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Jose Mourinho


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Jose Mourinho being denied a new centre-back is a crisis of recent provenance, but the ideological void at the heart of his Manchester United tenure has been there from the very beginning.

A lack of investment from the Glazers during the late-Ferguson era and an absence of football knowledge to link boardroom and dugout are United-specific problems that precede Mourinho's arrival. They do not fully explain however, why Mourinho's United have consistently amounted to less than the sum of their parts and never more. His limitations as a coach and the diminishing returns yielded by his methodology do that. 

Mourinho and Arsène Wenger, the manager he relished belittling at every opportunity, may have divergent tastes in the fields of aesthetics, philosophy and ethics. They do have one thing in common however, and it is not their collection of three Premier League winner's medals. Both are (or should that be were in Wenger's case?) laissez-faire managers, in an era when rival coaches are centrally planning their team's approach like command economies. 

Discussion of the demands of 'modern football' can often stray into the trite and faddish, but it is undeniable that coaching is becoming ever more prescriptive and diagnostic. Players, youngsters especially, crave clear instruction with and without the ball. Mourinho and Wenger by contrast, place responsibility on individuals to find their own solutions on the pitch, though in different ways. 

For Wenger and Arsenal, this philosophy resulted in a loose and free-wheeling defensive strategy that relied on exceptional individuals to compensate for its structural deficiencies. Defenders were left exposed by advanced full-backs and midfields assembled off-the-cuff, to such an extent that almost every defender Arsenal signed would be made to look worse than their true level. Wenger reserved much of his coaching time for rehearsing attacking patterns, which is where those signature Arsenal goals via pin-ball one-touch play around the box came from. 

Mourinho is a perfect inversion of his old foe. The team's defensive shape and off-the-ball structure is prioritised at the expense of attacking patterns, with Mourinho relying on the individual talent of his forwards to make the difference. When attacking plans are discussed, they tend to relate to an opposition weakness. Not that this defensive emphasis has brought solidity - David De Gea's brilliance was the sole reason United conceded just 28 league goals last season, with chickens now coming home to roost. Put simply, Wenger left his defenders to fend for themselves and Mourinho leaves his attackers to find their own answers. 

Meanwhile, Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino and Jurgen Klopp are choreographing their teams offensively. Close your eyes and think of a typical Manchester City goal. A sequence instantly forms in the mind: David Silva or Kevin De Bruyne slips a pass between full-back and centre-back, Leroy Sane or Raheem Sterling produce a low, driven cross or pull-back and a forward finishes first time. The same can be said of Liverpool's electric counter-attacking. What does a typical United goal look like? Take your time...

This is why, despite having Paul Pogba, Juan Mata, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Romelu Lukaku and since January Alexis Sanchez at their disposal, United's attack has looked shapeless, clunky and mechanical. The lack of a metronomic passer in deep midfield is another that should be mentioned.

Eden Hazard gave us a glimpse into this dynamic during a 2017 interview with Sky Sports. Asked to identify the main difference between working for Antonio Conte and Mourinho, Hazard said:

"Tactical training. We do more with Conte. We know exactly what to do on the pitch, where I have to go, the defenders [know] where they have to go.

"With Mourinho it was just he put the system [in place], but we didn't work a lot [on it]. We know what to do because we play football, but maybe the automatism was a little bit different."

The word 'automatism' reveals another theme of the modern game that Wenger and Mourinho have grappled with: managing bigger squads. Both of their league-winning teams were built with a trusted core of 13 or 14 outfield players, with a few subordinate squad players to pick up the slack when injuries hit. That continuity in selection compensated for certain shortcomings on the training pitch, because players could find their own chemistry and build relationships by starting relentlessly.

Mourinho used 21 players during his last title-winning campaign, with Chelsea in 2014-15. However, nine of those players made fewer than 10 league appearances while an inner-circle of 10 made more than 24. Thibaut Courtois, Cesar Azplicueta, Gary Cahill, John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic, Cesc Fabregas, Nemanja Matic, Eden Hazard, Willian and Diego Costa accounted for 84.6% of the squad's total league appearances. The figure would have been higher were it not for Costa's delicate hamstrings.  

By contrast, Mourinho used 26 United players in the Premier League last season, with Lukaku and Matic the only outfield players to surpass 30 appearances. 

There was a certain irony in Tottenham Hotspur inflicting such a damaging defeat on Mourinho, given they possess the stream-lined squad he once craved. Nine of their XI were regular starters in 2015-16.

It is no coincidence that Wenger's sides in the austerity years immediately after Arsenal's move to the Emirates were more cohesive than the bloated, expensively assembled squads of his twilight years. The Frenchman appeared wracked by indecision with 25 internationals to pick from, and Arsenal's once recognisable playing identity was diluted.  

Despite Mourinho's reputation for decisiveness, he too has vacillated and hedged his bets. One suspects the Mourinho of a decade ago would have jettisoned a couple of Mata, Lingard, Martial or Rashford and let the survivors get on with the job. Or not signed Sanchez to further muddy the waters. Not because they are poor players, but because Mourinho would have wanted to chisel his squad into a tighter unit, moulded in his own image. Instead, dozens of combinations have been trialed at both ends of the pitch and the result is flux. 

Mourinho's United reign has not been catastrophic: they are more competitive than under David Moyes or Louis van Gaal (a low bar), reached three cup finals, winning two, as well as restoring Champions League football. He has not however, passed the test every coach is set: to extract the maximum from the players at his disposal. The reasons why seem fundamental, intractable and essential to who Mourinho is as a coach in 2018. 



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On 11/20/2019 at 10:50 AM, FA23 said:



Terrible experiment.

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