Real Madrid: The self-compromise of hiring Mourinho

May 12, 2013

When signing José Mourinho, Real Madrid consigned themselves to the mentality of winning at all costs. Now they are learning the price. 

Jose Mourinho, CSKA vs Inter

The same night Frank De Bleeckere blew the final whistle and José Mourinho darted triumphantly across the Camp Nou turf, Marca pressed one of its most pro-Mourinho front pages. With one game, the Special One had proved he could do what seemingly no other Real Madrid coach could; overcome Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and reach the Champions League final. Even though Real Madrid had been eliminated by Lyon in the round of 16, they revelled in Barça’s failed mission to lift the European cup at the Santiago Bernabéu. “Mou, you have earned it,” Marca’s cover said. “Your place in the final. And your signing for Madrid.”

When judging Mourinho’s era in Spain – and the time has duly arrived – it is important to remember why Madrid wanted him in the first place. They had spent fortunes on players – Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaká, Xabi alonso, Karim Benzema. They had hired Manuel Pellegrini. Nothing had worked. They had finished behind Barça in La Liga. They had been eliminated by Lyon in Europe. Even worse; the most successfulteam in Champions League history had not reached the quarter-finls in six years. The last time they did, in 2003/2004, they were defeated by Monaco, who later lost in the final to a team led by some Portuguese novice.

The self-compromise

With the dignified Pellegrini, Real Madrid had sought to preserve their image as a gentleman club. The overall intention was clear: they wanted to beat Barça in two areas; results and style. In the end they did neither. For such a proud institution, the situation had become untenable. And so they made a self-compromise. They conceded that they could not match Barça at both style and success. By hiring Mourinho, the serial winner and master psychologist, they would at least go for one of them.

Certainly in terms of restoring Madrid’s pride, Mourinho was the first-choice. In another way – public profile and symbolism – he was the last resort. Deep down, they knew that a more diplomatic personality à la Carlo Ancelotti would have fitted better. And precisely such a manager would surely have been hired – had someone matched Mourinho’s European and domestic record. But no one did. Thus the code of conduct was thrown into the fire. With Mourinho, winning had become everything.

‘I don’t change’

Madrid knew what they were buying into. They had witnessed Mourinho’s history of controversy and explosive behaviour; the confrontations, the touchline bans, the run-ins with the press. If they ever thought he could change, his remarks at his unveiling will have shattered those hopes. “I am José Mourinho and I don’t change,” he announced. “I arrive with all my qualities and my defects.”

It was a message. Mourinho is Mourinho. He would not compromise. (Even if he did alter his tactics slightly.) Madrid knew his behaviour was unpredictable; that fact was easy to predict. Yet they signed a volcano of a coach and placed him at the heart of their institution. With Mourinho now erupting at every press conference, can they claim to be surprised?

Has Mourinho been successful?

When arriving, Mourinho’s brief was simple: stop Barça. He did – in his second season, Real Madrid set a La Liga record by amassing 100 points. For all the money spent, to expect a manager to overcome Barça over the course of three years is to underestimate the challenge. The Catalans had the best club side of all time, with perhaps the best player of all time. Few if any coaches could have wrestled the title away from the Camp Nou. Mourinho beat the seemingly unbeatable; not over a knock-out tie, but over 38 matches. That is, at the moment, a highly underappreciated achievement.

As for Europe, Real Madrid fell short in three semi-finals. In an interview with CNN in December 2012, Mourinho was asked whether not winning the Champions League would make his tenure a failure. “No,” he replied, before explaining why. “There is a neg where the difference between succeeding and not succeeding is very very narrow. So I don’t consider it a failure.” He had a point. Any victorious European run relies on luck in some capacity. Real Madrid had not got it, but they were at least in contention. Indeed, if ‘looking behind the result’ is an accurate way of analysing an individual match, the same principle should be applied to Mourinho’s Champions League campaigns.


Real Madrid knew they had taken a risk by hiring Mourinho. The chances of internal conflict and bad PR were high to the point of inevitability. Some say Mourinho is breaking with Madrid’s principles. The truth is that the club did so themselves by hiring him.

As for results, Henry Winter once wrote that Mourinho “is the closest a chairman can get to guarantee of success”. Nicely put. It is a difficult argument that anyone else would have stopped this Barça side – if even for one season. The failure to conquer Europe means his era cannot be judged an outright success, but at the very least, Mourinho’s achievements deserve more respect than they are given.

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Photo: Ekaterina Lokteva


If the Spanish Football Federation had been wise enough to revise the date of El-classico last year (which I remember was requested by the clubs), it could have easily been an all-Spanish Champions League Final. Real and Barca played the most critical El-Classico in the middle of 6 day gap between the semi’s. Both lost the semi’s ridiculously. Real could not hold on to the win & lost to Bayern on penalties. Barca could not score against 10 men Chelsea.
If so, Mou could have been leaving with another title under his belt.
I agree with all the stuff you wrote in the article & I am sure he will be more successful at his next club where he will shape up the squad himself. He can find players like Motta, Millito, Pandev etc and dig out trophy wining performances out of them.

by isler on May 20, 2013 at 12:34 pm. #

Excellent point. Many people have overlooked that fitness factor, including myself. Barça lost heavily anyway, but with Madrid, perhaps it could have made a difference.

by Thore Haugstad on May 20, 2013 at 2:11 pm. #

I remember about 3-4 weeks ago Mourinho took out a list of the 18 coaches within a 21 yearspan that only managed to take Real Madrid to 5 semifinals. He mentioned this because he was defending himself when asked if his stint at Madrid was a failure. He also said that he took Madrid to 3 semifinals in his 3 yrs as coach. I understood exactly what he was trying to do with this, however he mentioned Del Bosque and Heynckes in that list. I thought to myself “Mourinho those managers managed to get Madrid to the semifinals and even more! They have 3 Champion League titles between them!”.

by Loop on May 17, 2013 at 10:37 pm. #

Yes it’s his way of spinning things. His main point is that they were in *contention* every year, as opposed to many previous coaches who weren’t. But as long as you don’t win it, people won’t care.

by Thore Haugstad on May 18, 2013 at 8:27 am. #

Yes very true, what matter is winning the CL and not the number of semis or even finals you take the team to, but until Mourinho came around Real exited the CL at the round of 16 for six years in a row. That’s horrible for a club of the stature of Madrid.

by Angel on May 21, 2013 at 2:33 pm. #

I fully agree with your take on Mourinho´s tenure at Madrid. The 100 points season against the greatest side of all times and how Madrid came twice very close to the CL final, should not be overlooked.

The line between success and failure is definitely very thin. That is why Porto won the CL in 2004 after defeating United in the final moments of a knock out stage and progressed to the final, but a vastly stronger squad lead by the same man failed twice in consecutive years to advance to the final – Real vs B.Munich and Real vs Dortmund.

Another thing I have observed is that Mourinho is perhaps best suited to lead teams whose players are not already figures of authority within the club. This is why he succeeded at Porto, Chelsea and Inter Milan. Their players were either a bunch of ambitious young lads without any major impact in the clubs politics and/or had not won enough to be in a position to establish their base of power ( case of Inter Milan). At Madrid there was Casillas and Ramos – and Jorge Valdano – who were important policy makers and viewed as big symbols of the club. A rift with such influential elements could trigger his own marginalization if the failed to deliver the kind of success he was expected to bring.

by Mark on May 14, 2013 at 1:09 pm. #

That’s a very good point. Might write something on that. It also goes hand-in-hand with Mourinho’s reluctance to fully embrace an institution. He doesn’t want to join the circle of power. He wants complete control of it. (Which obviously was a complete misfit at Real Madrid.)

I guess the more all-embracing the methods of a coach is – Mourinho has preferences for every single detail that could affect the players – the more areas he will want to exercise control over.

by Thore Haugstad on May 14, 2013 at 1:56 pm. #


I would also like to know your take on C. Ronaldo´s lesser success in the Portuguese national squad. Is it a case of him not being a truly great player when the strategy and quality of players around him are not tailor made for his benefit, as many people seem to claim? Or is it simply impossible for Ronaldo to repeat the same brilliance with Portugal because they are not just not good enough to allow Ronaldo to shine the way he does at Madrid? What are your views on this?

by Mark on May 15, 2013 at 8:04 am. #

Well. Ronaldo’s relationship with his team-mates has become very simplified: he now relies heavily on off-the-ball movement, and only needs a couple of accurate passes to find in him order to sneak away from his markers. It’s always run -> pass, rather than a series of combinations. In this way, he relies less on other players than, say, Messi, whose surrounding passing patterns are more intricate (triangles, one-twos, etc). On the other hand, by being a playmaker type, Messi is more capable of creating things on his own *with* his team-mates from deeper positions, whereas Ronaldo needs to get the ball in an advanced position.

Hope that makes sense. There’s a piece touching on this elsewhere on the blog. Search for ‘Ronaldo’ and have a look :)

by Thore Haugstad on May 15, 2013 at 11:43 am. #

That makes sense. I will look for your blog entries on the topic of Ronaldo. Thanks :)

by Mark on May 16, 2013 at 7:32 am. #

I think that Jose Mourinho is better coach now then he was in his Porto & Chelsea periods, his gameplan would never change, I think, and even the space of manouver in his deffensive/counter attacking style of play is very little, he still manages to exploite his teams good sides and protect weakenesses. The copa del rey 2nd leg clash is best proof of that, one of the best Real games under Mourinho! Spanish football will lose very much if he really left Real, which I think will happen…

by Josip on May 14, 2013 at 12:31 pm. #

I agree – Spanish football has been a force while he has been there. If he goes to England, that will very much influence the power of both leagues. Any team Mourinho manages will always be in contention for the Champions League.

by Thore Haugstad on May 14, 2013 at 1:46 pm. #

Madrid is a club that demands a whole lot from the teams and coach it assembles. They want to play attractive offensive football, they want to achieve immediate results (specifically Liga titles and CL titles), they want to fit in one squad an array of globally famous superstars with massive egos and skillsets that might not fit well into a coach’s system and keep an image of a gentleman club. Should the world’s richest and one of the most elite clubs covet all of this at once? I guess so, but it is extremely hard in the first place and almost impossible when your main rival, the Barca of 2008-2012 is talked of as probably the best club side ever with what could be the best player of all time. All in all I would say Mourinho did well, even going as far as altering his tactics to try and give the club what it wants. Obviously he didn’t give them all they want, but they knew he couldn’t before they hired him.

by Angel on May 13, 2013 at 6:26 pm. #

I very much agree with you, Angel. Some realism is needed when assessing his era. Many think Mourinho + Real Madrid = Win everything, or else it is a failure. In the context of this incredible Barça team, that mindset is very simplistic.

by Thore Haugstad on May 14, 2013 at 11:11 am. #

I absolutely agree with you! jose mourinho’s era in madrid, with real, must be osberved much closer and deeper, not only through rough number of titles won. he surely did stop barca dominating la-liga, only thin sleeve of luck prevent him to take decima with madrid, but he will left ruins and caoss behind him too. but, as you wrote, that is the prize real was ready to pay!

by Josip on May 12, 2013 at 10:57 pm. #


by Thore Haugstad on May 12, 2013 at 11:00 pm. #