Well, they finally did it. It’s been coming for a while — this isn’t a show built around subtle hints — but did you, in all honesty, really think that the writers of Premier League would actually kill off Jose Mourinho? We certainly didn’t! And to have Claudio Ranieri drive home the final knife? Exquisite work.
As ever with these kind of things, the true beauty of any managerial defenestration lies in the tiny details that emerge in its wake. Think Carlo Ancelotti not even being allowed the minor dignity of leaving the post-match tunnel, or Andre Villas-Boas sleeping at the training ground; Gianluca Vialli’s “bear hug and kiss,” or Trevor Francis’ plaintive “But it’s my birthday.” And so it proved here. First, we learned that Mourinho was dismissed shortly after he’d shared Christmas dinner with his team, raising the very real possibility that he was wearing a cracker hat as the axe fell. Also that he was drifting off to sleep.
Secondly, according to the Daily Mail, we learned that his belongings, which he removed from his office, included a “Special One” mug and a “life-sized cardboard cutout.” Presumably this was a cutout of himself, a testament either to his overweening narcissism or, more likely, a politeness and a willingness to indulge whichever member of his staff or family decided that such a thing would make an amusing present. They weren’t wrong; giant cardboard cutouts are inherently amusing. It’s a person, but flat. But the fact that the Mail didn’t specify leads us to wonder: who else could Mourinho have had immortalized in cardboard and stood in the corner of his office? And why?
The obvious candidate, Pep Guardiola, is ever-present in the same way that Margaret Thatcher found her way onto so many dartboards. One prevalent theory on Mourinho is that he is motivated in everything he does by a loathing of Barcelona (rooted in rejection) and Barcelona’s methods, and so, by extension, the walking, talking, managing, and winning avatar of Barcelona that is Pep Guardiola. The only reason we can see not to have Guardiola knocking around is that he might constitute a fire hazard. A poor defeat, Mourinho working late, a handy pack of matches … and suddenly there’s smoke all over the place and everybody has to go and stand in the car park for a bit.
The Agent Fabregas theory, in which a mysterious handler known only as ”The Professor” has placed Chelsea’s no. 4 in deep cover to bring down the club, is a tempting one. Though given that reports of his troublemaking had to be formally withdrawn earlier in the season, it’s not one we give any credence to here. No, we think Fabregas’ presence — or that of any other player — in the corner of Mourinho’s room could have some value as a managerial tool. Yes, tool. No, stop laughing.
Consider: a player comes in to see the boss. He’s only there for a quick chat, so he’s happy to stand. He asks his question, and Mourinho starts to answer. But Mourinho isn’t looking at his player. He’s looking just to his left, into the corner of the room. The player turns to see what’s caught his manager’s eye and is confronted with a life-size cardboard cutout of himself. Possibly in full kit. Probably not nude.
This teaches the player two things. First, it’s a statement of just how much esteem he is held in by Mourinho. A cutout! Of me! He’s had that specially made! He doesn’t know, of course, that there’s a cupboard full of the things, one for each squad member. He doesn’t know that Mourinho’s staff give him plenty of warning if a player is ever on his way over, to give him time to get the right one into position. No, he feels good about himself. No need to mention it to the rest of the squad, of course. They’d only get jealous.
The second thing, however, dawns on the player through the course of the interview. Mourinho never looks at the player; only the cutout. He never talks to the player; only the cutout. A creeping sense of dread slowly takes over as the meaning becomes clear. Yes, he’s esteemed, but he’s also disposable. Replaceable. It’s only cardboard, and it might even be recyclable, if Chelsea is in the right local authority area and have the right bins. Who wants to turn up to work one day and see their head, arms, and legs sticking out of a plastic bag? Probably nobody.
In essence, the cardboard cutout is simultaneously a building-up and a knocking-down, an ego rub and a place-check, a carrot and a stick. If Mourinho wasn’t doing this, well, he should have been. Invoices via SoccerGods, Jose, and you’re welcome.
When a Roman general returned to the capital after a successful campaign, he was awarded a triumph. He would slap on some purple, roll through the city in a chariot, and soak up the acclaim of the citizenry. Usually, there would be feasting; sometimes there would be games. Everybody would kick their sandals off and let their togas down. And just behind the triumphant general, accompanying him throughout his acclamation as close to divine, was a companion or slave, who would whisper to him: Memento Avram Granti. Memento Avram Granti. “Remember, at any point, you could be sacked and replaced with Avram Grant wearing a toga.”
Oh yeah, there was some football. Manchester United lost at home to Norwich City, the first time they’ve lost consecutive games to newly-promoted sides since the Hindenburg made a mess of a three-point turn. But to give them credit, they’re no longer boring; it’s been nothing short of fascinating to watch what was a dull, defensive side crumble into a shapeless, shiftless rabble. Like many managers, Louis van Gaal has claimed he will go the minute he loses the dressing room. We have no idea why this might be more important than losing the pitch, which he has, but then we’re not managerial geniuses. We’re not even sure if it’s “geniuses.”
The only consolation for United fans come in the shape of Liverpool, who were faced with a quite brilliant Watford performance, and were appalling. Mamadou Sakho defended like he hadn’t played for a month, Martin Skrtel defended like Martin Skrtel, and Ádám Bogdán tended net like Simon Mignolet, only more so. Is the sight of Liverpool, United, and the rest embarrassing themselves going to be enough to salve the pain of an Arsenal title win? We’re not sure it will.