Reflecting on Mourinho’s Real Madrid

Mourinho as coach of Real Madrid – image via wikipedia

Three seasons, three trophies: the Copa del Rey, the League, and the Spanish Supercup. Then nothing. This was Mourinho’s worst season by his own admission. Where did he go wrong?

Failure of the Mourinho ‘brand’

The Mourinho brand has been one of the most successful and powerful in the last decade of sport. One associates the word Mourinho with only one thing: winning. Many legitimately complain about the football, the hype, and indeed the hyperbole, but at the end of the day he is as associated with winning as Apple is with innovation, Facebook is with social networking, Ferrari is with speed.

There are generally two kinds of coaches: tacticians and motivators. I have always compared Jose Mourinho to a rather unlikely coach: Alfio ‘Coco’ Basile. During Jose Mourinho’s extraordinary ascension in the mid 2000’s, Basile was winning almost everything he competed for with Boca Juniors in Argentina while charming the press with his gruff straight-shooting manner.

When he took over the Argentine national team for the second time, it was because of Basile’s brand of letting them play; of putting in all of the stars and getting them to play together and win. Basile’s failure to win the Copa America final against a Brazilian B-side exposed his weakness as a tactician, and continued difficulty in qualifiers with a squad boasting some of the biggest names in world football destroyed his winning brand. He lost the squad and his job.

No one can argue with the strength of Mourinho’s brand in his second season with Real Madrid. 100 points, 120 goals, and the end of the hegemony of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. But early this season, the brand started to show cracks. Mourinho began to distance himself from the squad in post-match comments after limp performances as the side lost pace to a Barcelona who never had a competitor for first place. And despite a rebound in the second half of the season, the public fallout between the manager and Iker Casillas (among other stars) and a trophy-less end ruined his image as a winner with the club.

He may have left anyway, but this season exposed his tactical limitations as well as the liability associated with his larger than life persona. The assault on the Mourinho brand came from all sides, with members of both the home and away dressing rooms lining up against the coach and ultimately defeating him.

Mismanagement of stars

With the locker room fallout with much of Madrid’s backline (Iker, Ramos, Marcelo, Pepe) taking center stage this season, the problems in midfield and up-front were overshadowed.

This season exposed Madrid’s Galactico policy as poor team-building. Despite having a 300 million euro squad they still were weak in every area of the pitch as evidenced by the following:

  • GK – They had to replace their goalkeeper (and captain) midway through the season because of injury and poor man management.
  • Defense – No replacements for injured wing-backs. Poor replacements for center-backs.
  • Midfield – For most of the season, Kaká and Modric were marginalized and wasted two positions on the bench because they didn’t fit into Mourinho’s formation.
  •  Attack – With ambiguity in the center-forward role, the side depended too much on Ronaldo for goals.

The purchase of Luka Modric from Spurs was unfortunately mistimed because of a rocky start which saw Madrid win only one of their first four matches. Mourinho defaulted to his previous championship winning midfield and failed to properly integrate the Croat, a player uniquely suited to help Madrid in situations where the opposition parked the bus defensively. This essentially cost Modric most of the season, to say nothing of Kaká whose integration as a playmaker was not even attempted in the three seasons under Mourinho.

Up front, the ambiguity over the starting role in Mourinho’s three seasons was equally as unforgivable. Mourinho has often successfully used competition between players as a way of getting the best from his entire squad. But the center-forward position presents a different challenge in that a scorer needs form to score regularly, and form needs consistent minutes.

It’s safe to say that Benzema was Mourinho’s first choice, which goes against his normally sound logic when considering that Higuaín has consistently outscored the Frenchman in the League even when playing far fewer minutes. Partly to blame was the big money transfer of Benzema despite having a world class striker in Higuain who was born only 9 days before him. There has always been pressure to start Benzema as a Florentino Perez Galactico, but if any coach had to choose and could make his voice heard, it should have been Jose Mourinho.

Positives

Despite fracturing the squad and damaging the image of Real Madrid along with his own, some positives can be taken from Mourinho’s time at Real Madrid. He was hired after proving himself in the Champions League by winning his second with Inter Milan. Before Mourinho took over, Madrid were losing competitiveness in the League, while struggling to compete in Europe and Cup play.

Florentino Perez saw Mourinho as a winner who could compete on three fronts, and while his dreams of ending the Barcelona dynasty and achieving a treble were not to be, Real Madrid at least can say they were in each of the last three Champions League semifinals, two of the last three Copa del Rey finals, and that they have returned to competitiveness against a Barcelona who have dominated world football for most of the last decade. He will be a tough act to follow, but his dismissal was definitely for the best after this season.

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