Tag Archives: Mourinho

The lion, the witch and the midfielder who doesn’t track back

4 Oct

Industrialist and long-time owner of Juventus, Gianni Agnelli, once caught a young Michel Platini enjoying a crafty cigarette in the dressing room before a game.  “That worries me,” Agnelli said to Platini.  The riposte was instant.  “You only need to worry if he starts smoking,” said Platini, pointing at Massimo Bonini, the tireless midfield ball-winner in that Juventus team.

Younger readers, who know him only as the president of UEFA, may be surprised to hear that, as a player, Platini relied on trickery and cunning rather than hard work and honest endeavour.  “Le Roi” wasn’t the only one, either.  History is riddled with number 10’s who leveraged their undoubted talents in order to get away with the minimum of effort.  Back in the day, you practically had to promise your playmaker time off in lieu in order to cajole the lazy so-and-so into his own half of the pitch.  A football would need to be primed with hors d’oeuvres before Matt Le Tissier even considered putting in a tackle.  One man’s artistry is another man’s lazybones.

The extent to which the modern game can indulge such work-shy fecklessness has been cast into the limelight by the recent goings-on at Stamford Bridge.  Juan Mata was one of football’s outstanding performers last season.  In many people’s eyes, the best midfielder in the English league.  Yet despite being in everyone’s team of the year last time round, Mata can’t even get his own first XI this semester.

The underlying problem

The problem stems from the fact that Jose Mourinho didn’t return to a very Mourinho-like team.  It says a lot about Mourinho’s sustained legacy that he could have taken over any Chelsea side up until 2012 (five years after he left) and he would have slipped back in like a glove[1].  But the arrival of Oscar and Eden Hazard in the summer of 2012 (with Mata already in situ) signalled that a fundamentally different Chelsea side had finally emerged from the Special One’s long shadow.  Chelsea had moved on.

Three attacking midfielders floating care-free behind a centre forward never looked like being part of a Mourinho team.  He could just about cope with one playmaker in the side.  Three of the buggers would be enough to give him kittens.  For an unrepentant pragmatist like Jose, there was always going to be an opportunity cost.

Mourinho teams are built with an iron rod running through the middle.  Players like Lampard, Makelele, Essien, Ballack, Mikel, Costinha, Thiago Motta, Cambiasso, Alonso, Khedira.  All strong.  All aware of their defensive duties.  All team players committed to the cause.  It wasn’t that you weren’t allowed skill.  It was just that you had damn well better work hard in a system before you thought about using it.

Nothing encapsulated the “Mourinho way” quite like the performance of his Inter Milan side in the 2010 ECL semi-final 2nd leg against Barcelona.  Reduced to ten men (unfairly), Inter were the very embodiment of team-work and an “all hands on deck” policy.  Strikers Milito and Eto’o worked their socks off as makeshift wide midfielders, dropping into the second bank of defence against the Catalan onslaught.  Together with Cambiasso and Chivu, they formed a wall on Inter’s defensive third.  Behind them, Walter Samuel and Lucio defended the penalty area as if they were two female elephants protecting their young.  There were no passengers, only warriors. 

Despite losing the game 1-0, it was enough for Inter to progress to the final and arguably remains to be Mourinho’s finest hour.  He is a coach very much wedded to what Brazilians call “futebol de resultados” rather than “futebol d’arte”.  Perhaps we should not be too surprised if there is no room for Mr Tumnus in Mourinho’s Narnia.

Square pegs

As Charles de Gualle once said, the graveyards are full of indispensable footballers who couldn’t fit a formation.

For five years at Old Trafford, Ruud Van Nistelrooy was more lethal than Dignitas.  However, as the team evolved, it became apparent that the need to accommodate his style of play was holding United back.  Ferguson packed him off to Real Madrid and the triple helix of Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez went on to win the European Cup.

Glen Hoddle was the nation’s most talented footballer for a generation.  He’s got less England caps than Phil Neville.

For all his excellence going forward, Juan Mata is not an all-round player.  In the very best teams, and Chelsea’s ambitions are to be the very best, attacking midfielders don’t ignore their defensive duties.  Wayne Rooney is never neglectful of his responsibilities when United don’t have the ball.  It was noticeable how much Frank Ribery tirelessly tracked back under Heynckes at the business end of last year’s Champions League run. 

Under Pep Guardiola, Barcelona’s philosophy was to press high and aim to win the ball back within six seconds of losing it.  This required the whole attacking unit to swarm opponents the moment possession was surrendered.  Juan Mata does not seem to possess the energy levels for high tempo pressing.  Vincente Del Bosque’s no fool, but he never starts Mata for Spain – even in friendlies.

For all their cup success, Mata has been Chelsea’s player of the year in two of their worst seasons domestically for a decade (finishing 6th and 3rd). Winning league titles is the stamp of a great football team and Chelsea haven’t even challenged since he arrived.  Maybe Jose recognises this. 

Let’s not be too hasty in our judgment, though.  Great players achieve their status through humility and a willingness to work on all aspects of their game.  There’s plenty of season left for Mata to prove he can do all aspects of the job required. 

Mourinho isn’t likely to give up quickly on a player who is not only one of the best passers in the league, but also a genuine goal threat.  Mata scored a Lampard-esque 20 goals from midfield in all competitions last year.  That was more than Wayne Rooney.

Smoke and mirrors?

In any case, attacking midfield isn’t the position of concern for Chelsea.  As Too Good has twice tried to bring to Mourinho’s attention, having someone up front to convert their chances is the problem, not creating them.  The inclusion of Mata won’t solve this.  There’s a Chelsea striker who has scored 20 goals in his last 38 league games.  Unfortunately, none of the blue shirts Romelu Lukaku was wearing were embroidered with the Chelsea crest.  Maybe it suits Mourinho to have a bit of misdirection, creating a storm in a teacup around Juan Mata, while leaving the real problem out of focus?

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It would be nice if real football teams worked like their fantasy equivalents and you could just pick whoever you want.  A team of mercurial individuals forged by the brilliance of the man in charge.  But it never works when people try.  Where there’s a conflict in style of play, the manager should always be allowed to win out.  

Teams have to be moulded according to one man’s will.  Ultimately, Mourinho will pay the piper with his job if things go badly, so he should get to call the tune.  If a player can’t, or won’t, fit to the vision, they need to go.  Let’s hope this doesn’t prove to be the case with Mata – he would be a sad loss for both Chelsea and the league in general if it doesn’t work out.

Tummers needs to put a shift in.


[1] Andre Villas-Boas was actually assigned the task of overhauling the “Mourinho side” a year earlier (2011) but never actually achieved it.  He just benched Frank Lampard a lot. 

 

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The Return of Mourinho

5 Jun

Parkinson. Take That. Liverpool in Istanbul. Peter Mandelson. Our proud nation has seen many great comebacks in its time.  This week, Roman Abramovic will be sacrificing a fatted calf to celebrate the return of his prodigal son.  Jose is back!

I’m flinging journalistic impartiality out of the window here and now.  I think Jose Mourinho is fantastic.  Ever since the young Porto manager went tearing down the touchline to celebrate a two-legged winner at Old Trafford, the Special One has had a special place in my heart.  Mourinho appearing on screen is like watching Gollum in Lord of the Rings; he’s the only bit worth paying attention to.  Housewives up and down the country won’t be the only ones going weak at the knees on his return.  Players, fans, journalists, other managers – Mourinho pretty much groomed the nation last time he was here.

Too Good has expressed its admiration for Jose’s managerial record before.  He’s the top dog.  The man from Setúbal had every right to call himself “a special one” (he never actually said “the special one”, but indefinite articles don’t carry quite the same quotability…).  Mourinho is a big game hunter and he has a glittering trophy cabinet.  Chelsea are the clear winners in the managerial merry-go-round.

Not dissimilar to goats being able to predict an earthquake, bookmakers usually have a feel for the seismic impact of an arrival at a football club.  Mourinho’s announcement has positioned Chelsea as near enough joint favourites for next year’s premiership (Chelsea are at 31%, United at 33% and City, remarkably, have their noses in front at 35%).  You wouldn’t want to bet against Jose repeating his previous trick of winning the league in his first year.  Don’t forget Chelsea are already a team that, aside from a horror show of 4 points in seven games in late autumn, were posting title-contending numbers for the majority of last season.

Are there any flies in the West London ointment?  Most worriment focuses on Mourinho’s longevity.  The accusation goes that Jose has all the matrimonial sticking power of Liz Taylor.  I think Mourinho’s reputation as a jilter is a bit unkind.  If anything, it would be fairer to characterise him as having a penchant for choosing to work with despotic lunatics.  Roman Abramovic and Florentino Pérez are to sound minds what I am to high fashion.  Neither of them have shown the ability to nurture a manager any longer than Lenny in Of Mice and Men was able to hold a mouse.  Only at Porto and Inter, where Mourhino was clearly getting a promotion of sorts (to Chelsea and Real Madrid, respectively), could he be said to be leaving clubs entirely of his own volition

I suspect Mourinho’s tenure will surprise people in its length.  Jose has made no secret of his desire to coach Portugal one day but this shouldn’t worry Chelsea fans.  National teams are the preserve of managerial dinosaurs these days.  A way of keeping your toe in once the demands of 38 games a season at the coal-face are no longer bearable.  A mere pup aged 50, Mourinho is at least a decade away from being at the helm of the Seleção.  

As for club teams likely to tempt him away, I’m not sure where else he would now go.  Manchester United don’t seem to want him, despite his gushing post-match press interview at Old Trafford in March (behaviour that was every inch him making eyes across the dance floor).  He hates Barcelona and he was practically chased out of Italy. He’s running out of options at the top-table.

Mourinho’s second reign will more likely depend on whether Abramovic can resist the urge to meddle.  The temptation is completely understandable, if unwise.  Roman has bought the chess set, so he wants to move the pieces.  But Jose will not take kindly to being lumbered with another Shevchenko.  If the restless Russian starts to rock the marital boat, Jose isn’t one to stick it out for the good of the children.

What should be of greater concern is whether Mourinho can recreate the same magic of his first visit.  Sequels are rarely as good as the original.  And, outside of a Champions League win, it’s hard to see how he can top his first visit.  Now’s the time for the job, though.  Between them, Villas Boas and Benitez have performed the gritty but necessary transition from the old guard.  Gone is the reliance on Drogba, Essien, Terry and Lampard.  Those that remain from Mourinho Mark One know they are no longer guaranteed starters.  At Jose’s disposal is a young, talented crop of players crying out to be steered to greatness.  In Mata, Oscar and Hazard, Chelsea have one of the finest attacking midfield trios in world football. 

Mourinho likes a war chest and Abramovich will indulge him.  He has presumably been assured he can buy at least one top-class striker, unless he’s bringing with him a defibrillator to use on Fernando Torres.  In the long haul, Lukaku shows a lot of promise (and physical strikers are often late developers).  You would think, though, that Roman will want to gift Jose with a welcome home present.  A fatted calf is one thing but someone who will snaffle 20-25 goals could easily make the difference in a tilt for the title.  Robin van Persie showed that.  If Chelsea can come up with some bona fide penalty box ammunition over the summer, Honest Too Good’s Unofficial Gambling Consultancy will be advising a crisp fiver on the title ending up at Stamford Bridge next year.

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“You know, Jose, I’ve always been a big fan of Raul…”