Mourinho stays true to form

December 1, 2014

In the last three seasons, José Mourinho’s teams have made the lowest number of interceptions in their leagues. What does that tell us?


In his controversial 2014 book The Special One: The Secret World of José Mourinho, Diego Torres, an investigative journalist with El País, depicts José Mourinho as a dictatorial narcissist obsessed with defending. And just that. In training sessions, following passing drills and high-tempo simulations of matches—four versus four, six versus six—Mourinho would supervise exercises designed to improve pressing, defensive coordination and the collective closing-down process. In some sessions, he would gather the attacking players inside their own penalty box, then have the team move together as one block to close down space. From that position, they would then rehearse out-balls and choreographed counter-attacks.

This was apparently unpopular within the squad. Mourinho’s attacking strategies are generally quite simple, and Torres claims some players worried about the lack of practice on more established play. Referring to 2010, when Mourinho arrived in Madrid, Torres writes: “Throughout the entire summer he did not devise a single plan for static attacking.” But Mourinho was unshakeable in his belief. This recipe had won him so much and he was not going to change it now. On their 2010 pre-season tour in Los Angeles, he would repeat: “Nobody in the history of football has closed down and covered as perfectly as Inter.”

Mou Inter 2

The book is an explosive read and even if ten per cent of what Torres writes is true, Mourinho’s turbulent stay in Chamartín really was remarkable. Exactly how much is correct is difficult to say. Some segments recounting the political and phycological warfare behind the scenes are scarcely believable. But accounts of Real Madrid’s training drills resonate with what we see on the pitch. Tactically, Mourinho’s success is built on a flexible, defence-based formula. (Though his style never suited Real Madrid.) And here arises an interesting aspect: the balance of priority between positional organisation and the creation of transitions.

The counter-attacking ideal is to defend well and strike on the break. But some statistics suggest Mourinho is reluctant to endanger the former in order to achieve the latter. In the last three seasons, his teams have made the fewest interceptions in their respective leagues. The Real Madrid side of 2011/12 made 16.3 interceptions per game, while the 2012/13 edition made 14.2. One caveat is that dominant teams have the ball more and thus complete fewer interceptions. Yet Barcelona still made more, despite having a possession average of 9.65 per cent more per match over the two seasons. In the Premier League, the trend is repeated: Chelsea have made 9.4 interceptions per game this season, despite sitting sixth in the possession table.

To theorise, these figures might reflect a reluctance to step in front of the opposition. An interception often requires a player to leave his original position. If he fails, a gap opens, and the team becomes vulnerable. This interlinks with Mourinho’s obsession for positional perfection: the ability to keep the shape, eliminate spaces, track runs, stay disciplined. Players must cover a specific zone. The immaculate organisation of this is a cornerstone of Mourinho’s tactical approach, and its effect would be compromised by risky attempts to intercept. The prioritising is understandable.

Mourinho has expressed his views on positional diligence before. Coming to mind is a quote offered after Internazionale had beaten Barcelona 3-2 on average to reach the 2009/10 Champions League final, having employed what were effectively catenaccio tactics in the second game, at the Camp Nou, while down to ten men. “We didn’t want the ball because when Barcelona press and win the ball back, we lose our position,” he said. “I never want to lose position on the pitch, so I didn’t want us to have the ball. We gave it away.”

Not everyone would do the same. Take Arsène Wenger—in so many ways Mourinho’s polar opposite—whose players often intercept. Arsenal have made 18.2 per game this season, only less than Hull City. And yet they lead the possession stats, with an average of 58.6 per cent. This boosts their prospects of quick turnovers and chance-creation; it can be no coincidence that only Manchester City have fired more shots per game than Wenger’s side. The downside is defensive porosity.

This is not to say Mourinho advocates passivity. Few encourage aggression like him, and Chelsea are sixth in the table of tackles made per game this season. The difference is that such challenges can be made from a position of safety. Stay goalside of your opponent and, if you fail, retreat to your zone. Mourinho’s priority is always defence. He is the warrior who never puts down his shield.

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Photo by Ronnie Macdonald / Licensed under CC BY 2.0

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One comment

You lost me the moment I read the name Diego Torres. You are an outsider to the Spanish press, so I understand your naivité but, let me advise you that, if you want credibility, do not quote Torres. He is an argentinian journalist who belongs to the cult of Valdano, along with the likes of Segurola and José Sámano, who brought him to El País. He covers Real Madrid since 2000 or so, and his job is to Madrid, what Diane Dimond was to Michael Jackson, or what The National Enquirer is to, say, Britney Spears. He is not there to really cover Real Madrid but to, supposedly, give backstage news in a News Of the World fashion. Nobody- not even Barcelonistas- take the guy seriously and serious journalists tend to avoid him with a 10 foot pole.

The fact you quoted him, shows how raw you are in the Madrid corridors.

by Mariana on December 1, 2014 at 3:20 pm. #