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.

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Seven questions hanging over Guardiola’s Bayern project

April 28, 2013

With Mario Götze joining what appears to be Europe’s strongest squad, Pep Guardiola’s project sparks intrigue before it has even begun. 

Tsutomu Takasu

In pure footballing terms, it is difficult to remember a more anticipated summer than that of Guardiola taking charge of Bayern Munich. The signings, the dead wood, the tactics; what will happen? We feel like kids waiting for Christmas. The Bayern hierarchy has already gifted us an early present: the £31.5million agreement with Dortmund’s 20-year-old Mario Götze. Yet as far as speculation is concerned, the deal raises more questions than answers. And so while Guardiola draws up his Bavarian masterplan, here are seven issues worth discussing.

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Barça tactics: How Iniesta creates space

April 21, 2013

Each week, Iniesta picks up possession on the left, then dribbles past helpless defenders. What is the movement behind it?

Marc Puig Perez

When watching Iniesta play, we often need several replays to fully grasp what he just did. His trickery can fool our eyes, let alone the opponent’s. The same level of scrutiny should apply to his off-the-ball movement. Because for all of Iniesta’s genius, similar situations seem to appear in every game: He drifts towards the left, gets the ball, then dribbles past people. The pockets of space are the same. But no one is able to stop it.

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Real Madrid tactics: Analysing Xabi Alonso

April 7, 2013

Most Los Blancos observers know Xabi Alonso is the chief catalyst of Real Madrid’s attacks, but how does the process really work? 

Solo Xabi

If you have watched Real Madrid under José Mourinho, you will have noticed that Xabi Alonso often drops very deep – sometimes further than the centre-backs. The classic assumption of his contribution is that of incisive passes between the lines, or long aesthetic diagonals towards the flanks. And that is true. But the Basque is also crucial to Real Madrid’s ball retention: the process of recycling possession, helping out the centre-backs and starting attacks from the back.

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Life of the Barça winger

March 27, 2013

Barcelona are likely to buy a winger this summer, but their specific requirements are different from those of other clubs. 

Pedro Cesc SportReview

The life of the Barça winger is an unusual one. Just as Pep Guardiola’s 4-3-3 system is in many ways unconventional, so does it include unconventional roles. As we know, its collective strategy centres on serving Lionel Messi. Inevitably, this means that the roles around him must be tweaked and adapted accordingly. For no one is this more true than the two wingers.

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All hail Prandelli the romantic

March 21, 2013

Cesare Prandelli’s wonderfully adventurous coaching style makes the Azzurri impossible not to like. 


Life is good with Cesare Prandelli. That is the sense you get. Like Carlo Ancelotti, he carries the sense of enjoying life without compromises: of picking all the best bits, then later seeing how he can make it work. If Prandelli were a chef, he would throw the most exotic ingredients available into one pan, mix it all together, and somehow produce a coherent dish of magnificent taste. That, at least, is how he seems operates as a football coach.

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Real Madrid tactics: Mourinho’s route No 1

March 17, 2013

Real Madrid’s most common attacking move is remarkably simplistic. However, like what is typical of José Mourinho, it is also highly effective. 

Tsutomu Takasu

For the many refined and innovative coaching methods of José Mourinho, his attacking gameplan can often appear surprisingly straight-forward. At Chelsea, Frank Lampard would haul early passes over the top to Didier Drogba; it was hardly a masterstroke, but it frequently caught defenders off-guard. At Real Madrid, Mourinho appears to have established a handful of basic patterns that his players can rely upon when starting moves from the back.

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Villas-Boas first among equals at Spurs

March 7, 2013

André Villas-Boas is deploying man management methods that suggest the harsh lessons of Stamford Bridge have been learnt.

AVB man management

In the Europa League clash with Inter at White Hart Lane, something interesting happened. During the second-half, André Villas-Boas reportedly called Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale to the touchline, individually, asking them if they fancied playing on. Both wanted to continue. And so they did.

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Five reasons why Ancelotti will sign for Real Madrid

February 20, 2013

The French newspaper Le Parisien says Carlo Ancelotti has agreed to become Real Madrid’s manager next year. Here are five reasons why it makes sense.

Ancelotti Doha

1. His old contract

Anyone who has read his humorous autobiography, Carlo Ancelotti: The Beautiful Games of an Ordinary Genius (2010), will know that he had contact with Florentino Pérez, the Real Madrid president, in 2006. In fact, Ancelotti even signed the contract. “In 2006, I accepted an offer from Real Madrid and, I have to say, it wasn’t a difficult decision,” he notes in his book. “A wonderful prospect, the scent of life.”

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Messi and Suárez: The false couple

February 17, 2013

Only two players truly master the ‘false nine’ role, but they do so in different ways.

Messi false1

In early January, Brendan Rodgers likened Luis Suárez to Lionel Messi.He plays the false nine role like Messi does for Barcelona where he moves freely and others have to get in behind him to penetrate,” he said. Though diminished slightly by Daniel Sturridge’s arrival, Rodgers’s point did highlight one thing: for all the talk of the ‘false nine’ role, only Messi and Suárez are capable of pulling it off.

Others have tried, most have failed. Few are those who can run at defences from central positions, orchestrate attacks on their own, and dribble players inside the space of a phone booth. So talented are Messi and Suárez that their teams’ set-ups are designed solely to maximise their potential. Around them, wingers provide width, or come inside for one-twos. Behind, pass-masters stand at their service. They are the stars of the show, elevated by a willing cast of support-actors.

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Da Vinci, Barça and the notion of simplicity

February 10, 2013

If a player of Xavi’s quality can be defined by a five-yard pass, does that mean the rest of the football community is overcomplicating?

Leonardo da Vinci self-portrait

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) has always fascinated me, and one of my favourite quotes is: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” It often comes to my mind when watching Barcelona. The five-yard passes, the triangles, the one-touch play, the rondos. “They make it look so simple,” we mutter. And though the players’ technical execution is demanding, the basic nature of their work is just that: Simple. Is there a more sophisticated team than Barça? Of course not: they are the virtuosos of our time. And so Da Vinci’s words still resonate, from the Renaissance to the Camp Nou: simplicity and sophistication do go hand in hand.

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The dribbling central midfielder: A new species?

February 3, 2013

As football becomes more possession-based, could we see the rise of a new midfield role?

Ronnie Macdonald

Through the revolving door of football tactics, player types are thrown in and out. The decline of the 4-4-2 has made the box-to-box midfielder a rare breed, while the rise of the 4-2-3-1 has given the deep-lying playmaker a welcomed renaissance. Such changes happen in accordance with one of football’s few constants: the gradual move towards possession, passing and technique. (A progress accelerated by the purism of Barcelona.) And so now, casting a look at Europe’s tactical sophisticates, it is tempting to ask: could we see the rise of a new midfield role?

The evidence is scarce, but there is enough to theorise. Take three of the finest passing sides on the continent: Barcelona, Arsenal and Tottenham. Each builds attacks over several moves, push their full-backs forward, stretch the play. Consequently, each week they find themselves trying to break down stubborn, compact defences. Incidentally, to cope with this, each team also has a dribbling central midfielder: Andrés Iniesta, Jack Wilshere and Mousa Dembélé respectively.

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Sergio Busquets: Measuring his real value

January 26, 2013

As an individual Sergio Busquets can seem unspectacular, but his real worth must be assessed on the way he influences the Barça collective.

Josie Montserrat

There is never a good time to write about Sergio Busquets. For that he is too consistent. Few are the goals to praise him for; rare are the noteworthy assists. When the limelight does fall on him, it is because he has stumbled into it: alleged racial abuse, play-acting or other nastiness.

Recently, however, his critics have gone quieter. Many were surprised when Vicente del Bosque gave that ringing endorsement at the 2010 World Cup. “If I could be any player in the world, I would like to be Sergio Busquets,” he said. “He is the first to get the team moving. When he plays, the football is more fluid. With Busquets in the team, our football is better.” Today Busquets’s quality is much like America’s gun control problem: if you still have not realised it, you probably never will.

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Steve Clarke adopting the spirit of José Mourinho

November 24, 2012

Steve Clarke has built his success at West Bromwich on the tactical principles of José Mourinho’s Chelsea side of 2004-2006.

If Sir Alex Ferguson is often credited for inspiring new managers, José Mourinho’s legacy is one of quality rather than quantity. Following André Villas-Boas and Brendan Rodgers, Steve Clarke is the latest former ally to step out of the shadows.

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Barça’s ‘direct’ 4-2-2-2

October 2, 2012

Barcelona started the Champions League game at Benfica with an interestingly direct approach and a 4-2-2-2 formation as a consequence of Cesc Fàbregas replacing Andrés Iniesta. 

The tactical adjustment centred on Fàbregas partnering Lionel Messi up front, leaving Barça with two so-called ‘false’ forwards. To retain balance, Xavi played deeper than usual while Alexis Sánchez and Pedro hugged the lines.

As such, the usual 4-3-3 system’s ‘midfield diamond’ featuring Iniesta was replaced with a more rigid ‘midfield square’. Xavi and Busquets stuck close to the centre-backs while the wingers roamed only occasionally. The only ‘free’ players were Messi and Fàbregas.

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