First Team

Exploring the psychology of Jose Mourinho

The Romantic

Back in May 2017, ahead of the Europa League final, Rio Ferdinand interviewed Jose Mourinho at Old Trafford. The chat lasted around 30 minutes. They discussed the usual things: his early days at Barcelona, the legacy left by Sir Alex Ferguson, the dynamics of the modern Premier League.

Mourinho answered the questions methodically, diplomatically, as if the answers were already stored in his head. Having arrived in England for the first time over a decade ago, there aren’t many questions for which he has not planned some kind of response.

Then Ferdinand asked the Portuguese a simple question: What is it that you love most about being a football manager?

Mourinho’s answer: “90 minutes”.

He may cut a surly figure at times but Mourinho, at heart, is an insatiable romantic, somebody who feels most alive when submerged in the metrics of a huge game filled with tension and fine margins and raw, feral energy. You can see it in his face: every corner, every free-kick, every misplaced pass, every chance and every mood swing a high magnitude affair encounters. He feels it. Right to his bones.

“The more pressure there is, the stronger I am,” he said after joining Real Madrid in 2010. “In Portugal, we say the bigger the ship, the stronger the storm. Fortunately for me, I have always been in big ships.”

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Perhaps there is no modern manager who so visibly and dramatically feeds off pressure and uses it like Mourinho. His strategy of playing each game on its merits, as opposed to falling back on a well-ironed attacking structure, leaves his teams with no choice but to strictly play in the moment, to gauge the tone of a game and use it to their advantage.

Mourinho wants his players to feel responsibility and experience what it means to control a situation, because to him that is far more intimate – more meaningful – than the school of creating faultless midfield triangles and breaking the lines, as espoused by Pep Guardiola. For Mourinho, collective struggle always trumps unified exhibition.

That disposition can win you titles in four different countries and cement your place among the managerial greats. It can also warp inside of you and come out as near insanity. Like the romantic who either loves with all their heart or descends into pure paranoia, Mourinho experiences football in terms of ever-oscillating emotional extremes, like a Portuguese Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

The Priest

90 minutes can feel like a lifetime. For us, watching in the stands or at home, we experience a game as if it were a microcosm of life itself: always changing, evolving, sometimes ossifying, often blowing up in our faces or exploding into opportunity. Rarely do you experience such a range of emotions in an afternoon.

For Mourinho, however, his obsession with the game goes somehow deeper than that, which explains both his propensity for evoking remarkable success and stimulating implosions as a manager, like a pair of jeans ripping at the crotch because the pressure finally became too much.

We use football as a vehicle for emotion, experience, memory. Mourinho, on the other hand, uses football as a platform for projecting how his mind works onto the world. He has become the world’s leading exponent for transposing his attitude in the press conference onto the pitch.

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On the subject of press conferences, the 55-year-old’s mention of Hegel, the famous Prussian philosopher, left many scratching their heads the other day. He claimed that true understanding only comes through recognising the whole – the implication being that journalists tended to instead focus on what immediately meets the eye with Mourinho and his United team.

This is the devotional – almost religious – side to Mourinho’s personality and managerial style. He does not deal in subjunctives or half-measures. There is no such thing as compromise to him. Compromise implies you were wrong. In his first press conference at United he said he wanted “everything”. In a letter Mourinho sent to his Chelsea team in 2004, he said:

“From here each practice, each game, each minute of your social life must centre on the aim of being champions.”

Mourinho will often mention how he “liked” or “didn’t like” a player’s performance. There are some players in this United team, like the talented but mercurial pair Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba, with whom he struggles because, for whatever reason, he does not know how they will perform on the weekend, whereas he knows exactly what he will get from Nemanja Matic every week. As he once told the Portuguese press, “I only go to war with those I trust.”

The Obsessive

When United won the Europa League in Stockholm, Mourinho was given his medal by Aleksandar Ceferin, the Uefa president. On the podium, he told Ceferin that he was the first manager to receive medals from three different Uefa presidents.

Of all the things which could be going through one’s head on the podium having just won a European trophy, this was what came to Mourinho. He would have thought about it before, no doubt. That in itself says something about how he sees the world, about how his brain works.

He was at it again after the 3-0 defeat at home to Tottenham Hotspur, reminding everybody in the room that he, with three titles, had won the Premier League more times than all of the current managers in England’s top division put together. Make no mistake: this was something he would have checked, trawling through the league table to make sure, going all the way back to 1992. There is a strong likelihood, I think, that Mourinho has told this fact to several people since Arsene Wenger left Arsenal.

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Most managers will keep track of their achievements, but not like this. Surely there can be nobody in the game more pathologically conscious of their accomplishments and the context in which they occurred, no matter how obscure or irrelevant, in an attempt to polish and preserve a sense of status than Mourinho.

Herein lies the cold, sometimes nasty side to the 55-year-old. The first thing he will do after a bad result is not explain but rather contextualise it, often turning a press conference into a silver-haired miasma of numbers and records and refereeing decisions and thinly veiled attacks on perceived enemies, and of course disdain. So much disdain. Disdain for the person who asked the question. For the viewer commenting laughing emojis at home. For the entire world and what it has become.

There is no example of this more famous than the ‘Football Heritage’ speech he gave after that pitiful defeat to Sevilla at Old Trafford in February – an “end of the line” moment for so many supporters. It was a performance seen as gutless, unacceptable, devoid of strategy or mettle, miles away from what was expected from this United team.

In 12 uninterrupted minutes, with notes in front of him, Mourinho went on to outline United’s recent history in the Champions League – just one quarter-final in six years – to explain exactly why this result was, in fact, exactly what was to be expected from this United team.

Like so often, what Mourinho said in that monologue was right, or at least not wrong, but nonetheless missed the point entirely. What the world sees and what Mourinho chooses to see is frequently very different.

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Mourinho is an obsessive on the training ground, in press conferences, in the dugout and probably even when trawling through the vegetable aisle at Tesco. But his fixation with narratives – namely challenging or reinforcing them – is what truly stands out. Once upon a time Mourinho literally poked Tito Vilanova in the eye. He has been figuratively doing this to the media, to his rivals, to anyone who will listen, since about 2004.

From the moment he walks into the pre-match presser at 13:30 on Friday to when he leaves for his hotel late on Sunday afternoon, Mourinho seeks to paint the world, and everything that lives within, a darker shade of Mourinho.

The Outsider

Jose Mourinho does not read the papers. Jose Mourinho does not scroll through Twitter at 2AM, his face pressed up weirdly close to the screen as he scans through memes about Arsene Wenger. Jose Mourinho does not listen to talkSPORT and certainly does not read the Mirror. Jose Mourinho, when he gets home, keenly watches whatever football is on and maybe a bit of Netflix, and then he goes to bed.

That is at least what he tells the media, over and over again. But of course Jose Mourinho absolutely does read everything. Like Sir Alex Ferguson did, Jose Mourinho closely reads content from specific journalists he doesn’t like. Jose Mourinho doesn’t just enjoy memes about Arsene Wenger; he enthusiastically curates them.

Mourinho, sitting in his apartment at the Lowry Hotel looking through new betting sites, pores through every imaginable pocket of content which could be about him. I would be willing to bet he has google notifications set up on his phone. I would be even more willing to bet Mourinho stores the words of journalists, trolls, broadcasters, pundits, managers, players and pretty much everyone somewhere safe, in a logbook of some kind, building up a skewed portrayal of the world – a tapestry fuelled by the belief that dark conspiracies against him lie around every corner.

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Albert Camus once said that “the entire human race suffers from a division between itself and the rest of the world”. Some people, I think, are more aware of this than others. Homer Simpson, for example, does not recognise this distinction, which is what makes him so loveable. Mourinho, on the other hand, understands this notion very, very well.

He has often admitted in interviews that his greatest weakness was an inability to see the point of view of other people. A psychologist might say this stems from lacking empathy, which is hardly rare and takes root in one’s upbringing. It could be that. Maybe.

But we all know Mourinho – or at least the public persona of Mourinho – is more complicated than that. The mind is a very powerful thing, and Mourinho’s is especially powerful. Over the years he has allowed himself and his teams to he fuelled by the hatred of others. His teams play exactly in response to the opponent’s skills and shortcomings, like a minus cancelling out a plus. In the process he redefined what was meant by siege mentality in football. Over time, though, you suspect siege mentality, the simple idea of ‘us against them’, has become engrained into his psyche. A psychologist might call this hyper-normalisation: becoming so used to a particular mindset and/or state of affairs that you literally cannot imagine anything different.

Mourinho embraces the role of The Outsider and hates it at the same time. It has been noted before that, having never made it as a professional footballer, Mourinho perennially seeks to combat the idea of himself as an outsider in the football world: that famous touchline dash at Old Trafford as Porto manager in 2004, running Alan Shearer style onto the Camp Nou pitch after Inter had reached the Champions League final in 2010, knee-sliding at the Bernabeu after a late winner over Manchester City in 2012. It is no coincidence that these actions mirror those of his players.

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The 55-year-old actively inserts himself into the storyline wherever he can. He believes – once again like Sir Alex himself – that talking to the media is part of the game, that he is part of a total war. When an opposition manager tackles the task of preparing to play United, they are playing Mourinho in the same way they are playing Marouane Fellaini’s physicality or Ashley Young’s crosses. He is a factor in itself.

You could view this behaviour as Mourinho seeking to surmount the chasm which lies between himself and the world around him. In a sphere dominated by former greats of the game, from Guardiola to Conte to Zidane, perhaps this is only natural.

Sometimes, though, Mourinho switches the other way completely, deliberately presenting himself as detached from the occasion. There are many examples of this behaviour: Mourinho heading for the tunnel before the referee even blows for half time; Mourinho shaking the other manager’s hand before full time; Mourinho, for his whole career, creating a media caricature of himself in order to detract attention from his players; Mourinho, after a bad defeat, the writing on the wall for his tenure at that particular club, standing on the pitch alone, just staring into the distance.

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My favourite example: Mourinho, travelling to Anfield with a second string Chelsea team in 2014, Liverpool essentially one win from the title, turning up in full tracksuit, unshaven, seemingly sleep-deprived, visibly distant, deliberately reinforcing the idea that this was Liverpool’s day, Liverpool’s big day, and then watching as his low defensive block made Liverpool cave in on themselves, watching as Gerrard slipped, watching as his plan came perfectly to fruition.

Someone once told me that, in life, there are two types of people: (1) those who get in the room and (2) those who are left stranded outside, peering in through the window. Somehow, Mourinho manages to be both at the same time.


The philosopher Thomas Nagel once famously asked ‘What it is like to be a bat?’ His paraphrased answer, to save you the time: ‘No idea, mate. I literally couldn’t tell you.’

I guess this piece has asked that same question about United’s manager, and I’m afraid I will have to give the same answer as Nagel. Only a qualified psychologist or Mourinho himself could gain a genuine understanding of what it is like to be Mourinho, of how his mind operates. And I am neither.

What these 2,000 words have shown, if nothing else, is the sheer complexity of the human character. Through Mourinho – sometimes utterly toxic, sometimes brilliant, sometimes hilarious, sometimes banal – we can learn that the human mind is multifaceted, always changing, capable of holding contradictory things at the same time. Mourinho, like all of us, sometimes blows hot and sometimes blows very cold.

“I am José Mourinho and I don’t change,” he once said. “I come with all my qualities and my defects.”

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