Mourinho 'anti-football' jibes are wide of the mark

The Chelsea manager has been demonised in some quarters for his pragmatic approach to big matches but his record speaks for itself and may deliver another Champions League crown
By Liam Twomey

Jose Mourinho is no stranger to criticism but one of the most common complaints has always been about style. Having come in for it after losing to Sunderland, Chelsea were berated despite fine results against Atletico Madrid and Liverpool, with a peculiar pressure now upon them ahead of their Champions League showdown with the Spaniards.

Rarely have three consecutive matches told us so much about an elite team's greatest strengths and most glaring weaknesses. Had the Blues not begun a week that saw them utterly neutralise the league leaders of Spain and England by losing at home to Sunderland, an historic double might now be more than a theoretical possibility.

But while the results may have been vastly different, they were all completely in character. Similar losses to Aston Villa and Crystal Palace had already suggested that Mourinho's men invariably encounter serious problems when faced with teams who surrender the initiative, accept their own inferiority and drop deep. Against more illustrious opponents who seek victory through domination, Chelsea can retreat into their natural habitat before springing forward on their own lightning counterattacks; a gameplan of defiance and devastation.

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Mourinho has readily and publicly laid much of the blame for his team's faltering title charge at the feet of his underwhelming collection of strikers and the lack of a top-class goalscorer has been an undeniable hindrance to Chelsea's ambitions.

Samuel Eto'o only scores at Stamford Bridge, Demba Ba has not been consistently impressive and the faded Fernando Torres all too often gives the impression of a man going through the motions of being a professional footballer. None have reached double figures for Premier League goals.

Yet the fact remains that Mourinho has built a reactive team, geared almost entirely towards exploiting the 'transition' – the precious few seconds after an attacking team surrenders the ball and before it can regain its defensive shape. It is a big reason why the Premier League trophy is unlikely to be won by them in May but it is also a big reason why the Champions League, Roman Abramovich's Holy Grail, remains such a live possibility.

In his biography entitled 'The Special One: The Secret World of Jose Mourinho', respected El Pais journalist Diego Torres claims that the Portuguese preached a seven-point plan to approaching big matches at Real Madrid. It is as follows:

One: The game is won by the team who commits fewer errors. Two: Football favours whoever provokes more errors in the opposition. Three: Away from home, instead of trying to be superior to the opposition, it's better to encourage their mistakes. Four: Whoever has the ball is more likely to make a mistake. Five: Whoever renounces possession reduces the possibility of making a mistake. Six: Whoever has the ball has fear. Seven: Whoever does not have it is therefore stronger.

The points present a deeply cynical, unromantic view of top-level football and it is hardly surprising that they were not well received within a Madrid dressing room full of supremely talented footballers and several World Cup winners.

But it is not, as some have claimed, 'anti-football'. It is simply another way to play football and there is ample proof that it is a very effective one.

In 10 full Champions League campaigns Mourinho has reached the semi-final stage eight times, winning the trophy twice. This season Chelsea have won seven, drawn two and lost one of their 10 matches against the other members of the Premier League's top six. If the destiny of the title were decided solely by head-to-head combat, the Blues would have triumphed at a canter.

9/2 Chelsea are 9/2 with PaddyPower to beat Atletico Madrid 1-0
While not likely to endear him to the neutrals, Mourinho's philosophy is ideally suited to facing top teams with gifted players who prefer to have the ball. It is also particularly effective within the Champions League knockout format where, over the course of two finely poised legs between teams of a high technical standard, a single error is all the more likely to prove decisive.

In fact, the biggest obstacle Chelsea now face in their bid to reach a third European final in as many years is that opponents Atletico Madrid are disciples of a similar philosophy.

Nothing could separate the two after an uneventful encounter at the Vicente Calderon and there is little to suggest that Wednesday at Stamford Bridge will be a vastly different affair.

Prior to his side's second-leg victory over Barcelona, Diego Simeone characterised Atletico's approach this season as a combination of "humility, counterattack, and the reduction of spaces".

It is no surprise, then, that he will not abide criticism of Mourinho's pragmatic outlook.

"I respect different ways of setting out your team," the Argentine told reporters on Tuesday. "It's about what's the best way for a specific game or opposition. In the end it's important the team, the club, the institution wins, regardless of how it is achieved. If we all played the same way it would be very boring. What matters is the result."

Should Mourinho emerge victorious he will set up a final date with his former club, Real Madrid, in Lisbon and questions about his tactical approach will doubtless be raised once more.

But when they are, it will be worth remembering that the foundations for the devastating counterattacking approach which enabled Carlo Ancelotti's men to embarrass Pep Guardiola's Bayern Munich over two legs were firmly laid during the Special One's tumultuous three-year reign at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Not anti-football. Just football. Simeone summed it up: "There is no best way."

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