The question of precisely what constitutes Jose Mourinho’s philosophy has been one of the most fervently discussed questions in European football over the past decade – especially when he’s been appointed by clubs whose fans want attacking football, like Real Madrid and Manchester United.
Widely considered a defensive football manager, Mourinho has nevertheless produced sides capable of wonderful football, taking the game to the opposition and offering a tremendous number of attacking options.
The difficulty of summarising Mourinho’s philosophy is, in part, because he’s had so many jobs in a relatively short period of time. He’s essentially a pragmatist, adjusting his approach according to the players at his disposal, although there are unquestionably some common themes throughout his incredibly successful managerial career.
Arguably the crucial factor in Mourinho’s approach, however, is considering the opposition. Mourinho is fundamentally a reactive manager who varies his tactics from game to game, and it’s worth considering the manner of his introduction to top-level coaching. Although initially employed by Bobby Robson as a mere translator, he impressed Robson and his successor Louis van Gaal with his in-depth opposition analysis, eventually earning himself an increasingly important status in Barcelona’s coaching hierarchy.
Upon becoming a coach himself, he continued to place tremendous emphasis upon scouting other sides, formulating his approach according to the nature of the opposition as much as his own players. This included employing a future top-level manager, Andre Villas-Boas, as his opposition scout. That’s something to consider – the brightest member of Mourinho’s staff didn’t focus on his side, but upon the opposition. A Football Manager rating of 17 for tactical coaching underlines the fact he’s a reactive tactician rather than a footballing philosopher.
Mourinho’s own strategy largely revolves around counter-attacking, and breaking quickly into space. The most obvious examples involve his side sitting deep in their own defensive third and breaking quickly into oceans of space, but Mourinho’s sides – particularly his Porto and Real Madrid teams – were also excellent at mini-counters, regaining possession in the middle third and immediately transferring the ball into attack.
It’s as much a rejection of long periods of possession, rather than an insistence Mourinho’s players must sit deep before breaking. Indeed, in his first period at Chelsea, Mourinho emphasised the importance of ‘resting in possession’, holding onto the ball with absolutely no intention of scoring a goal. However, as more and more teams now press higher up the pitch, this has become less viable and Mourinho has incorporated more deep-lying playmakers in his teams, embracing Xabi Alonso at Real Madrid, and generally deploying Cesc Fabregas and Paul Pogba in deep midfield roles for Chelsea and Manchester United respectively in recent times.
While Mourinho’s Football Manager attributes are very impressive, it’s difficult to ignore the fact he’s rated as 17 for defensive coaching but just 8 for attacking coaching. Mourinho emphasises the importance of defensive structure, and therefore formations are more relevant when discussing his tactics compared to the likes of, for example, Arsene Wenger or even Pep Guardiola. He’s not particularly inventive as a tactician, but in Football Manager terms, has two default formations he uses excellently: Mourinho always trains his teams in two separate formations: although in the early days he taught Porto, Chelsea and Inter to play in a narrow system, 4-3-1-2, and then either 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, in recent years he’s been less adventurous and simply switched between 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1, the most common formations in the modern game.
It’s difficult to say precisely which type of midfielders he prefers: in deep positions he’s used players as contrasting as Claude Makelele and Xabi Alonso, whereas in the most advanced slot he’s favoured powerful players like Frank Lampard and more refined creators like Mesut Ozil. He’s a manager who will happily ditch Juan Mata at Chelsea because he doesn’t fit into a counter-attacking gameplan, then involve him heavily at Manchester United in seemingly more of a possession-based side.
At either end of the pitch, though, things become clearer. Mourinho likes traditional number nines who can play upfront alone, like Didier Drogba, Diego Milito and Diego Costa. At the back, he favours old-school centre-backs who are capable of penalty box defending, rather than speedy ball-players who want to play in advanced positions.
Although Mourinho has sometimes deployed good attacking full-backs like Maicon and Marcelo, he generally likes defensively solid players who tuck inside and protect the centre-backs keenly. His use of Branislav Ivanovic – a centre-back on the right – and Cesar Azpilicueta – a right-back on the left – at Chelsea was an example of how he likes a narrow, compact back four. He likes a ‘highly structured’ side in a positional sense and wants solid, reliable, hard-working players at full-back, with the likes of Paulo Ferreira and Alvaro Arbeloa – unfussy, versatile performers – amongst his favourites, because he knew they would do their homework on the opposition and rarely be defeated in one-on-one situations out wide.
Most intriguing, though, is Mourinho’s use of wingers. At Porto he generally played 4-3-3 in the league but didn’t trust his wide players in big European Cup games so switched to 4-3-1-2. At Chelsea there was a similar situation, and when Mourinho did use the 4-3-3 in big games, he concentrated upon the defensive work rate of his wide players, as much as their attacking capabilities. The rise of the attacking full-back meant Mourinho wanted diligent, reliable wide players to stop them.
In recent years, things have changed slightly. At Real Madrid he effectively handed Cristiano Ronaldo freedom to stay high up the pitch rather than track the opposition right-back, creating a lopsided system with Mesut Ozil and Xabi Alonso’s positioning compensating for Ronaldo’s lack of interest in defending. His goalscoring figures exploded. At Chelsea, Eden Hazard was sometimes afforded the same freedom, although his lack of defensive effort in the 2014 European Cup semi-final defeat to Atletico Madrid cost Chelsea two goals, and infuriated Mourinho. Nevertheless, allowing the Belgian freedom meant he became the Premier League’s standout performer the next season, before their bitter fallout on the first day of Mourinho’s third season. Of course, Mourinho has never stayed longer than three complete seasons at any one club – this is not a legacy-builder, but someone who can complete a quick job with a minimum of fuss.
Replicating Mourinho’s basic strategy in Football Manager is relatively simple: you want to tell your players to use a ‘deep defensive line’, ‘stick to positions’, ‘pass into space’, ‘clear the ball to the flanks’, and use ‘more direct passing’. Training the players in two systems, and being able to switch between them efficiently is also vital, as is scouting the opposition thoroughly and guarding against their strengths.
However, the Mourinho philosophy isn’t quite as defined as some would suggest, and that’s perhaps one of the difficulties of predicting his success at Manchester United – we don’t entirely know what he’s attempting to build.