The last temptation of Jose
Written by Chris Smith. Originally published in The Annual 2018.
Chris Smith looks at ‘footballosophies’ and the eternal battle of good vs. evil, light vs. dark, De Bruyne vs. Fellaini
Friends: football is in a strange place. On the one hand, we have Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City cantering to the league title with some of the most beautiful football ever played on these fine shores.
On the other, we have matches like Liverpool vs. Manchester United; a legitimate contender for the worst football match ever played.
Alright, so it wasn’t that bad. But it wasn’t the only dire Premier League match this year. In fact, we’ve had some real stinkers across the globe; just look at the recent spate of European World Cup qualifiers, only two of which produced more than one goal (thanks, Ireland).
Witnessing some of these games has driven me, in true Top Corner style, to multiple existential crises. Why am I subjecting myself to 90 minutes of this? What am I getting out of it? What is the point?
A lot of people have tried to answer that question over the years, developing their own philosophies about the beautiful game. For some, like new West Ham head honcho David Moyes (sorry, Elliott...), football is about results and nothing else. He once said that, after taking over Everton, his focus was purely to “...win games by hook or by crook so that I didn’t get sacked.” Sadly, David seems to have forgotten both how to hook and how to crook in recent years.
Others see football in a different light. They believe that the game is about more than results, that football can transcend the boundaries of who scored the most goals to provide a blissful, exhilarating and life-affirming experience to all who watch.
The messiah for this school of thought is Johan Cruyff, the smouldering, chain-smoking Dutch uber-god whose name is only to be uttered with the kind of reverence usually reserved for deities and that really strict teacher at school who probably spent his weekends kicking seven shades out of shit out of boozed-up challengers at his local pub car park fight club.
Cruyff would have been a legend even if he never set foot in the dugout, but his decision to take the Barcelona manager’s job in 1988 was a big bang moment in football; there had been football philosophers before, but none with the messianic charisma or dogmatic dedication to a certain style of play as Cruyff.
Even the story behind Cruyff’s arrival at Barca reads like some kind of Biblical tale. Faced with a player revolt after a clash over unpaid taxes, and with his team massively underperforming, Barca president Josep Lluis Nunez needed a miracle. Nay, a divine intervention: enter Cruyff, presumably bathed in a glorious white light and a massive plume of smoke.
Cruyff’s on-field ideas were pretty simple. He wanted to pursue an attacking style of football that placed emphasis on possession, carried out by highly-skilled technical players who lacked the traditional physique of a footballer.
What set Cruyff apart was his implementation of this style as a philosophy. Turning to the then-neglected La Masia, Cruyff enforced his style on every single team from the under-8s to the seniors.
Cruyff’s changes didn’t yield immediate results, but they eventually produced the remarkable Dream Team of 1992 and eight trophies in 11 seasons. Their effect went far beyond results on field too; they built a whole new identity for the club, a philosophy, an idea of how the game should be played.
Oh, and La Masia turned out a few good players too.
Fast forward to today and Cruyff’s influence is everywhere. Only one man commands the same kind of mystic aura as the great man though: Pep Guardiola.
Like his mentor Cruyff, Guardiola has a vision for how the game should be played and seems willing to sacrifice results in his pursuit of it. But, like all good philosophers, he’s added his own spin on the Cruyffian way, adding crushing pressure to his game after a pilgrimage to visit Marcelo Bielsa (one of the game’s most influential figures despite his own inability to actually win much).
Although some football fans see Guardiola as a charlatan whose success is purely down to the fact he’s managed the game’s biggest clubs, I’m willing to wager that most would say he’s a positive force in the game, a man who will do everything he can to make the game as pretty and interesting as possible.
Many would say the same about Mauricio Pochettino and Jurgen Klopp too. While neither pursue the Cruyffian way, both are committed to playing the game in a positive and exciting manner that usually produces good results but occasionally blows up in their face spectacularly (especially with Klopp’s anarchic gegenpressing and steadfast commitment to keepers with a mortal fear of catching the ball).
Even Wenger, dear old Arsene, is capable of producing profound moments of footballing beauty when his team aren’t lurching from one crisis to another and sending poor old Claude and DT into full-on foaming-at-the-mouth “holy shit, they might actually kill someone this time” rages.
So, with so many managers committed to making the game as attractive as possible, why are so many top level games so crushingly awful? The answer arguably lies with one man, the omega to Pep’s alpha: Jose Mourinho.
Mourinho was once an acolyte of Cruyffism, a worshipper at the church of Barcelona. Although he only worked as a translator, Barca is the kind of club that gets into your soul. It’s no secret that he wanted the Barca job after Frank Rijkaard’s departure. Yet, whereas Guardiola inherited most of Cruyff’s positive traits, Mourinho inherited his dark side; the temper, the abrasive personality. As a result, he was overlooked in favour of Cruyff’s golden boy.
Cast out from the House of Cruyff, Mourinho has now apparently set out to destroy it entirely. Rather than seeking beauty, Mourinho only seeks results; he is Lucifer, tempting the meek and wicked with sinful pleasures like winning at any cost and strangely unsatisfying cup wins. You can have it all if you sell your soul to the handsome man in the grey overcoat.
Although it may not seem like it, Mourinho does have a footballing philosophy. It’s an anti-philosophy; like an atheist who spends his days furiously arguing with Christians on Twitter, Mourinho isn’t content with his own non-belief; to validate his own non-beliefs he needs everyone else to lose theirs too.
His philosophy is built on destruction rather than creation, waiting for mistakes before pouncing and reaping maximum rewards from the wreckage of something beautiful. His teams are muscular, bruising and crushing; the antithesis of Cruyff and Guardiola’s lithe technical wizards. Guardiola has De Bruyne; Mourinho has Fellaini.
Of course, coaches like Pulis and Allardyce play a similar kind of style to Jose, but there’s a special kind of malevolence to Mourinho’s game. He revels in it, rubbing his success in the noses of ‘Einsteins’ and those who place their faith in aesthetically pleasing football.
The thing is, Mourinho is also horrifically successful. You may not like his methods but goddamnit, he gets results. That’s more than you can say for dedicated Cruyffians like Ronald Koeman and Frank de Boer, who have had seasons that I’d generously describe as utterly shit.
This year, we should finally get the battle we all wanted last season; the collision of the two philosophies, the battle between good and evil. Pep vs. Jose, Creation vs. Destruction, Gabriel vs. Lucifer, Balboa vs. Drago. English football’s soul is on the line, and the victor could influence how our clubs play and approach the game for years.