Man United vs Newcastle United, a rivalry renewal of Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benitez
The last time that Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benitez had one of their many flashpoints, back in that odd exchange in the summer of 2015 when the Spaniard was Real Madrid manager and his wife Montse even had comments about how they “tidy up his messes”, it wasn’t actually the Portuguese who was most bothered. Mourinho’s loyal long-time assistant Rui Faria seemed to care the most.
Many sources say he was storming around, demanding Benitez be answered back with extreme prejudice and all while using a few expletives himself. The rest of the entourage thought best to leave it since the boss had already his typically mischievous say, and – any lasting enmity from Mourinho’s jibe about Benitez’s “diet” aside – that it is how it has remained.
One of European football’s longest running rivalries this week apparently petered out to the point that the Manchester United manager was actually playing down the idea there had been a rivalry at all, insisting it “was between our clubs rather than between us”. Anyone who knows the two men would dispute that, but the little story about Rui Faria is relevant because of how it reflects the way this is a grudge often stoked up by those beyond the two men at the centre of it. It will be the case again this weekend ahead of Manchester United-Newcastle United, as they actually meet as opposing managers for the first time in 10 years and three months.
All of their previous barbs will be brought up again in so many match previews, but the real key will be how they display the way both men let it get to them, how they couldn’t stop themselves responding. As is often the case with such rivalries, so much of it has been born out of similarities rather than differences, and what is particularly interesting about the history of this one is how it also goes some way to explaining why they are were they are now. It would forecast so much of their careers.
The biggest similarity of course led to the biggest difference. In 2004, when both first arrived in England as managers of Chelsea and Liverpool respectively, they were the two brightest young coaches in continental football. They represented the exciting new way of doing things, the new breed of “technocrats” who hadn’t necessarily been good players but thereby brought forward-thinking academically-rooted ideas to the game. They were the Mauricio Pochettinos of their day, only with actual trophies to their name, and some of those the biggest in the sport. Mourinho had just won the Champions League with Porto, Benitez the Uefa Cup and Spanish league with Valencia.
That meant they were initially friendly – “we have a good relationship” Mourinho told media back in 2004-05 – but it didn’t take long for it to get fractious. It just required the right match, and that of course happened to be any properly big match: that season’s Champions League semi-final that Benitez’s Liverpool won through what Mourinho famously described as “the ghost goal”.
Underscoring a lot of the rancour to come was the fact Mourinho had initially wanted the Liverpool job above all, and his representative Jorge Baidek made a big play to get it in February 2004. The Anfield hierarchy ultimately went for Benitez. It wasn’t the last time getting overlooked for a job would light a fire in Mourinho, with the 2008 rejection by Barcelona provoking perhaps the most rancorous reaction. It was the first time it happened, though, and played a part in what became his first big managerial rivalry. Benitez became the first of many nemeses, and set the template for similar with Arsene Wenger, Frank Rijkaard, Carlo Ancelotti, Claudio Ranieri, Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Antonio Conte.
A crucial part to this is it is just something else he had in common with Benitez. This wasn’t just about Mourinho, after all. Benitez’s career has also been characterised by a series of disputes with “big obsessions”. as figures close to him put it. They have admittedly often been officials in his own clubs, like Christian Purslow at Liverpool or Valencia’s Jesus Piturch, but the point stands. They are both men who can rarely leave these things go, who can just let themselves look to the football. Benitez’s own book ‘Champions League Dreams’ displays this. Even when he is trying to be magnanimous and compliment Mourinho when talking about their previously good relationship, he can’t help score points.
“At Anfield on New Year’s Day [in 2005], we had bumped into each other on the stairs leading to the boardroom,” Benitez writes. “Despite the events of the game – when a tackle from Frank Lampard had broken [Xabi] Alonso’s ankle and [Joe] Cole had scored late on to deprive us of a well-deserved victory – we stopped to talk, a polite conversation about our respective work and the ambitious plans of Chelsea’s owner, Roman Abramovich, for that summer’s transfer market.”
It’s all there, from the indication that his team had been hard done by to the conspicuous reference to how much money Mourinho had to spend.
The latter is one reason that fed what really was genuine animosity at the absolute peak of their rivalry, when Liverpool and Chelsea were so regularly meeting in the Champions League between 2005 and 2007. Benitez resented how Mourinho had all that money, that allowed him to win more trophies, and because he was then so loved by the media. Mourinho resented that Benitez had got the job he was rejected for, and because the Liverpool boss then had the best record of any manager against him. Plus, they just wound each other up.
It didn’t help that over the next few years Benitez would follow Mourinho into some of his previous jobs – Internazionale, Chelsea and Real Madrid, leading to Montse Benitez’s infamous comment – but it is notable that there has been nothing more since the summer of 2015. That was of course exactly the point when Mourinho faced the first proper crisis of his career, the first time when he found it a real challenge to win regularly, let alone the utter collapse his Chelsea suffered.
He had far bigger concerns than Benitez then as he was sacked in December 2015 but, with the Spaniard getting sacked from his dream job at Real Madrid just three weeks later, that spell reflected a big similar concern about both careers. It was actually something that Mourinho himself inadvertently touched on in his Thursday comments when he played down the differences, and pointed to what they had in common.
"We are managers from the same generation, we came to England in the same season and we were both successful in the European competitions.”
And it is now arguably two managerial generations on, and two tactical eras on. Mourinho and Benitez were so successful in the European competitions then because they were the coaches that set the trend and the tone. Their more “controlled” football led the way, and led so many league tables, as they offering a sophisticated level of defensive organisation beyond any other manager at the time.
This is what made their Champions League semi-finals all the more tense, because there were so few goals, there were so few quarters given. In a period when the elite European competition saw a rate of almost 0.5 fewer goals per game than now, their constraints saw them make leaps. Guardiola then made a tactical quantum leap with Barcelona, blowing open European football, and blowing away such defensive approaches.
It was something that Giorgio Chiellini touched upon last week. “Guardiolismo ruined a lot of defenders in Italy. Now everyone wants to build the play but no-one knows how to mark. It’s a shame, because certain features have allowed our football to excel everywhere.”
The erosion of those features has also meant neither Mourinho and Benitez have been able to excel in the same way since.
They have still been successful, of course, since so many of their core principles just represent fundamental good management. Their core philosophies are no longer at the cutting edge, however, leading to this gradual drop-off.
It also leads to this Saturday, their first meeting since Liverpool hosted Chelsea on 19 August 2007, a match that perhaps predictably ended in yet another 1-1 draw.
Mourinho does not just need a win for United after recent results, but really needs a performance, amid an ongoing debate about his style in the modern game. Benitez does not but one reason for that – and one reason why Mourinho did not revive their rivalry – was because the Spaniard just isn’t at a club that’s a threat. He has obviously done a good job at Newcastle, but this isn’t the elite level he used to be at.
Both are finding their way back. It is why the rivalry isn’t back to what it was, as they meet again. It may not take too much, mind, to spark it again.