Steve Tongue: Is Roman a friend of Mourinho methods?

Click to follow
The Independent Football

In September, 1893, a club was founded in Oporto "dedicated to the eccentric English game of football". Almost 111 years later, the coach who has taken that club to their greatest heights will soon discover just how eccentric the sport here has become under its first Russian oligarch.

Jose Mario Santos Mourinho Felix is expected to be confirmed early this week as Claudio Ranieri's replacement as manager of Chelsea, ending a saga during which both men have behaved with more dignity than might reasonably have been expected in difficult circumstances. On Wednesday night, after Porto's impressively engineered victory over Monaco made them champions of Europe, the suave 41 year-old was having to beseech reporters: "Don't ask any more questions about my future. Let me enjoy the moment."

There was not much time for that before a round of talks with Chelsea, who have already recruited some of the players he will be expected to work with next season (the Dutch winger Arjen Robben and Czech Republic goalkeeper Petr Cech) and are chasing others he may or may not approve of. But what sort of coach is the Premiership getting in succession to the likeable but flawed Ranieri?

Mourinho's background is now reasonably well known, because of an English knight's part in it: a modestly talented footballer, but an obsessive student of coaching, who was writing reports on opponents in his late teenage years; employed by Sporting Lisbon, where his father was general manager, to be Sir Bobby Robson's translator and go-between; gradually given more rope at Porto and Barcelona by Robson, who then advised him to stay at the Nou Camp to learn more under Louis van Gaal.

After his first bad experience of boardroom politics as a fully fledged head coach, falling out with Benfica, Mourinho revived little Union Leiria, and in his first full season at Porto achieved the domestic League and Cup double before beating Celtic in the Uefa Cup final. Two of the most highly regarded players, Helder Postiga and Nuno Capucho, then departed for Tottenham and Rangers respectively, but he recruited other members of Wednesday's team for a fraction of the price; and from the unpromising beginnings of one point from two Champions' League games came a run of 11 without defeat that climaxed in Gelsenkirchen four days ago.

Robson praises him both as a man ("a personable chap, a marvellous asset") and a coach ("a good student, very clever, realised the importance of establishing a rapport with the players"). If ever at a disadvantage because of his own lack of playing ability, Mourinho has clearly done more than enough in the past two years alone to have earned the respect of most wily old pros. But questions yet to be answered concern his handling of the real (or self-styled) superstars; dealing with the highest expectations; and, in particular, his tactical philosophy.

Porto's players naturally love him, appreciating what he has done for their careers. Benni McCarthy, the South African striker obtained from Celta Vigo last summer for a quarter of Postiga's fee, backs up Robson's comments about the human being as well as the football man: "He's a great trainer but a great person off the field as well, who has a good understanding with the players, that's why he's been so successful. He tries to understand players and work well with them. If he gets the co-operation of the big-name players, then he can do well.

"But there's really a huge difference between Porto and Chelsea, which is a team that throws in a lot of money to buy players and so has big expectations to do well. I think he's got a really difficult job on his hands and he needs time to blend in, time to adapt. He had half a season here, then the next year took Europe by storm, but at Chelsea people have to be patient. The club have to be co-operative too, because it's his job that's on the line. He buys the players he wants, he's fully in charge."

The achievements are clear. What of the methods? The great irony here is that after ditching Ranieri partly because there were too many 1-0 victories and not, apparently, enough excitement for Roman Abramovich's demanding tastes, Chelsea are now courting a man who has become master of stifling the opposition and counter-attacking them.

He plays with a midfield diamond, not wingers, rigidly adapting players to a system and boasting: "We have a tactical philosophy we follow so religiously that at times I think we could play blindfolded." At Porto, the key man is Deco, the Brazilian now made a naturalised Portuguese, who plays in the role just behind two strikers that Joe Cole so desperately covets. The young Englishman could be given that chance at last, as long as Deco ends up at Bayern Munich rather than following his coach to west London, where he would become the nearest thing to Gianfranco Zola that Chelsea followers have seen.

Against Monaco, Mourinho was rightly praised for his substitutions, though what was important was that the 4-1-2-1-2 system remained exactly the same throughout; unlike Ranieri's tactical tinkering, there will be no more changing of formations three times before the interval. When Carlos Alberto, having scored his smartly taken goal with the only shot by either team before half-time, was replaced on the hour, Deco simply moved forward to the front line and the substitute Dmitri Alenitchev slotted into the "hole". Each man then scored a classic counter-attacking goal in the space of four minutes.

His tactics long set in stone, Mourinho had even picked his team for the final weeks beforehand. "I decided the line-up a month ago," he revealed. "I first had the idea when Porto played Coruña [in the semi-final] and I saw Monaco in Chelsea. I was very clear about it. I was also clear that if we were not winning at half-time, I would put on McCarthy instead of [midfielder] Pedro Mendes, pushing Carlos Alberto back. But we scored and then had the chance to play in the style we prefer. I told Alenitchev to be the most attacking part of my midfield diamond and we mustn't lose the diamond shape. If you play in a perfect diamond, you control the match."

Meanwhile, as a deeply disappointed Didier Deschamps put it from Monaco's perspective: "When Porto attacked, they still kept four or five players back in defence, so it was difficult for us to create anything against them."

When Mourinho's excellent English - no more laughing at the Chelsea Television interviews next season - comes up with the phrase "off the cuff", he is not speaking about his dazzlingly sharp suits, and certainly not about his vision of football. The Tinkerman is (almost) dead. Long live the systems man.

Comments