Mourinho: more than just ‘parking the bus’

The Chelsea manager isn’t just the king of the memorable quote - he’s a great tactician, too.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

It’s official. The Special One is back. Forget Agüero, Suárez, Özil or van Persie. It’s José Mourinho who’s the real superstar of the English Premier League. José is box office; the most brilliant coach in the business. And he’s the Godfather of football metaphors. His most famous metaphor – parking the bus – continues to divide opinion, as does Mourinho himself. I think it’s great that he’s back in the English game, shooting metaphors from the hip. And I also think that it’s time to stop dismissing his tactics as ‘anti-football’. Those who don’t value the art of defence are not only philistines; they probably won’t win any trophies either.

Of course, there are plenty of great metaphor artists out there. Former Crystal Palace manager Ian Holloway is one of the best soundbite craftsmen in the game. But whereas Ollie’s witticisms are enjoyed as pure comedy, Mourinho’s words are regarded as scripture. It sometimes seems that all of us can only make sense of modern football through the lens of Mourinho’s metaphors. In September 2004, he memorably complained that ‘Tottenham might as well have put the team bus in front of their goal’ after a frustrating 0-0 draw at Stamford Bridge. Thereafter, the phrase ‘parking the bus’ became an essential part of English football parlance, more often than not used to describe Mourinho’s own tactics. And now he’s back to his figurative best, slamming West Ham for their ‘nineteenth-century football’ after another goalless draw, and suggesting, with an impish glint in his eye, that Chelsea are not title contenders but ‘a little horse that still needs milk and to learn how to jump’.

Even Mourinho’s nickname is one of his own metaphors. When he was appointed Chelsea manager in 2004, he brashly declared: ‘Please don’t call me arrogant, but I’m European champion and I think I’m a special one.’ That was quickly transformed into the media routinely describing him as ‘the Special One’. It was more than just a nickname; effectively, Mourinho had deified himself. His successors could never hold a candle to the Special One. Some were branded with disparaging variants on that theme: Avram Grant was the ‘Miserable One’ and Rafa Benítez was the ‘Interim One’. When Mourinho returned to Stamford Bridge last summer he claimed to be more ‘humble’. He was no longer the Special One but, in his words, ‘the Happy One’. ‘I am better able to manage my emotions, calmer in victory, less depressed in defeat’, said Mourinho. Who was he trying to kid? On Monday, we saw the old passionate Mourinho going bonkers on the touchline after the referee failed to send off Manchester City’s Matija Nastasić for a professional foul on Oscar. One minute he’s suave, dapper and super-cool, the next he’s cavorting like a nutter. It’s what we love about him.

But not everyone regards Mourinho as the Special One. To Barcelona fans, he’s an Antichrist figure whose Réal Madrid team resorted to brutal ‘anti-football’ to thwart the Catalan side. Mourinho’s perceived pragmatism sits uneasily with his own complaints about opponents who employ negative tactics. That is why there were howls of derision when he complained about West Ham’s tactics. Wasn’t that a bit rich coming from a man with a reputation for ‘anti-football’. Well, yes, it is, but we really shouldn’t take everything he says so seriously. He can be a bit of a wind-up merchant who doesn’t care whether he is contradicting himself; in the case of his ‘nineteenth-century football’ comments, he was being historically inaccurate, too. Defending, as football historians will explain, was non-existent and even regarded as distasteful and unsporting in the Victorian era. Does José care about mere historical detail? I very much doubt it.

Clearly there’s a large dollop of mischief in Mourinho’s proclamations. Another good example is this week’s faux-modest claim that Chelsea are a ‘little horse’ who aren’t contenders to win the league. The way Chelsea dismantled Manchester City suggests that Mourinho’s team are emerging as credible challengers. However, while a pinch of salt might be advisable when digesting Mourinho’s opinions, I do think it’s lazy and incorrect to describe his methods as ‘anti-football’. Chelsea’s tactics at the Etihad were anything but ‘anti-football’. Mourinho’s team didn’t just go to Manchester to park the bus. Sure, they were prepared to drop back and soak up pressure but they were always ready and willing to counter-attack. Once City’s early whirlwind start had blown itself out, Chelsea launched a series of deadly counter-attacks with skill and pace. Eventually, they scored and, in truth, could have put the game to bed long before the final whistle. This wasn’t parking the bus or anti-football. It was a Mourinho masterclass; counter-attacking football of the highest order.

The reality is that Mourinho is neither a purely attacking nor a defence-minded manager. There is no single style or formation. His tactics and formations are flexed according to the opposition and the players at his disposal. Look at the Champions League semi-final between Mourinho’s Inter and Barca in 2010. In the first leg, Inter went for Barcelona’s jugular and took a 3-1 lead into the second leg. However, when they were reduced to 10 men at the Nou Camp, Mourinho’s team took parking the bus to a whole new level. Inter’s two strikers dropped back to protect the full-backs and the team stayed compact and narrow, ceding the flanks to Barca safe in the knowledge that they wouldn’t try to launch crosses to their diminutive forward players. Only a philistine could fail to appreciate Mourinho’s tactical brilliance or his players’ organisation and discipline. Barcelona had 86 per cent of possession, but rarely threatened to score.

A coach like Mourinho is a great antidote to traditional British football culture where gung-ho football is celebrated and the art of defending woefully misunderstood. His teams have the discipline to defend well. But they can also counter-attack at speed, interchange quick passes and cut opposition defences to shreds. When a team plays high-quality counter-attacking football, as Chelsea did on Monday night (albeit with some profligate finishing), it can be a thing of beauty. So it’s time to put aside our prejudices about bus parking and anti-football. Let’s celebrate a great coach whose teams can defend and scrap, but can also tear apart defences and win trophies. That, in my view, is total football.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

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Topics Politics


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