Jose Mourinho will be hoping a Champions League clash with Valencia on Tuesday night silences the many criticisms that have been pinned to him since the catastrophic end to his second spell at Chelsea, and have only been amplified by Manchester United’s horrendous start to the new campaign.
The most significant and intrinsic of those is how a manager who once appeared so ahead of the curve, first winning the Champions League at an age when most coaches would still be in the twilight of their playing careers and working towards their badges, suddenly seems so far removed from how the beautiful game has changed.
Tactically, philosophically, psychologically and emotionally, Mourinho appears glaringly out of touch with modern demands as the current generation of talent feels no particular allure to his principles or methods. In fact, the longer Mourinho’s increasingly troubled Manchester United spell has gone on, the more his ways have alienated the young players that are supposed to be the foundations for the club’s future.
And a key example of Mourinho’s failure to adapt to the modern game came the last time Manchester United faced Spanish opposition in Europe’s top tournament, a scoreless draw with Sevilla that eventually resulted in their elimination at the Round of 16.
This is the competition Mourinho was once the undisputed master of but as continental rivals careered to the Champions League’s latter stages by completely obliterating opponents away from home, Mourinho took the old-fashioned approach – eking out a painfully pragmatic performance that did his side no favours for the return leg.
Looking back at the two Champions League successes of Mourinho’s career, his logic at Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan was certainly understandable. Between the Round of 16 and the semi-finals, his FC Porto side conceded just three goals on the road, while his 2009/10 Inter Milan team allowed in just one, against Barcelona at the Nou Camp, while keeping clean sheets over Chelsea and CSKA Moscow in crucial 1-0 wins.
Accordingly, Mourinho’s starting XI against Sevilla included three holding midfielders in Nemanja Matic, Ander Herrera and Scott McTominay, and United’s performance followed the pragmatism of their manager’s team selection. Sevilla were allowed to dominate possession, finishing up with 57%, just one of United’s midfielders recorded a touch inside the opposition box and the Red Devils only dared six efforts at goal to the visitors’ 25. A mere one of those actually tested the goalkeeper, and just two were taken from within 20 yards.
Clearly, the objective of the day was to smash and grab – to hold firm and wait for one Sevilla mistake that would give United a distinct advantage for the second leg – without ever leaving United’s defence anything close to exposed.
But that mistake never came and it left the Red Devils with too much to do under too much pressure in the second leg. With the away goals rule now in their favour, it was the Spaniards’ turn to sit back and counter a United side that needed a goal sooner rather than later and certainly couldn’t afford to concede any of their own, which is exactly what happened late on as Wissam Ben Yedder scored twice in the space of four minutes. Romelu Lukaku would net an insignificant consolation goal shortly after.
The strategy mimicked what Mourinho has built his greatest accomplishments on, pragmatically guiding his side through double-legged European affairs by conceding as few goals as possible, but it directly contradicted the dynamics of last season’s Champions League. In stark contrast to United who, despite boasting amongst the best squad depth in the competition, suffered elimination at the hands of a side that finished seventh in La Liga last season, Liverpool and Real Madrid charged to the final by scoring an incredible 38 away goals between them.
Los Blancos’ 17 was four more than the next best return during the tournament, while Liverpool’s 21 was a staggering 16 more than what United could muster up on their continental travels.
In fact, Liverpool scored at least twice in all of their away legs in the Champions League last season, whereas Real Madrid’s third crowning in as many seasons owed almost exclusively to their performances on the road. Compared to one draw, one defeat and one victory at the Bernabeu, they beat PSG, Juventus and Bayern Munich in the away legs to an aggregate scoreline of 8-2.
Of course, that’s not to suggest that if Mourinho hadn’t applied the handbrake away from home, United would have gone on to match Liverpool’s achievements in reaching the 2018 Champions League final. Clearly there are systematic issues at United, particularly the underwhelming quality of their defence, and that undoubtedly influenced Mourinho’s decision to set up so cautiously in Sevilla, rather than trying to take the game to a team that boasts such experience and success in Europe through the Europa League.
And yet, it applies directly to how Mourinho views the beautiful game, a perspective that was revolutionary when he burst onto the scene with FC Porto in 2003/04 but has since been counteracted and contradicted to the point that it’s become painfully outdated.
While the best sides in Europe have geared themselves towards being as destructively potent as possible in attack, therefore fully maximising the advantages of the away goals rule, Mourinho is still playing for clean sheets and trying to reduce games to one brilliant or erroneous moment.
Tellingly, Mourinho is one of the top managers leading the charge to make UEFA rescind the away goals rule and in many ways, the lobbying campaign encapsulates the many issues the United boss now faces. Rather than accepting new trends and moving with the times, he’s instead trying to change the rules of the game to justify a philosophy that has been old hat for a number of years.
Instead of adapting and embracing, he’s rejecting the direction football has moved into, a direction that continues to leave him only further behind. And instead of winning his battles on the pitch, he’s now trying to do it with the law book.
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