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Monday, March 4, 2024

Jose Mourinho is made for international football – he should take the plunge now

To assess Jose Mourinho’s status and explain why 2024 Mourinho is less in demand than the 2004 or even 2014 Mourinho, it is worth looking at the precise reasons for his decline. Yes, the game has evolved and probably left him behind, but how?

This can be broken down into five categories.

First, it is evident that footballers eventually get sick of Mourinho as a figurehead and ultimately get bored of his methods. This has been a pattern at Real Madrid, Chelsea, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and, to a certain extent, Roma. You can arguably include his first spell with Chelsea, too. At Porto and Inter Milan, he departed before the malaise set in having won the Champions League at both clubs.

Equally, it’s worth acknowledging that Mourinho does offer short-term benefits. His Real side toppled Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona to win La Liga, his Chelsea team won the Premier League, and his Manchester United side won the Europa League and League Cup. Tottenham experienced a brief resurgence and reached the League Cup final (he was sacked just beforehand) and Roma won the Europa Conference League and then reached the Europa League final.

Mourinho’s stints in charge generally end badly but just as it’s short-sighted for clubs to overlook the long-term problems, it would be unreasonable to consider Mourinho a complete failure in any of his jobs, with the arguable exception of Tottenham.

Second, Mourinho’s style of football, in terms of entertainment value, now seems old-fashioned and rather defensive. This has been a constant criticism throughout his career but was often an exaggeration. Mourinho has always been pragmatic rather than determinedly defensive and several of his sides have played excellent attacking football when required.


Mourinho during his penultimate match as Roma manager (Ivan Romano/Getty Images)

It’s near-impossible to win league titles in the modern era by being predominantly defensive — the number of points required for success means it is not viable.

But the sport has, broadly speaking, continued to become based around bold build-up and trying to outscore the opposition rather than keeping clean sheets and nicking one on the break. While football has become more adventurous, Mourinho’s approach has remained the same in a literal sense.

But by remaining pragmatic, he has effectively become more defensive. Why? Because his last couple of jobs, for the first time, have not been with title contenders but with upper-mid-table sides. More modest targets mean Mourinho has been even less compelled to attack.

Third, Mourinho doesn’t seem to believe in the importance of ultra-fit teams. His coaching methods have always been based around the concept of periodisation, where physical conditioning is built into technical and tactical exercises. This was originally a Portuguese concept and was revolutionary upon his rise to the top two decades ago, but those methods have since been replicated and surpassed. In the long run, Mourinho’s teams seem to run out of steam.

Fourth, the defining concept of the last half-decade or so in top-level European football has been pressing. Mourinho’s sides are generally still very good in various tactical aspects, but pressing has never been his forte.

This is, of course, related to the previous two points — Mourinho isn’t obsessed with his side dominating matches and his sides aren’t capable of sprinting again and again throughout 90 minutes. His sides press on occasion, but not with the tenacity or cohesion you expect of a top-level modern side.

Fifth, and finally, Mourinho is somewhat out of step with other modern coaches because he relies upon individual brilliance in the final third. He often hands a key attacking player something approaching a free role.

This is often misunderstood and the concept of ‘defensive play versus attacking play’ becomes conflated with ‘individual freedom versus collective play’. Though Mourinho’s football is less positive than that of his one-time rival Guardiola, for example, he arguably gives key individuals more licence to express themselves.

Guardiola places strict conditions on even his most talented attackers, but Mourinho has often favoured a classic No 10: he extracted the best from Deco, Wesley Sneijder, Mesut Ozil and, albeit in a different role, arguably Cesc Fabregas, too.

The same was true of Roma’s Paulo Dybala, who found himself rejuvenated under Mourinho. “He was seeking the joy he had lost more than confidence,” Mourinho said this season. “He found it here with a squad that understands him, a coach that loves him, a position on the field with strong characters around him.”

It was no coincidence that Dybala was the first Roma player to react publicly to his dismissal. “Thank you, Mister, thank you for everything,” he wrote on Instagram. “It was an enormous pleasure to work with you. Thanks for your advice and every word you gave me.”

So what are we left with? A manager who isn’t suited to working with footballers day in, day out, whose football is a little negative, whose fitness methods might not work any more, who doesn’t care about pressing, and who wants individual brilliance rather than planned attacking moves. In short, we are left with an international manager.

Let’s go through those five factors.

First, international managers are not primarily responsible for an individual’s development. They coach their players for around a dozen matches a year and, therefore, footballers are probably less likely to become tired of a particular manager.

Second, international football is fundamentally more defensive than club football. There is less of a demand from supporters for all-out-attacking football and defensive football is more suited to knockout football than league football. Not losing, rather than actually winning, is the key.

Third, international managers have relatively little input into the fitness levels of their players.

Fourth, pressing is not a major part of most successful international sides. The last three teams to win the World Cup — Germany, France and Argentina — have not been based heavily around that approach, nor have the last two European Championship winners — Portugal and Italy.

Fifth, international managers don’t have the time on the training ground to formulate complex attacking patterns of play. They also, by the very nature of international football, often find themselves with one- or two-star individuals and a bunch of more limited, hard-working foot soldiers. That’s the type of side Mourinho creates anyway.


Mourinho after winning the Champions League with Porto in 2004 (Matthew Ashton/EMPICS via Getty Images)

International football is generally a couple of decades behind club football. It’s hard to imagine Didier Deschamps coaching a top club side these days, but his international record with France is excellent. Gareth Southgate has performed a commendable job with England despite his only club job ending with Premier League relegation at Middlesbrough.

Ralf Rangnick was completely out of his depth at Manchester United but is doing well with Austria. Roberto Mancini is probably too defensive for a title-winning club side these days, but he took Italy to Euro 2020 success.

Mourinho, whether he likes it or not, is now suited to international football rather than club football. Moreover, his coaching style is probably a better fit than that of Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp.

He might be the best international manager in the world. He shouldn’t leave it too long — one day, even international football will leave him behind.

(Top photo: Silvia Lore/Getty Images)



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