You might recall the Real Madrid of 2011-12, the team that swept La Liga with a +89 goal differential. That year they won 100 of 114 possible points, and scored 121 goals, an average of 3.18 per game, both historic records (http://bit.ly/131mGR5). That team began their run at history when they won the Copa del Rey in 2010-11. At that time, Barcelona FC, then winner of all else on a global scale, was near untouchable. Yet, Real pulled off an incredible winning performance against a better team and thereafter believed in themselves. Well, I believe that team, the one who won with an entertaining, offensive display, is no more. But worse, I think there is a real chance it may never be again.
Why? You might well ask. The answer is simple and three-fold: Jose Mourinho does not know how to coach an offensive minded team, he is too self-absorbed to think in terms of what would work best for the team he does have, and his masters seem to forget that his laurels were either self-proclaimed or well planted long before he came to cultivate them. In a three part series we will address each of these issues.
Mou was fortunate to have stumbled upon a few winning formulas for Real last year, but he never fully replicated them and instead relied on his good fortune without learning from it. In 2011-12 he was the beneficiary of a series of outstanding single-season individual performances by world superstars who took their rare starting turns as auditions. Nearly all of them have been disabused since, and those once-in-a-career moments, those repeated yet short lived adrenaline boosts, are gone for the coach and club. Sadly that high is also gone, or will be so, for a number of the players.
Let’s take a look at this coach’s player options. Real Madrid boasts a roster with Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil, and Kaka, to mention two world class playmakers and a goal scorer that jump to mind. Most would agree that playing these three at the same time is a sure fire way of producing goal scoring opportunities. If you look at their performance, the few times when they did play together twice in a row, you will note they won and by a large score.
The available team also has Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira, and Luka Modric, who, again, most would say makes up a formidable midfield, albeit heavy on the defensive side. Modric and Xavi, one could also argue, are adept at feeding the offense. Real also boasts Iker Casillas (the best goalkeeper in the world), Fabio Coetrao, Sergio Ramos, Pepe, and Marcelo. Most would argue that putting those four defenders in front of Iker would make this a tough team to score on. That assumes Iker plays, of course.
But you get the point, this is a dream of an all-star roster. Each player mentioned is a starter on his national team side. If these eleven ever played together in but a few consecutive games they might be forgiven the thought that they have a nucleus around which to build a regular rotation. Only Mou does not understand offensive football and instead believes all wins and titles come via single-game defensive tactics and the rare scoring touch.
Defensive football is what he knows because that is what is most common in his native Portugal’s domestic play. It is the style he grew up with as a coach, the one that won him titles after he left Portugal. You can’t always outgrow your roots. Thus, because his perspective makes him see Real’s 2011-12 La Liga title as an anomaly, he cannot learn or build from it.
Defensive football need not be creative only destructive of the opponents’ creativity. In that mind-set, players, as long as they are of an upper-echelon quality, are in fact more interchangeable than are creative playmakers or goal scorers. Creative players need to build an affinity with their teammates that is not easily achievable in a half-game situation. See, by comparison, the Barcelona FC example. Look at what developed offensively after Lionel Messi had a full season with the likes of Andres Iniesta, Xavi Alonso, Dani Alves, Pedro, and David Villa.
But the main reason Mourinho has not developed a team out of his collection of stars is because of his core coaching methodology. He approaches games as a chess match to be won one time, with the right pieces chosen for that one match, and then he starts from scratch for the next match. That may work if one has a defensively inclined roster, but Real is inclined toward creative, offensive play.
If Mou had done his homework he might have realized that Real, since at least the days of Alfredo di Stefano and company, 60 years ago, has been an offensive-minded side. Then again, perhaps he knew this and still forged ahead with the idea that he was destined to change that culture, single-handed.
So what is a football coach to do with Real Madrid’s abundance? If you are most any other football coach you develop what you have into the best team you can field (hardly a tough task in the Spanish capital) and you encourage and nurture the players’ collective proclivities. But this coach is special. He will not do the prosaic.
In the second of this three-part series we will discuss Mourinho’s idiosyncratic perspective.