Jose Mourinho Sitting on Football Bench

Jose Mourinho Sacking: Does The Special One Really Struggle With Third Season Syndrome?

Image by vverve, Bigstock Photo.

The term ‘third season syndrome’ (TSS) is almost exclusively used when talking about Jose Mourinho. It denotes a period of decline that befalls a manager during his third season at a particular club. No other figure in world football has gained such a reputation for being a sufferer of it but is the reputation based on fact or fiction?

After being handed the sack by Manchester United in December 2018, people were quick to dish out the TSS card but the case for the phenomenon still isn’t overwhelmingly convincing. By talking a look at the Portuguese manager’s career, we can see that disaster often hasn’t struck during the third season.

Making a name for himself: Porto (2002-04)

Jose Mourinho was far from a big name when taking the Porto job in 2002. He took charge of the Dragons when they were languishing in fifth place but was able to inspire some improvements and they ended up finishing the season in third.

Further progress came during his first full season at the helm as he claimed his first ever Portuguese title, 11 points clear of Benfica. Not only this but the budding manager also won the domestic cup (Taca de Portgual) and a European title after beating Celtic in the UEFA Cup final.

Heading into the third season at the club, the mood could not have been any better at the Estadio do Dragao. Again the Dragons were dominant in the Portuguese top flight but the real triumph came in the Champions League.

Porto beat the likes of Manchester United and Lyon, then Monaco in the final to record their first ever triumph in the competition. It was a truly incredibly achievement and one that was enough for Mourinho to secure a move to Chelsea. Having made continuous improvements for three seasons, he left Portugal a hero and was one of the most sought after managers in world football.

League win percentage

  • Season one: 73.3%
  • Season two: 79.4%
  • Season three: 73.5%

Third Season Syndrome rating: 0/10

A first taste of English football: Chelsea (2004-07)

Mourinho may have been a new face in English football but this did not stop him taking the top flight by storm. His first year in English football saw Chelsea land their first ever Premier League title. Not only this but he also broke the records for most points in a season (95), most wins (29), most clean sheets (25) and fewest goals conceded (15). With a League Cup trophy also secured, by all accounts it was truly a dream inaugural season for the Portuguese manager and a match made in heaven.

More success followed the second season as Chelsea became just the second team in Premier League history to successfully defend a title. It was less of a record breaking season but the Blues still won the league by a comfortable eight point margin.

There was less success in cup competitions, both domestically and in Europe but there was absolutely no reason for any discontent at Stamford Bridge. The following season Mourinho was unable to beat Manchester United to the title but a second place finish, 15 points clear of third place, was far from a bad showing.

While not able to deliver a third successive title, Chelsea’s boss did win both domestic cups and went as far as the semi-finals in the Champions League. To suggest there was any decline this season would be unfair on Mourinho and confidence in him remained sky-high.

Just six league games into the next campaign, the ex-Porto man parted ways with the London club after his relationship with owner Roman Abramovich became too fractured. The two had long shared differences in opinions but a spat in September 2007 proved to be the last straw.

League win percentage

  • Season one: 76.3%
  • Season two: 76.3%
  • Season three: 63.2%
  • Season four: 50% (six games)

Third Season Syndrome rating: 1/10

A successful stint in Italy – Inter (2008-10)

Mourinho moved from London to Milan for his next challenge, taking up the hot seat at Inter in the summer of 2008. The Nerazzurri were the reigning Serie A champions when he took charge but winning the league did not spare Roberto Mancini the axe.

It was rumoured that owner Massimo Moratti was frustrated by the lack of success in the Champions League. Mourinho fared no better on this front, eliminated during the first knockout stage by Manchester United but he was at least able to win his first Scuedetto by a 10-point margin.

There was no real progress made during the 2008-09 season but the following campaign Inter made history by being the first Italian team to complete the treble. A league and Coppa Italia victory was not out of the ordinary for Inter but the Champions League had long been out of their each.

Having last won the competition in 1965, Mourinho was able to put the long wait to an end by beating Barcelona and Bayern in the two final stages. The Portuguese manager was lauded for his tactical nous, particularly in the semi-final and this set him up for a headline move to Real Madrid. He didn’t make a third season at the club but undoubtedly went out on a high with no sign of any decline or internal rifts.

League win percentage

  • Season one: 65.7%
  • Season two: 63.2%

Third Season Syndrome rating: Not applicable

Dream job – Real Madrid (2010-13)

Jose only spent two years in Italy but he stuck around a season longer in Spain. His first term at Real Madrid saw him lift the Copa del Rey, finish second in La Liga and reach the semi-finals of the Champions League.

By Real’s insanely high standards, that was a solid if slightly unspectacular start to life at the Bernabeu but one that promised more to come. Mourinho was unable to make progress in the Champions League the following season but was able to beat rivals Barcelona to the league title.

They did so in incredible style too, breaking the record for the most points in a single season (100), most goals scored (121) and biggest goal difference (+89). This campaign also slightly mitigates against the argument that the Portuguese has never produced great football, with Mourinho flexible and talented enough, back then at least, to realise that attacking play was necessary at Madrid.

Having raised the bar of expectation with such a dominant league win, the pressure was on Mourinho to deliver again during his third season at the Spanish giants. It was a campaign of falling just short however as his side lost the Copa del Rey final, ended up second in La Liga and were once were unable to go further than the final four of the Champions League.

While certainly a downgrade on the previous season, it was far from out of the ordinary for a Real Madrid campaign given how strong Barcelona are. Mourinho’s third season at Los Blancos was not too dissimilar from the first so it’s hard to say that TSS was overly evident.

League win percentage

  • Season one: 76.3%
  • Season two: 84.2%
  • Season three: 68.4%

Third Season Syndrome rating: 4/10

A return to the Premier League – Chelsea (2013-15)

After leaving Stamford Bridge so unexpectedly in 2007, Chelsea fans were overjoyed when it was announced their beloved manager would be returning. There would be no immediate silverware but Mourinho did help the Blues manage seven more points in the league and their highest total since 2010.

A year later and the silver-haired gaffer helped the London club to secure their fourth Premier League, the third under his leadership. Success also came in the League Cup and it was a sweet trophy to secure too after beating rivals Tottenham in the final.

Having won the league, it was scarcely believable what happened to Chelsea the next season. There were no drastic changes to the squad, yet somehow the reigning champions found themselves flirting with the relegation zone. By the time Jose was sacked, his side sat just one point above the bottom three.

Prior to his sacking, the Chelsea boss bizarrely decided to publically denounce club doctor Eva Carniero for running onto the pitch to assist Eden Hazard. They were the actions of a man burned out by stress, showing no resemblance to the full of swagger character he had been years earlier. Everyone had their own theories to explain Chelsea’s plight but many agreed that Mourinho losing the dressing room was a key factor.

League win percentage

  • Season one: 65.7%
  • Season two: 68.4%
  • Season three: 25% (16 games)

Third Season Syndrome rating: 10/10

Seeking redemption – Manchester United (2016-18)

With his second stint at Chelsea ending in such humiliating fashion, Mourinho put pen to paper with United looking to rebuild his reputation and, following a number of years of poor performance following Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, the fortunes of the club too.

The Red Devils were not in particularly great shape when he took over having finished outside the top four for only the second time in the Premier League. There was plenty of room for improvement on the domestic front but United’s new recruit didn’t inspire much change. Their points tally of 69 was only three more than Louis Van Gaal manager a year earlier and nor was the style of play much better.

Mourinho did enjoy success outside of the Premier League however during his first season in charge. Not only did he win the League Cup but he helped the Red Devils go all the way in the Europa League, handing them a much-needed backdoor route into the Champions League.

A European title helped change the narrative of the season, turning it from a failure into a success. Able to push on from this, United finished second in the league the following year, their best performance since the 2012-13 campaign.

It looked as though Mourinho could push on from this but his third season at Old Trafford ended in disappointing fashion. Defeat to Liverpool proved to be the final straw with United lying in sixth place in the league, 19 points adrift of top spot and 11 shy of fourth place.

It wasn’t even half way into the domestic season yet the Red Devils had conceded more goals than the year before. Shaky at the back, they were little better going forwards as performances regularly lacked much in the way of excitement. Personal feuds, particularly with £90m signing Paul Pogba, also put Mourinho’s position under threat and in December 2018, much to the delight and indeed relief of many fans, he was fired.

League win percentage

  • Season one: 47.3%
  • Season two: 65.7%
  • Season three: 42.8% (17 games)

Third Season Syndrome rating: 8/10

Can Jose Mourinho Stay at a Club Long Term?

In his last two jobs, Mourinho undoubtedly came unstuck during the third season. The decline at Chelsea was by far the most dramatic as the Blues were completely unrecognisable from their former title winning selves.

The Portuguese manager didn’t quite fail as badly at Man Utd but given the money he spent there, being so far from the top four was inexcusable. These two instances are really the only ones that can be used to support the third season syndrome theory however.

His third season at Chelsea (1st stint) and Real Madrid were not the best but not bad enough to attribute it to anything more than a natural deviation. So, while there is some truth in Mourinho being a TSS sufferer, it’s not something he really deserves to be labelled with.

We expect he reads this site regularly and so through the dark days ahead – Merry Christmas Jose! – he can at least console himself with the knowledge that this labelling has been unfair. The bigger question, of course, is where can he go from here in terms of football?