players his scouts could find who have the requisite quality to play Champions League football and compete at the top of the Premier League. Although Mourinho’s philosophy has often seemed to boil down to something like ‘a good big’un is better than a good little’un’, this season seems to take that to an extreme.
He’s always been ruthless, and his teams have possessed the same quality, too: Mourinho sides know how to keep a clean sheet and take their chances at the other end, but on that score, it means results can be on edge.
He’s also ruthless with his players, though. As Andre Schurrle remarked when he left Chelsea, Mourinho showed him “how hard life can be as a footballer.”
It doesn’t sound like a compliment, or a respectful comment designed to thank a former boss for a valuable life lesson given with the best interests of the player in mind. Schurrle, it would appear, doesn’t feel like he was given the fairest of shakes at Chelsea by Mourinho.
“Mourinho showed me how hard life can be as a footballer. If you had one bad game, you would be out of the team.” – Andre Schurrle on being forced out at Chelsea.
It’s a familiar story. Chelsea are gaining a reputation as serial offenders when it comes to hoarding young players and failing to give them a chance in the first team. Modern football is a results business and the danger of falling out of the Champions League is real, as the Blues know all too well. But there’s also something which feels that bit more commercial about Chelsea’s policy, designed to make a profit selling young players to other clubs rather than actually develop them for their own first teams.
Schurrle wasn’t quite one of those players. He was young and promising when he came to Chelsea, but had also four full seasons of top level football under his belt in the Bundesliga and was even a full German international before signing for the west London club from Bayer Leverkusen.
And yet he credits – if that is the right word – Mourinho with showing him the grittier side of the game, and how hard life is when you play for a manager whose whole philosophy appears to be to make life hard for everyone: his own players as much as his opponents.
That’s something he’ll have to be careful of this season.
The longer Manchester City continue to win football games by blowing the opposition away, the starker the contrast with his own side. The fact they’re neighbours and city rivals draws the obvious comparisons, but for much of the opening weeks of the season, it seemed as though we’d be treated to a Manchester shoot-out for the title.
A battle between the two old gunslingers Pep and Jose, with their very different approaches to the game, seems inevitable. Now it’s further away, but if City can keep this up all season, even the hardest of United fans would have to take their hat off to Guardiola’s team. There will be a chance for Mourinho to come back into it, in other words.
It’s all about taking it. But when, as a professional football, you are asked to prioritise grit and steel over skill and flair, you can see how the daily joy of being a professional footballer and playing the sport you love for a living turns into a daily grind of denying yourself your more boyish, inner-childlike pleasures.
For every successful manager, player and team, it’s always been about hard work. But the strange thing about hard work is that when you’re doing it right, it’s doesn’t always have to feel like hard work. And by the end of the season, maybe more of Mourinho’s players will feel like Schurrle: always on edge, and finding that life is harder than initially thought.