Mourinho's knack of finding talent

The key to Inter's unprecedented Serie A, Coppa Italia and Champions League treble was the personnel Mourinho invested in. Zlatan Ibrahimovic went to Barcelona, with Inter getting Samuel Eto'o and a bag containing 46 million Euros. Mourinho spent this money on Sneijder, striker Diego Milito, centre back Lucio and midfielder Thiago Motta. All were key to Inter's treble, writes Karthik Krishnaswamy.

“A team can attack for too long. The most opportune time for scoring is immediately after repelling an attack, because opponents are then strung out in the wrong half of the field.”

So said Herbert Chapman, the legendary manager of Huddersfield (1921-25) and Arsenal (1925-34), who was the first manager to truly understand what we now call counter-attacking football. Teams were scoring goals on the counter (when the opportunity presented itself) long before Chapman came along, but no one before him realised the potential of basing a team's tactics around the quick turnover from defence to attack.

In many ways, Jose Mourinho, whose Inter Milan side won the Champions League final on May 22, is a legatee of Chapman's footballing philosophy, and the latest in a line that travels from Chapman through the infamous figure of Helenio Herrera, an even more obvious ancestor of Mourinho, whose Inter Milan team schooled in the ways of Catenaccio won successive European Cups in 1964 and 65.

All three managers were widely derided for playing defensive, even negative football by the fans and the media, and all three had the same reply, words to the effect of, “but we scored more goals than the other side.”

This is what separates these geniuses of counterattacking football from managers of plodding outfits that are damned with faint praise such as ‘ difficult to beat' — the ability to win consistently despite playing with perceived negativity.

In each of its last three Champions League games — the two semifinal legs against Barcelona and the final against Bayern Munich — Inter had less than 35 per cent of possession. Yet, it managed to outscore both of its free-flowing rivals.

The key to Mourinho's tactics, and to those of Chapman and Herrera, is identifying the right personnel.

Reacting to the 1925 amendment of the offside rule (the receiver of a pass needed only two defenders between him and the goal to stay onside, and not three as before) Chapman changed the formation of his Arsenal team from the 2-3-5 employed throughout England (and elsewhere) to W-M (3-2-3-2), where the centre half dropped between the fullbacks to form a three-man defensive unit. As a consequence, his inside forwards also dropped deeper, almost into midfield. With fewer players in attack, Arsenal invited opponents into its half, and sprung quick counterattacks with long, sweeping passes into wide areas. Quickly, other managers began copying Chapman, without quite emulating his success.

For Chapman's tactics to win games, he needed players who could use the ball wisely and efficiently, most importantly a playmaker sharp enough to create scoring chances despite not seeing too much of the ball. That man was the inside forward Alex James, the Dennis Bergkamp of his time.

For James, substitute Sandro Mazzola and Wesley Sneijder in Herrera's and Mourinho's Inter teams. In the first leg of Inter Milan's semifinal against Barcelona, Sneijder completed all of ten passes. Yet, he was probably the most influential player in Inter's 3-1 win that day. Barcelona midfielder Xavi Hernandez completed 93 passes, and still seemed devoid of ideas, thanks to Inter's massed defending.

The key to Inter's unprecedented Serie A, Coppa Italia and Champions League treble was the personnel Mourinho invested in. Zlatan Ibrahimovic went to Barcelona, with Inter getting Samuel Eto'o and a bag containing 46 million Euros. Mourinho spent this money on Sneijder, striker Diego Milito, centre back Lucio and midfielder Thiago Motta. All were key to Inter's treble, Milito, who scored with two exquisite finishes in the final, in the most obvious manner possible (30 goals in the season); Lucio, for forging with Walter Samuel perhaps the best centre-back pairing in Europe; Sneijder for giving his team the creativity it so lacked last season; Motta (absent from the final through suspension) for solidifying the centre of midfield; Eto'o for the manner in which he sacrificed personal glory to switch from striker to hardworking right-sided midfielder in key European clashes.

Detractors may point to Eto'o as an example of how such a wonderful, instinctive goalscorer can be ‘ wasted' tracking up and down the touchline in a system such as Mourinho's, and ignite once again the debate of entertainment versus results, not as an either-or (the two aren't mutually exclusive) but in terms of priority.

This dichotomy is best signified by Mourinho and Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola.

If Mourinho descended from Chapman and Herrera, Guardiola is the scion of the Rinus Michels-Johann Cruyff dynasty. At Ajax in the late 60s and early 70s, coach Michels and star forward Cruyff conceptualised Total Football, a philosophy that prioritised possession above everything else — to keep the ball for long periods with short, quick interchanges, and to win it back from the opposition as quickly as possible by pressing all over the pitch. For this to materialise, defenders had to be comfortable with the ball and attackers diligent enough to harry and close down opponents when out of possession.

Cruyff took this philosophy to Barcelona, first as a player and then as manager. Everyone who learns football at Barcelona's youth academy is taught to play in this manner — Pep Guardiola, a product of the cantera, was steeped in the idea that possession is everything. So too were Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique.

And so, you have two schools of thought diametrically opposed to each other. If the two were to line up at the gates of Hogwarts, the Sorting Hat would put Guardiola in charge of Gryffindor and appoint Mourinho coach of Slytherin. The result? Two equally formidable teams that wouldn't resemble each other in any way, and win the Quidditch World Cup in successive seasons.

But what of Mourinho next season? At the time of writing, Mourinho has more or less confirmed that he will leave Inter and head for Real Madrid.

“I want another challenge in my career,” he told Italian television station RAI. “I want to become the only coach to win the Champions League with three different clubs (Mourinho helped Porto win the Champions League in 2004). It's not definite that I'll go but I want new risks, new experiences, and now is the moment to decide.''

If Mourinho does indeed take over at Real, it raises a number of intriguing questions.

Will the Special One's much-maligned brand of football suit the needs of Real president Florentino Perez, who memorably dismissed the need for Claude Makelele (“We will not miss Makélélé. His technique is average, he lacks the speed and skill to take the ball past opponents, and 90% of his distribution either goes backwards or sideways.”), and ordered the French midfielder's sale (to Chelsea, ironically, where he would become a key member of Mourinho's 2005 and 2006 league-winning sides)? Will Mourinho switch to a more expansive style of play?

Nobody knows, and nobody can wait, either, for the fun to begin, for Gryffindor and Slytherin (if this dichotomy were to remain unaffected) to wade into each other as direct league opponents. It will not disappoint.

FACTFILE Inter Milan:

Champions League/European Cup: 3 (1964, 1965, 2010) Europa League/UEFA Cup: 3 (1991, 1994, 1998) World Club championship: 2 (1964, 1965) Italian League championship: 18 (1910, 1920, 1930, 1938, 1940, 1953, 1954, 1963, 1965, 1966, 1971, 1980, 1989, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010) Italian Cup: 6 (1939, 1978, 1982, 2005, 2006, 2010) Italian Super Cup: 4 (1989, 2005, 2006, 2008) Coach: Jose Mourinho (Portugal) Club President: Massimo Moratti Founded: 1908 Club colours: Black and blue Nickname: I Nerazzurri (The black and blues)