Why Mourinho stumbled in Europe: A tactical theory

May 6, 2013

The adventurous nature of La Liga forced José Mourinho to create an attacking side. As a defensive coach, that suited him badly. 

Sona Hovasapyan

José Mourinho’s tactical principles are built upon defence. From taking the defensive drilling sessions for Bobby Robson at Barça to compiling scouting assignments and opposition analysis, the Special One’s strength as a tactician centres on nullifying the opponent. Nobody studies, prepares and analyses the opposition so thoroughly. As seems logical, Mourinho’s greatest chance of success is when his players, too, are suited to defend. Strong, powerful, organised, disciplined. We saw it at Porto. We saw it at Inter.

Mou Madrid

Real Madrid 2011/2012

But not at Real Madrid. The unshakeable implication that Los Blancos should play attractive football forced Mourinho into creating a side untypical of his style. Also contributory were the technique and flair of Spanish teams: Italian tactics would be no good here. And so Mourinho left his comfort zone. He built a side capable of opening up La Liga’s defences. He fielded a lightweight playmaker, two wingers – one whom he often freed from defensive duties – and a Brazilian playmaker-full-back. He played a high defensive line to squeeze the space for silky No10s. The end product was the least Mourinho-esque of all Mourinho sides.

Mourinho’s default strategy

The preliminary purpose with such a side was to win La Liga. And no defensive side would have succeeded there. The results were reasonably good: Barça were unstoppable the first season; the third season was marred by political instability; the second season speaks for itself. Mourinho’s team were more fragile than usual, but that weakness was rarely exploited: they never met sides that could overpower them. They never met sides – like Dortmund – whose tempo caught them off balance.

Mou Inter 2

Inter in the 2009/2010 Champions League final

But Europe was another matter. Generally in knock-out ties, Mourinho has one default approach: the counter-attack. The strategy fits his strengths as a coach. It usually suits his players too. The Porto team of 2003/2004 won the Champions League through organisation and discipline. The same was true of Inter’s magnificent success in 2009/2010: the away ties against Chelsea and Barcelona were defensive masterclasses only Mourinho could engineer. But only with good defensive players could his strongest qualities as a coach shine through.

He did not have this at Real Madrid. Prior to taking over, he knew that to create a defensive side would be a waste of the players’ talent. But similarly, for Mourinho to work on intricate attacking systems is a waste of his. As such, with Mourinho in Madrid, quality is bound to be compromised. Against the strongest teams in Europe, the result is a team that is neither quite creative enough, nor quite solid enough.

Reliance on luck

When all is said, Mourinho went close. He could easily have brought the Champions League to the Santiago Bernabéu. The first defeat by Barcelona can be blamed on Pepe’s red card, or Lionel Messi’s sometimes-unstoppable brilliance. The second, against Bayern München, came in a penalty shoot-out. The third, against Dortmund, went to the wire.

Mou Chelsea

Chelsea 2005/2006

But given Mourinho’s qualities, a more ‘organised’ side might not have needed the luck that went missing. At Porto, his 3-0 final defeat of Monaco was crushing. No luck required. Earlier against the bigger sides, merely proceeding was a huge achievement. At Inter, he eliminated Chelsea 3-1 on aggregate. He beat Barça 3-1 in the first leg, with the second leg standing at 0-0 when Thiago Motta was dismissed. Later, the 2-0 final victory against Bayern München was calculated and comfortable. At Chelsea, he was knocked out by Barça after a red card. The faults were not tactical. As for the two defeats by Liverpool, they came against a coach whose defensive approach cancelled out Mourinho’s strategy as being the counter-attacking side.


When he won La Liga, Mourinho triumphed despite having to shelve his proven recipe for success. That which he had followed at Porto, Chelsea and Inter. He proved that his flexibility as a coach was good enough to win the league in four different countries. As for his third Champions League title, he fell short. Just. Wherever he goes next, the principles of old are bound to return. We will see a deeper defensive line, stronger centre-backs, physical forwards. There will be counter-attacks, transitions, merciless set-pieces. We will see a Mourinho team we know. We know it will be very difficult to beat. And it might even conquer Europe.

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Photo: Sona Hovasapyan


Very well thought out. I fully agree with you. Am posting this comment the day after Mourinho’s Chelsea drew 0-0 with a vastly less talented West Ham side managed by Sam Allardyce. Mourinho then compared West Ham’s approach to 19th century football. What struck me was your comment above about Chelsea losing to Benitez’ Liverpool and Benitez ability to match Mourinho in terms of organising a defensive team. If Mourinho has a very visible achilles heel it is when he has been out-thought defensively. It touches a raw nerve in his psyche. He has never forgotten the Liverpool defeat and in his post match comments yesterday he was clearly upset that Big Sam has outwitted him in an area, as you have said in this article, he regards as his forte – defence.

by Andrew Davies on January 30, 2014 at 3:05 pm. #

I think this season we’ll see a different José Mourinho team, he’ll have a solid plateform to build for the futur an attacking side that will outclass small teams and not rely on counters against big ones, the likes of van Ginkel KDB & Hazard Oscar Mata will work n go to that direction.

by Malik on July 31, 2013 at 12:24 am. #

as usual great article! please keep up the good work. its always an interesting read when you publish something new

by firedo on May 12, 2013 at 11:04 am. #

Do you think his style has changed permanently at all? Perhaps now he has a high pressure plan B for his next job. I think the talk of Chelsea is a diversion. Just like Pep’s talk of England before moving on to Munich.

by Clarke on May 7, 2013 at 10:34 pm. #

Good question. I don’t think his philosophy has changed, but the fact that he was forced to come up with an attacking framework at Real Madrid will certainly have improved him as a coach. From what I’m reading Mourinho looks like he’s heading to Chelsea, though there are lots of complicated details to sort out first.

by Thore Haugstad on May 8, 2013 at 4:15 pm. #

I wait for each article with great anticipation and your writing delivers every time. Thank you

by football fan on May 7, 2013 at 3:28 pm. #

Hmm, with all these rumors (and almost-acknowledgement by the man himself) about Mou joining Chelsea again, I wonder… this Chelsea is almost the opposite of the one he created. How much of his defensive organization and counter-attack based football will be useful for a team of Mata-Hazard-Luiz et al… Interesting days ahead…

by avik on May 6, 2013 at 9:14 pm. #

Very. It’s a huge job. There is also a question about Roman Abramovich: He has always wanted Chelsea to play attractive football. Where will Mourinho come into that?

by Thore Haugstad on May 6, 2013 at 9:51 pm. #

I was worried when I started reading this that it would be an over-dissection of Jose Mourinho’s tactics and a conclusion that he is not as good as he (or others) think he is, but you said it right. Inspite of the Special One going against his own Special Formula it was really some buzzard luck that’s denied him a Champions League at the Bernabeu. It is a blot on his copybook, but when you see some of the chances Madrid missed early against Dortmund, then you can’t blame the manager for that.
But could you blame Mourinho for not buying more or (higher quality) defenders. Other than Varane who did he bring in to make that defense good enough to play a style the manager doesn’t prefer?

by George Templeton on May 6, 2013 at 2:13 pm. #

Those chances should certainly have been taken. But I don’t think another Mourinho side would have lost 4-1 in Dortmund. Can you imagine that happening to his Porto/Chelsea/Inter teams?

I think the defenders were okay – he only had three, but they were rarely injured. The problem was more their style. They are quick and athletic, and suited to a high defensive line. When Mourinho’s team needed to sit back and defend their own penalty box, his centre-backs weren’t as equipped to do that as, say, Walter Samuel or Lúcio.

by Thore Haugstad on May 6, 2013 at 2:27 pm. #

Pepe and Ramos are no slouches physically compared to Samuel and Lucio. They are fairly big and strong guys, but they do have discipline problems and are prone to errors when flustered (Pepe more than Ramos as of late).

by Angel on May 8, 2013 at 5:35 pm. #

I agree on that. But purely physically, Lúcio and Samuel are more robust, and have a heavier build. Both exceptional at defending deep. Pepe and Ramos not quite used to that (see Pepe for Lewandowski’s first goal in the 4-1 win).

by Thore Haugstad on May 8, 2013 at 5:51 pm. #