The Champions League is a must for Jose this season, the only issue is, can he do it?
Luck. It has a way of defining careers.
March 10, 2004, Old Trafford.
Manchester United lead FC Porto 1-0 at Old Trafford. A 2-1 defeat in Portugal means United are set to advance on away goals to the next round of the UEFA Champions League. FC Porto forward Benni McCarthy launched a seemingly non-threatening injury time free kick right at Howard. His coach Jose Mourinho looked on. Howard dropped the routine catch, allowing Ricardo Costinha to score the winning goal and send Manchester United crashing out.
Porto would go on to win the Champions League.
Their manager Jose Mourinho would go on to be one of the best managers in world football.
Since Pep Guardiola became the manager of Barcelona in the summer of 2008 there has not been a team in recent history which has dominated world football quite like this side. They did it with a style and a quality which has converted many to the philosophy of the Camp Nou.
In that time there has been one man who has become the antithesis of Barcelona. Jose Mourinho is arguably the world’s best coach and tactician, up there with Ferguson and Guardiola in the past decade in terms of success. His man management skills, tactical knowledge and importantly motivational skills have taken all his sides; from Porto, Chelsea, Inter and Madrid to success.
He is pragmatic in his approach, forsaking ideals and style over success. Although accused of "anti-football" one cannot doubt the impact Mourinho has and the success he has achieved. It was a reason he was brought to Madrid, to succeed and overcome the beauty of Barcelona.
Eight years after winning his first champions league, Jose Mourinho is about to embark on his most difficult and most expectant of seasons. After two years at Santiago Bernabeau, Mourinho knows that he has to win the Champions League this coming year.
Mourinho has had two years to build a squad capable of achieving the biggest prize in world football. For two years his side has come close, yet departed in the semi final. This year he must get it right and go a step further.
La Liga is not important, only Europe for these two
Last season Madrid dominated La Liga and won back the title they had not won since 2008. Although it was a success, one in which fans and players celebrated far too much in all honesty, the the key for both Madrid and Barca last year was winning the Champions League. They both failed in their aims.
These sides are the world’s best and because of this, expectations are very high. Thus, not winning the Champions League is deemed a failure. For me the intentions of Barcelona last season were to win a back to back champions league and make history. It was clear that although they competed in the league, the focus from the start was to win the World Club Cup and then prepare and put all efforts into winning in Munich.
For Madrid, Mourinho knew he had to win the league and thus put everything into dominating every side he encountered. And yet, going out at the semi final stage for the second year running was another blow to Mourinho’s ambitions of being the first manager to win the tournament with three different sides.
It was also a blow to Florentino Perez’s ambition to win in Europe and justify his investment. The 10th European crown has alluded Madrid for over a decade and after seeing Barcelona win three in the past six years, everyone associated with the club needs to see their club achieve this success.
Madrid’s turn to dominate?
They say that football goes in cycles and that sides have their time in the sun and then ultimately fade into the shadows. There is an argument to say that last season, especially in that second leg to Chelsea, saw Barcelona move into the shadows. Between 2008-2011 Barcelona were above every side in world football yet this past season perhaps they tried too hard to alter what was already a successful formula, changing in order to stay ahead of the rest. However, it became their undoing.
So too did the arrivals of Fabregas and arguably Sanchez, along with the injury too of Villa. The balance of the side and the cohesion dropped a level and the dependency on Messi was increased. Although his scoring record was immense, it indicates more a problem with the others than just Messi’s brilliance. Barcelona lost what had made it so effective, being a successful “team”.
Does this season therefore represent a change in the dynamics of the Clasico pair? With the departure of Guardiola I believe it does. Without doubt Guardiola was the driving force behind this side, his astute tactical brain mixed with his levels of motivation led that side to greatness. Although his assistant steps up to follow on Pep’s vision and work, ultimately he is not Guardiola.
One can say that this is the same situation which occurred when Guardiola arrived in 2008, on the back of Spain’s triumph in Europe. Yet, Guardiola had succeeded with the “B” side, had shown his credentials and do not forget the status he had as a player. Vilanova has none of this, and he must contend with the games of Jose, something Pep didn't have to deal with.
It will be a very difficult season for Barcelona, although the final against Bilbao indicated the future was still bright, I no longer see this side as above the rest.
Europe is the only goal
Without question success in Europe is the key focus, Mourinho knows that and the President expects it.
Mourinho has come out and proclaimed that his side is almost complete. Yet there are issues within the club which are not being addressed.
Firstly Higuain. He wants to be the main striker and has felt his role reduced as Benzema has become the starter this past 12 months. He made his intentions clear at the end of the season that he wanted to leave and although talk has been quiet out of Madrid, unrest and issues are not conducive to success.
Credit to Mourinho for not trying to accommodate all his stars and thus inbalance the team, yet to lose a player like Higuain would be very costly for Madrid. Although Mourinho stated he would not sell Higuain for any cost, sides like Man City and even Chelsea would be certainly interested in such a natural goal scorer.
The side last year were excellent, playing a pressing game with high paced counter attack football meant that viewers witnessed some excellent attacking football from Madrid. With an attack of Ronaldo, Benzema, Higuain and Ozil the side created and scored 121 goals. Mourinho is wise to keep this attack together, yet he must keep all parties happy and focused if he wants to achieve his goal.
The defensive minded coach has issues to address
Yet it is not in attack where Madrid’s problems lie. In the semi final of the Champions League last season against Bayern, Madrid came up against their first real challenge in the competition. Although the games were close and went to penalties, there was a concern regarding the vulnarabilities of the midfield and defence of Madrid.
Mourinho knows better than anyone the importance of defensive stability and yet against Bayern his midfield were over ran. Although both sides played a 4-2-3-1, Bayern dropped Kroos back to make a three man midfield, whereas Madrid’s number ten Ozil, was much less inclined to defend. It meant that Alonso and Khedira were over ran and ultimately out played.
Now this occurred over both legs and Madrid were outplayed in both games, except for 15 minutes at the start of the second leg. It would appear that the man to solve this midfield issue is Luka Modric. Modric is one of Europe's best playmakers, who has been arguably being playing beneath himself at Spurs.
Modric’s talent should be seeing him playing regularly for one of Europes best sides week in week out. His career in recent seasons however has seen him stall his development of being a world class playmaker. Remarkably he will be turning 27 next month.
Madrid’s quest to bring him to the Bernabeau is understandable, his ball retention, creativity and guile are better than Xavi Alonso’s, a player who is past his best. Against Barcelona Madrid need a player who can rival Xavi and Iniesta, Modric may be that player.
Many have postulated that Khedira will be the fall guy if Modric arrives, yet for me I can see Mourinho’s intentions being a Khedira, Modric partnership.
If Madrid's and Mourinho's concerns are about success in Europe, then he should consider a player he has at his disposal which will serve him excellently. The use of two holding defensive midfielders to help secure the defence has become the hall mark of many teams this past several seasons. With forwards dropping deeper and interchanging more, the battle and gaps in midfield must be plugged by more than just one player. This being said, if Madrid come up against sides like Barcelona, Man City or Bayern, they must seek to use a talent which is underused and somewhat undervalued, Lass Diarra.
Diarra is the closest thing to Makelele in world football today in my opinion and the lack of playing time from such an effective talent is a reason why Madrid have only got the semi final’s these past two years. Makelele was so undervalued by many, yet not by his coaches, where he was part of two La Liga titles and the last Champions League win in 2001 while at Madrid.
Without this type of player in Europe, the top sides can find gaps and can exploit counter attacks. Mourinho would be wise to use Diarra much more this season, especially in Europe.
Defensively Sergio Ramos and Pepe both impressed this past summer in their roles, however both have a tendency for being volatile and over aggressive. Mourinho must seek to control these key players in order to make his defence solid. Yet the worry is who comes in to cover for them. Carvalho and Albiol are not good enough for what Madrid are aiming to achieve and although Varane is a clear talent, it may be too early to rely on him yet. Mourinho would be wise to seek a new centre back of real quality in order to solidify his defence.
Replicate a Barcelona defence?
Madrid struggle defensively on both flanks due to the over attacking nature of their full backs. Arbeloa, Marcelo and Coentrao all enjoy attacking more than defending and thus Madrid’s defensive midfield partnership will be expected to cover their marauding wing backs regularly.
It may leave Madrid susceptible to counter attacks and thus Mourinho should be seeking to make sure his side are perfect in transition. It is here where they could learn much from their rivals Barcelona. Committing so many men forward can produce goals, yet it can also leave a team vulnerable at the back, thus Madrid need to drilled and committed to getting the ball back quickly when they lose possession.
Will his final season end in glory or failure?
However much Mourinho achieves, people still appear to ask questions of the man. It is somewhat ludicrous to doubt the greatness and ability of his talents as a coach, however, with modern football, success means great and defeat means failure. The lines often so minute that moments, luck and fortune can define and break careers and reputations.
Mourinho’s managerial career has seen success follow him and increase expectations on him. There is no doubt that in the past two seasons Mourinho has been under the most pressure and has been beaten by his rival Guardiola. Yet as Pep vacates Camp Nou, Mourinho must feel his time has come to dominate Europe again.
Jose thrives as the underdog, enjoys the challenge of overcoming the favourite and often prefers to portray the beast instead of the beauty. However, this season he is going in as favourites for Europe, a position which he does not favour.
The pressure of the job at Madrid has clearly taken its toll on the previously fashionable and sharp Mourinho, appearing more casual and clearly stressed in his time in Madrid. I cannot see him staying after this season, with a role in England surely awaiting him.
At Porto and Inter his final season brought a European crown. Mourinho will need all his wits, knowledge and motivational skills if he is to end his Madrid career as a European champion.
Make no doubt about it, this season will define his reputation and career.
What do you think? Can Mourinho do it or will he leave Madrid as a failure?