Or, You Don’t Have to Agree with the Special One to Respect Him
I’m back after an unwanted delay with some quick thoughts on José Mourinho spurred by today’s Tottenham – Chelsea clash.
With the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, José Mourinho’s only real remaining competition as greatest active coach is probably Pep Guardiola. And while it’s the job of commentators to assess and criticize, I’m getting a little tired of the constant second-guessing of Mourinho and his approach to Chelsea. Better to apply the same standard to Mourinho that he himself stated for Sir Alex Ferguson with regard to Manchester United’s Champions League loss to Mourinho’s Real Madrid (in which Ferguson chose to leave Rooney out of the squad and lost): “You are nobody and I am nobody to put a question mark in front of him.”
At the time, some pundits noted–probably rightly–that Mourinho’s comments had an eye to ingratiating himself with those who would be looking for Ferguson’s replacement (Ferguson himself included). But as Michael Cox noted in his analysis of the game, Mourinho’s expressed opinion jives quite accurately with a careful reading of the game. Manchester United was the better team until Nani’s dismissal, in large part because of the work rate that Welbeck provided (and that Rooney had failed to in the 1st leg of the tie). Whatever additional ulterior motives may have been in play, Mourinho was offering a spot-on analysis of his rival’s tactical success–at least until the red card.
The general point is that great managers, like Ferguson and Mourinho, almost always have good reasons for what they do on the pitch, and the rest of us would do well to try and divine those intentions before judging them foolish or attributing them to conspiracy theories.
All of which bring us to Juan Mata. Pundits frequently say that they can’t imagine any reason why Mourinho would leave a player as talented as Mata out of the side, let alone out of the game day squad. Others have pointed to his similar “unjust” treatment of Iker Casillas at Real Madrid (never mind that Mourinho’s judgment appears to now be shared by Carlo Ancelotti), suggesting that creating a pariah is part of the Mourinho plan. On more adventurous outlets, some have even hinted that, as a Portuguese, Mourinho wants to snub Spanish players, further supported by his treatment of Cassias and his “refusal” to play Fernando Torres. A somewhat more plausible conspiracy theory points to the use of Mata’s relatively inexpensive transfer to Chelsea as a whipping stick in the Spanish press with which to compare Mourinho’s purchase of Coentrão, arguing that playing Mata without “retraining” him would essentially prove those criticism true.
Some of those theories may be true, in part. Who knows? And–to be clear–Juan Mata is a very good player who would undoubtedly start on almost any other team. He may even deserve to start for Chelsea, Mourinho’s experience and commitment to winning notwithstanding. But whether or not Mourinho is right to leave Mata off his starting XI, the on-pitch reasoning is pretty clear to anyone who has paid attention to Mata and Oscar over the past season. One of those players contributes defensively (quite well, actually, so much so that Rafa Benítez would sometimes slot Oscar into a holding role rather than amongst Chelsea’s attacking three); and one of them does not. Almost everyone recognizes that Mourinho is a pragmatic, defensively-oriented coach (actually, this is a reductive view of Mourinho, but a reduction based on a solid grain of real truth). You don’t need to understand particle physics to work this one out.
I suspect that many talking heads will take Mata’s impressive performance in the second half of today’s game against Tottenham, and Mourinho’s own praise and promise to start Mata against Steau Bucharest on Tuesday, as evidence that Mourinho was wrong and is finally learning the error of his ways. Maybe. But giving Mata a start in a game where little will be asked of Chelsea defensively hardly shows a change of heart in the Special One. Nor is the introduction of Mata to start the second half a sign of Mourinho abandoning his defense-first mentality in order to “go for it.” Chelsea started with Ramires, usually played in a holding role, out on the right wing to counter, one assumes, the threat of Andros Townsend and Kyle Walker. That threat was very real, as Townsend was a crucial instigator of Tottenham’s attack in the first half. But Spurs also controlled the middle of the pitch in a first half in which they were clearly the better team. Introducing Mata was also an opportunity to remove the ineffective John Obi Mikel and get Ramires back into the middle of the pitch. This also explains why it was Oscar who moved out to the right at the start of the half, as he provided more defensive cover than either Hazard (who moved to the center of the attack) or Mata. Ramires’s part in regaining control of the midfield had as much to do with today’s recovery as Mata’s creative contribution, including his excellent free kick (and, to be clear, Mata did look very good).
If Mata does make his way back into José Mourinho’s starting XI, it will probably be because of his increased commitment to defensive responsibilities rather than because of his manager “learning the error of his ways.” And it won’t be at the expense of Oscar. Mourinho’s success as a coach at every stop in his career (including Real Madrid, notwithstanding an unhappy end) has earned our effort to understand his decisions before we judge them. Love him or hate him, his reasoning is almost always interesting.
NOTE: The header image for this post combines a photo from the Los Angeles Times photographic archive, UCLA Library, with one taken by Sumeet Mulani. Both are used under a Creative Commons license.