Jose Mourinho is without a doubt one of the world’s most high profile coaches, love him or loathe him that is not in question and as he has managed in England twice before there is a tendency to assume that we know everything there is to know about him. But sometimes in circumstances like this assumed over-familiarity can blind you to the detail. You stop looking closely because you assume you know it all.
Jose Mourinho – “I score and I win. Sure, Maradona responds. And another thing – you score and you don’t know if you win!”
The conventional view for many football fans in England is that Mourinho is a defensive coach whose teams let the opposition have the ball before hitting them on the break. His teams keep it tight and then win. To many this is a negative. The view is also that he is a coach who provokes conflict as part of his method to motivate his own players and get under the skin of opponents. There is truth in all of this, but it doesn’t tell the whole truth.
Opinion is much divided amongst United fans about Mourinho. In this piece our purpose is to look at his tactical approach in general terms, (we are avoiding the use of the word philosophy for obvious reasons, but actually that’s what we are considering), rather than to consider whether he is a good fit for United at this moment in time. Only time will tell as far as that question is concerned. One of the principle issues for many fans is his not staying anywhere for very long and then leaving a club which suffers a dip. But Mourinho has stated on a couple of occasions that he would like to take on a more long term project and as we have previously outlined he has always wanted to manage United. You could argue that he is approaching his prime years as a football manager over the next ten years so it is very much up to him to take this opportunity now if that is what he wants to do next in his career. It could also be argued that none of his previous clubs, Porto, Chelsea twice, Internazionale or Real Madrid are noted for long serving managers.
Given that Mourinho is seen by many as a defensive coach there is a paradox in many United fans welcoming him as the new United manager. Many of those same fans wanted rid of Van Gaal for that very reason. “Why are we playing two defensive midfield players…. at home” has been a regular question lately. Mourinho has usually deployed that same tactic in recent years and on occasions he has deployed three!
But there are plenty of differences between the approach employed by our previous manage and that of Mourinho as we shall see.
The first point to make is that Mourinho team shape has varied over time. He is not wedded to a particular formation, but there are unwavering features always present in his approach. At Porto for example Mourinho usually utilised a 4-4-2 with a diamond in midfield, then at Chelsea he changed this to a 4-3-3 in his first two highly successful seasons before using a 4-1-3-2 in his last year to accommodate changing personnel, (some of whom were gifted to him against his wishes courtesy of owner Abramovich).
Mourinho formations at Porto and Chelsea, (first spell)
At Internazionale, inheriting a side that was already successful domestically he usually used the 4-3-3 he had used at Chelsea, but occasionally he reverted to a 4-4-2 diamond. In his second season in Italy, when he won a treble of Serie A, Italian Cup and Champions League he used a 4-2-3-1 which would morph into a 4-5-1 when in the defensive phase. He has more or less stuck to that since.
Mourinho formations at Inter and Real Madrid
At Real Madrid he famously commented that he would concentrate on organising the defence as the attack was so talented that it could take care of itself using this shape. Perhaps there was some truth in that but he was heavily criticised for being defensive against the traditions of Real. His view was that the team should sit deep to draw the opposition on so that space would be opened up for Ronaldo to run into. That is a sound tactic and is essentially what United did on many occasions when Cristiano played for United.
Van Gaal too was flexible in terms of the selection of formations. Even in his short time at United his approach varied from 3-5-2, to 4-4-2 with a diamond to a 4-3-3 and on to the orthodoxy of a 4-2-3-1 in his second season. The difference though is in Mourinho’s pragmatic flexibility. Like Van Gaal he has strong principles which come through in characteristics features of his teams play, but unlike Van Gaal he will be dynamic and responsive to changing circumstances. He will not persist with a pre-conceived formulaic approach when it is clear that it is not working. For Mourinho the main concern is to win, not to stay true to a set “philosophy”.
One of those clear characteristic is that Jose Mourinho teams will always keep numbers in the middle of the pitch. Irrespective of the strategic team shape employed one feature common to all Mourinho’s sides is the trivote.
Put simply Mourinho looks to maintain a central midfield triangle at all times, essentially to control the space in the middle of the pitch. This is far more important to Mourinho than say controlling possession ala Van Gaal. He wants to avoid you having overloads in this area. Classically his first Chelsea team would field Makelele at the base of a triangle with two players further forward, Lampard and Essien ahead. The diamond essentially pointed back. Those front two might press the ball in central areas but the three would always stay fairly tight together to deny the opposition space in the centre of the park.
Sometimes the trivote will face the other way with the tip facing forward. This is the more common shape used by Mourinho in a 4-2-3-1 where he will employ two deeper midfield players who will remain more passive whilst the other player in the three will chase the ball and when his team is in possession will play a role more similar to that of a no.10. He received much criticism for playing this way at Real Madrid when he sometimes used a central defender, Pepe, as one of the two deep midfield players. The classic example of this was in the first leg of the 2011 Champions League semi-final against Barcelona when Pepe partnered Alonso with Diarra another defensive midfield player making up the three. Real Madrid “achieved” a 0-2 first leg result.
Whichever way Mourinho uses the trivote it does confirm the theory that he looks to control the game by controlling the middle of the pitch. The three in central midfield will work very hard, not necessarily to win the ball, but certainly to deny the opponent space and time in the middle of the pitch. To this end Mourinho’s sides will always have numbers in the middle, but they will preferably be big physically as well. He is a manager who values a strong spine. This has been one of United’s key areas of weakness in recent years and it is no surprise therefore that the new manager has focused attention on strengthening that area during this transfer window.
Under Van Gaal United generally defended with a high line. The defence would push up and close the gap between the defensive line and midfield line when the opposition had the ball. The forwards and the midfield players closest to the ball would then press the opposition with the intention of winning the ball back quickly. United became very good at this once the players discipline improved and they co-ordinated their defensive movment. It occasionally went wrong, famously at Arsenal last year and although there were other occasions we could point too, usually it worked quite well and contributed to United having the joint best defensive record last season and the act of winning the ball back quickly was a big factor in having a high possession statistic. Mourinho approaches things differently.
Generally Mourinho asks his midfield to drop deep to close the gap between the defensive line and the midfield. United then are more likely to defend the edge of their own box or a line 10 to 15 metres in front of this as a the low block. Mourinho’s teams will press and we will come to that but what they will do this far deeper than a Van Gaal side. This means that they won’t leave space in behind and so are unlikely to be caught out in transitions, on the break. This generally gives Mourinho teams a solid look, they seem to defend in numbers. Teams then can’t hit balls behind his sides as they will tend to run through to the keeper or go out of play, they have to try and play through his side and with his trivote he will always expect to outnumber his opponents in small areas. He won’t mind teams spreading the play wide as his view is that if the central midfield players drop deep his side won’t be pulled out of shape in the middle, and after all that is where the goal is. Even the very best have struggled to play through a Mourinho low block, most famously Barcelona after his Inter side had been reduced to 10 men in a Champions League semi-final.
Defending deep of course puts more pressure on the “defensive organisation” to quote our previous manager. Last year’s defensive record was founded upon our possession statistics; if you have the ball, as long and you don’t give it away in difficult areas you will spend less time defending. The question is whether United’s current defence is good enough to defend deep. Last year when they were asked to defend for significant periods they were found wanting (Arsenal again, or at Liverpool in the Europa League or late in the season in the league game at West Ham). On these occasions the defence wilted. Mourinho has already moved to strengthen the defence with the acquisition of Eric Bailly, he might not be the last defender to join this summer. In strengthening the spine of his team Moutrinho is also looking to improve his team’s ability to defend in a low block ahead of the line of the defenders themselves.
Incisive in transitions
This sitting deep surrenders space of course and it is Mourinho’s hope that in doing so the opposition will become frustrated and overcommit. Mourinho employed just this tactic against Van Gaal’s United in the game at Stamford Bridge in 2014-15. At that time United were on a roll having just won at Anfield and against Manchester City at Old Trafford. United went to Stamford Bridge and dominated the game. Mourinho was content to sit deep, defend space and wait to hit United on the break. Chelsea did this and beat United 1-0; this was a classic example of how he wishes his side to operate in a transition. Mourinho wants his side to wait until the opposition loses the ball and is out of shape, then he wants his side to break quickly and be incisive before the opponents gets a chance to re-gain their defensive shape.
In this moment he will want his team to be direct, whether on the counter-attack from deep, but also if they have won the ball from high areas. He will expect his side to pass well but with purpose. Don’t expect long ball football, the passing patterns might not be that different than under Van Gaal, although we would expect more vertical passing play through the centre of the pitch with inverted wingers cutting in. For this to work he needs quick player and not just players that are quick over the ground. What he needs is quick thinking instinctive footballers with vision and guile. Enter Mkhitaryan who is exactly the type of player suited to this role. The challenge for the likes of Rooney and Mata is to match this; Mourinho will not tolerate plodders.
Attitude to possession; Resting with the ball
One of the biggest criticisms levelled at Van Gaal was that he valued possession too highly. Jose Mourinho values possession but in a different way. Whilst Mourinho expects his side to be incisive in transitions, this is only when the opposition is out of shape. If they aren’t out of shape he will ask his team to retain the ball and circulate it until an opportunity arises. This has occasionally be referred to a resting in possession and whilst on the face of it this might appear to be very similar to Van Gaal’s methods it is actually very different, or should we say it is evidence of a different mind-set.
Van Gaal’s sides always seemed very passive in possession, they would hold the ball, pass square and await an opportunity presented by a loss of the opposition’s concentration resulting in a loss of their shape. Unfortunately if they didn’t lose shape (and perhaps Van Gaal underestimated English teams defensive backs-to-the-wall determination) the chances didn’t come. What then?
Mourinho’s teams aren’t waiting, they are resting when they do this, they are bidding their time and conserving energy but will at some point, in an instant up the pace to hit the opponent in a way that Van Gaal’s United never seemed to do.
In game decision making
When Mourinho is in a situation where the goals aren’t coming, or where things aren’t generally going his way, or the team isn’t following the tactical plan as intended, he will change things without hesitation. Mourinho is a very proactive coach who doesn’t let the game pass him by, he will adapt quickly to the game situation. United fans may remember our semi-final tie against Mourinho’s Real Madrid in 2013. In the second leg of that tie United were doing quite well until Nani was sent off. Just prior to that sending off Mourinho was preparing to introduce Benzema as a substitute. When Nani was dismissed Mourinho instantly made Benzema sit down and waited a few minutes to see how Sir Alex would reorganise. Sir Alex moved Welbeck over to Nani’s position on the left and away from Alonso changing United’s shape to 4-4-1. Up to this point in the game Welbeck had been sitting on Alonso who usually fed the Madrid midfield. Seeing this Mourinho introduced Modric to play ahead of Alonso and between them those two players ran the game for 20 minutes. Madrid went through winning the game comfortably.
The point is that Mourinho is very good at responding to a match situation. Whereas Van Gaal would set out a tactical plan and stick to it even if the game peters out into a 0-0 draw Mourinho will seize the initiative, change team shape or emphasis and also change personnel. United fans are used to managers who tend to wait until the middle of the second half before making changes, Mourinho will think nothing of making a change early in the first half if he thinks it isn’t working.
Mourinho is also known to prepare a number of tactical plans for a game so that he is able to switch from plan A to plan B dependent upon the match situation. This is very different from the Van Gaal approach but also different from that of Sir Alex, a manager who rarely made a substitution unless enforced before the 70th minute. Then most frequently if he was chasing the game he would make a change, changing his tactical plan to one where he basically threw the kitchen sink at the opposition. In truth ‘Fergie Time’ was the last 20 minutes of the game with that kitchen sink approach resulting in many last minute winners. Mourinho’s change of strategy will come much earlier and be more strategic.
All we are saying is give Youth a chance
Chelsea have a strong Academy and have had a really successful Youth team over the last few years winning four of the last six FA Youth Cups, but at times at Chelsea it has seemed as if there is a glass ceiling blocking the progress of good young players into the first team. One or two players have stood out; Domonic Solanke is one such players.
Mourinho spoke about this after Solanke had been given some first team football against Maribor in the 2014-15 Champions League, (Chelsea were 5-0 up when the youngster was introduced for the last quarter of the game).
“For a player to play in the Chelsea first team they must be ready. With this level of responsibility and pressure, there is no space for a player that is not ready. For example when did I play Solanke? While winning 5-0 against Maribor in a competition where we qualified easily in the group phase. I cannot play Solanke against Southampton with 30minutes to go and the score 1-1. I can’t.”
“If you don’t put them in, you don’t know what you’ve got.”
This is a problem and speaks of an attitude of mind which may be a part of Mourinho’s success; a pragmatic concentration on the here and now, but it is an attitude which is anathema to United fans.
In fairness Mourinho’s reputation as someone who doesn’t promote youth is perhaps a little undeserved, even if his protestations in his first press conference were rightly challenged. How many of the clubs Mourinho has previously managed have a strong reputation for promoting youth and did Chelsea in particular promote youth to their first team in the years before his recent spell as manager or since? Chelsea do have a very successful youth side but is youth football all about winning tournaments or making players? Chelsea beat United in a youth cup game 1-6 last year but two of the players who featured for United in that match have since gone on to play frequently in United’s first team. How many of the players who represented in Chelsea in that game can say the same?
Rashford and Fosu-Mensah – future stars under Mourinho?
“I want to be Champion. A big evolution in the team, without being champion as somebody else was very strong, would not be a disappointment. But to say before the season starts that the top four is the target? The top four is not the target. We want to play to be champions”.