Jose Mourinho’s Opening Gambits, 2004–2016

When Mourinho arrived at Chelsea, his first moves in the transfer market were magnificent. Now at Manchester United, he seems to have adopted a similar strategy.

by Will Magee
Jul 14 2016, 5:25pm

PA Images

This story originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

It is 2 June 2004, and half of the nation's football journalists are assembled in a hot, cramped conference room at Stamford Bridge. Some are clutching coffees, others are chatting, and a few are sitting on their own, going over notes while quietly gasping for a fag. Soon enough the sound of camera shutters snapping drifts down the hall, and people stand to attention. There is shuffling, there is bustling, there are journos rushing to their seats and trying to compose themselves. Then, in through the door walks Jose Mourinho, flanked by Chelsea officials on either side. Minutes later, he has the crowd enthralled.

It doesn't take long for him to deliver the immortal line. "I'm European Champion," he reminds those gathered before him. "I think I am a special one."

The moment those words escaped Mourinho's lips, the game was afoot. From that point onwards, he would forever be dubbed 'The Special One'. This was a self-fulfilling prophecy, as it turned out, and he was soon to be lauded as the best manager in the Premier League. Over the course of the next three years he would win two titles, a Community Shield and three domestic cups. That was only the beginning, however. First he conquered England, then the world.

Mourinho didn't leave his success up to fate, of course. His words may seem prophetic in hindsight, but his triumphs at Chelsea happened by calculation and design. It was a gamble to announce his arrival in England in such a grandiose fashion and, had results not gone his way in the early days, it could have left him in a difficult situation. Thankfully, he had a plan, and it required an opening bluff to make it work.

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If the 'Special One' conference was an act of bravado, it was also a distraction from Mourinho's main maneuverings. He was now ready to make his opening gambit, and was about to play it to perfection. What Mourinho did next was more important than perhaps anything else he did during his first spell at Chelsea. He secured the signings of Didier Drogba and Ricardo Carvalho, and oversaw the finalisation of Petr Čech's transfer to the club. He built a spine for his side, and it turned out to be nigh on unbreakable.

Though there were numerous other transfers signed off that summer, the spine of the team was always Mourinho's main focus. He would strengthen it further the following season, signing Michael Essien to shore up the centre of the midfield despite having won the league at the first attempt. Those players, along with Claude Makélélé, Frank Lampard and John Terry, formed a cohesive unit which their rivals simply could not contend with. Chelsea won the League Cup that February, followed by their first league title in 50 years. They had triumphed with a record 95 points, with only 15 goals conceded and one loss to their name all season. The spine that Mourinho cultivated was the basis of that success.

Fast forward 12 years, and Mourinho seems like a very different manager. Chastened at the end of his second spell at Stamford Bridge, he seems a somewhat grizzled, jaded version of his former self. His first press conference at Manchester United was understated, almost sullen at times, and came along with all the disdainful jibes we've come to expect from him at this point. Nonetheless, his approach to team building seems awfully familiar. There are glaring parallels between his recent transfer strategy and the way he built that iconic Chelsea side, just over a decade ago.

Mourinho has always made sure to have strong spines in his sides. While he is willing to chop and change out wide, the crucial positions down the middle of the pitch must be durable and resolute. In his first season at Chelsea, Cech, Drogba and Carvalho played in almost every game when fit. Cech was soon considered one of the best keepers in the league, Carvalho was one of the canniest defensive operators around and, up front, Drogba terrorised opposition centre-backs with his physicality and brute strength. Together, they were unstoppable.

Similar efforts to strengthen the team spine were made at Inter and Real Madrid, with differing levels of success. Mourinho was blessed with a rock-hard defence at Inter, but brought in Diego Milito and Thiago Motta to provide extra backbone further up the field. In his first season at Real, he brought in Emmanuel Adebayor, Sami Khedira and Ricardo Carvalho, again. While that spine might not have been quite as effective, Mourinho's intentions were clear.

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Now, at Manchester United, Mourinho's opening gambit is no different. He has brought in Eric Bailly, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and laid the main foundations for his team. Bailly is a young and hungry centre-back, Mkhitaryan a central hub and Zlatan an imposing, physical forward who can bully defences into submission. Should rumours of Paul Pogba's arrival prove to have substance, Mourinho will have built a spine to rival that of his greatest ever Chelsea team.

Looking back on the summer of 2004, Mourinho's transfer strategy stands out as a work of genius. When he built a core of Drogba, Cech and Carvalho, he revived a club which was desperate for success. Those players went on to achieve true greatness, and Mourinho basked in their reflected glory. The question is: will we say the same when we look back on the summer of 2016?


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