Welcome to the Jose Mourinho show
The Special One may be spectacularly narcissistic but, as his all-conquering Inter side showed, he’s entitled to be.
Did anyone notice Howard Webb during last Saturday’s Champions League Final? No, me neither. Webb was unobtrusive. And that’s the way it should be. The referee ought not to steal the limelight. But on Saturday the players were also consigned to the shadows. Diego Milito was named the Man of the Match but, from start to finish, this was the Jose Mourinho show. I don’t think I’ve seen a European Cup Final like it. At the final whistle the TV director was only interested in Mourinho: his emotions, his tears, his celebrations. The players were merely vessels of his glory.
It’s not hard to understand Mourinho’s appeal. He’s witty, charismatic, and good looking. The bastard. Women want to sleep with him. Men want to be him. Men probably want to sleep with him, too. And, when it comes to the art of management, the man’s a genius. He knows how to inspire players, get the best out of them, make them feel 10 feet tall. He has the mercurial ability to forge a collective spirit and instil a winning ethos. He’s like a modern day Brian Clough, except, unlike Ol’ Big Head, he’s also a great tactician. Mourinho is a meticulous planner who knows how to ‘do a job’ on the opposition. He also has the knack of being able to turn a game around by switching tactics mid-match.
Of course, not everyone is in Mourinho’s thrall. He’s the ultimate Marmite manager. You either idolise him or despise him. Mourinho has been described as arrogant, egotistical and narcissistic. This is all true. But this is what you find in the DNA of a natural born winner. Cockiness is the corollary of supreme self-belief. And so what if he’s narcissistic? Wouldn’t you spend a lot of time gazing at your own reflection if you had the looks as well as the talent? As Times columnist Matthew Syed put it: ‘Mourinho without narcissism would be a like a gigolo without sex drive.’
Mourinho has been criticised for lacking respect for referees. Volker Roth, chairman of the Uefa referee’s committee, branded Mourinho the ‘enemy of football’ after he criticised Anders Frisk in 2005. Frisk subsequently received death threats and retired from football. Johann Cruyff, not one Mourinho’s biggest fans, recently said: ‘He is a great coach but a bad example. When you join a certain status, you have more responsibility to win games only. Football is more than the simple result, it is to teach young people behaviour and respect.’
Mourinho’s style of football isn’t to everyone’s taste. Thou Shalt Not Lose is Mourinho’s First Commandment. Probably the second and the third too. Everything else, including expansive football, is subordinate to the ultimate objective of winning. His teams are well-drilled, defensively sound and pragmatic. They tend to close out games when ahead rather than go all out to score more goals. He is seen as the bastard son of Helenio Herrera, the capo de tutti capo of catenaccio; the embodiment of anti-football. In 2005 Cruyff criticised Mourinho, then at Chelsea, for not playing pretty football. ‘I suppose you would say he’s a good coach in a pragmatic sense’, Cruyff said. ‘But I believe football managers have a duty to be entertaining too.’
Inter’s victory over Barcelona in the semi-final dismayed the so-called purists who value stylish football over winning at all costs. Saturday’s final was invariably built up as a clash not just of two managerial titans but of two conflicting footballing philosophies. Louis Van Gaal’s more attacking style versus Mourinho’s pragmatism. Winning ugly versus beautiful football. On the eve of the match Bayern Munich winger Arjen Robben criticised his former gaffer’s footballing ethos: ‘He puts out a winning team, it doesn’t matter if it’s done with nice football or not. The philosophy at Bayern is the coach wants to win games by playing nice football.’
Somewhat ludicrously Bayern were cast as a proxy for Barcelona; carrying the baton of beautiful football which Pep Guardiola’s team had dropped. Bayern aren’t a bad side. You don’t get to the Champions League final by accident. Sure, they are free scoring in the Bundesliga. But they are far from being a great side, let alone some kind of Barca-lite. They were lucky to scrape through the Champions League group stage. They had a shocking refereeing decision and wonder goal from Robben to thank for scraping past Fiorentina on away goals. They were comprehensively outplayed by Manchester United before Rafael’s sending off changed the game.
Against Inter in the final, Bayern’s luck finally ran out. They enjoyed over 60 per cent of the possession and Robben gave left back Cristian Chivu the run around for 25 minutes. But possession doesn’t equal domination. ITV commentator Clive Tyldesley was simply talking codswallop when he claimed that Bayern had ‘controlled the game’. Inter soaked up the pressure and restricted Bayern to long range efforts. And they were swift and clinical on the break. It you want an object lesson in how to control a game without possession, Inter provided it. This was classic counter-attacking football.
Football isn’t only about attacking. Defending is no less important. Stop the other side from scoring and you can’t lose. Only philistines fail to appreciate the virtues of a well-drilled defence. Defending is an art form in its own right although only the Italians – and of course Mourinho – seem to appreciate this. Against Bayern, Inter showed not only how to defend with discipline and patience but how to strike with pace and precision on the counter-attack. You didn’t see interminable passing triangles but – whisper it – Milito’s goals were aesthetically pleasing in their own right. It’s time we did away with the lazy polarity of winning versus beautiful football. As the Inter fans who partied last Saturday night away will testify: winning is beautiful.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.
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