And so he’s gone. Once again in his third season. Once again, under a cloud. Once again, with opinion divided.
Roma‘s decision to sack Jose Mourinho was taken by club owners the Friedkin family late Monday night and communicated to the manager — and the world, which had turned a far greater spotlight on the club since his arrival in 2021 — before training on Tuesday morning.
His contract was expiring in June and, while he had repeatedly indicated that he was happy to extend it, the club had put all discussion on hold until the end of the season. That’s the sort of timing that makes you wonder why they couldn’t have waited, and leaves you to conclude there must have been a reason to act now.
Were they right to do so?
To answer that, you need to get past the issue of whether or not Mourinho deserved the sack or whether or not he has done a good job, and into the reality of where Roma are right now. And here’s the reality — Mourinho wasn’t sacked because he had lost the dressing room or because fans were calling for his head: while support for him had cooled among portions of the fan base, especially on social media and Rome’s omnipresent sports radio stations, the match-going supporters squarely (and noisily) continued to back him. Rather, he’s gone because the Friedkins are businessmen, and they made a business decision.
According to Swiss Ramble, Roma lost €184 million ($200m) in 2020-21 and €219m ($238.1m) the following year, Mourinho’s first at the club. The record losses in 2021-22, when they were among the biggest net spenders on transfers in Europe, meant they breached UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations and were put under a settlement agreement, which restricted their spending.
Effectively, the club had gambled that investing heavily on the squad (initially on transfer fees, later in pricey veteran free agents, giving the club the third highest wage bill in the league) and on Mourinho himself (the second-highest-paid manager in Serie A) would deliver consistent Champions League football. That, in turn, would drive revenue, both in terms of prize money and commercial deals. Instead, they finished sixth in his first two seasons while winning the UEFA Europa Conference League in 2021-22 and reaching the Europa League final the following year.
Now, Roma are ninth in Serie A, five points away from fourth place. They are out of the Coppa Italia (losing the derby to Lazio, which never helps) and have won just one of five games since Christmas, a comeback victory against Serie B side Cremonese in the Coppa Italia.
To salvage this campaign Roma need to quality for the Champions League. They can do that either by winning the Europa League (not easy: oddsmakers have them as sixth favorites, at 16-1) or closing the five-point gap with fourth place (and, given the new Champions League format, fifth place might even be sufficient.)
Maybe Mourinho could have gotten it done, but then that would have presented a different issue. Since his contract was expiring and they weren’t going to discuss a new one until the end of the season, it would have meant negotiating a new deal with Mourinho enjoying all the leverage of Champions League qualification. And that would have meant either an even-more onerous contract (both in terms of wages and power to the manager) or Mourinho going elsewhere, leaving behind him no compensation and an enraged fan base.
Best to play the percentages, then, and make a clean break. Club legend Daniele De Rossi steps in as interim replacement and, given his relationship with the fan base, you would assume he will get their support. For all the criticism Mourinho’s results-orientated and not-easy-on-the-eye style of play has garnered, they’re actually fourth in expected goal difference and they have a pretty manageable run of fixtures coming up: Verona and Cagliari at home, Salernitana away. So the task facing De Rossi is tough, but far from impossible.
What legacy does Mourinho leave?
Here, you can pick and choose based on whether you like him. He reached two European finals, winning one of them. True, but then his 1.61 points-per-game average in Serie A is the lowest of any Roma manager in the past 39 years. And he was heading for three straight seasons finishing outside of the top five in the league, the club’s worst run in three years.
Roma may have spent a lot to support Mourinho in his first season, but in subsequent windows the club transferred a lot of players out, leaving a postitive net spend of €130m. True, but that’s because they breached FFP and had to balance the books, remember? And even then, he chose to have the club ship out younger players who could fetch a transfer fee (Cengiz Ünder, Pau López, Nicolò Zaniolo, Felix Afena-Gyan, Roger Ibañez, Justin Kluivert) in order to replace them with veterans on high salaries, which is why the wage bill was so high: (Romelu Lukaku, Renato Sanches, Leandro Paredes, Paulo Dybala, Nemanja Matic, Gini Wijnaldum, Andrea Belotti.)
Roma’s sporting director, Mourinho’s countryman, Tiago Pinto, generally helped him execute that transfer strategy, as did his agent, Jorge Mendes, who was involved in a number of the club’s deals. Mourinho knew what he was getting into, what the financial restraints were going to be and what the budgets were going to be and he was on board with it, just as long as he got to dictate the transfer strategy, which he did, with help from his trusted friends.
Mourinho’s charisma and experience are what persuaded guys like Lukaku and Dybala, stars who would never otherwise have joined Roma, to sign for the club. Mourinho’s pedigree no doubt played a part, but you imagine that the club’s willingness to meet their huge contracts and the fact that nobody was beating a path to their door when they became available had a lot to do with it. And, by the way, Lukaku is on loan, so who knows if he’s back next year, and Dybala has missed nearly half the club’s games through injury.
Mourinho galvanised Roma’s fan base, was loved by his players and was an outspoken breath of fresh air, especially when he spoke truth to power. The match-going fans certainly adored him, and he attracted eyeballs which can be monetised as sponsorship money. But in terms of being outspoken, well, he also got himself sent off seven times in two-and-a-half seasons, which is objectively hard to do. And I’m not sure antics like we saw in the Europa League final and its aftermath are necessarily what sponsors want.
He played gritty, intense football and remains a tactical mastermind. He stuffed his team with holding midfielders and, this season, his attacking strategy consisted of defending deep and either lumping the ball to Lukaku or giving it to Dybala and hoping they created something out of nothing. So, yeah. Two sides to every coin. And how potential employers view the above will likely inform where his next appearance will be. There is no escaping the fact that he was sacked before the end of the season by his last five clubs: Real Madrid, Chelsea (in both of his spells in charge,) Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and now Roma.
There’s also the fact that his approach feels out of step with that of most top European coaches. It’s not just that he’s perceived as a reactive and defensive in his style of play (which is true to a point, though perhaps overblown,) it’s the way he calls out in public opponents, referees, his own players and his own employers. At a time when the likes of Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and Carlo Ancelotti go out of their way to stick up for their club owners, Mourinho will have no qualms about, say, discussing his contract in public or lamenting the lack of spending to support him. Owners tend not to like being questioned — directly or indirectly — by the guy whose salary they pay.
Then there’s the perception that the fierce loyalty he engendered in his players might not be quite what it was. Matic, once a Mourinho loyalist, fell out badly with him at Roma. He questioned the injured Chris Smalling‘s pain threshold. And, of course, he famously slammed his reserve players after that 6-1 defeat to Bodo/Glimt, when he said he “only had 13 players in his squad … the others are on another level.”
All the above is likely to scare off A-list clubs. Maybe not permanently, maybe not those who are willing to roll the dice, spend some money and strap themselves in for what is likely to be a thrilling, but expensive, rollercoaster.