Welcome to my football blog. I'll be covering most of the key issues and stories which dominate top level English and European football over the coming months, and so if you love this fantastic sport as much as I do, I hope you'll appreciate reading and responding to what I've got to say.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Can Mourinho make Madrid the Real deal?

The latest chapter in what may, in time, become the most illustrious and decorated managerial career in football history has begun. Rejecting the extravagance and fanfare which has greeted other recent high-profile arrivals at the Santiago Bernabeu, Jose Mourinho instead chose to mark his inauguration as Real Madrid boss on Monday 31st May with a characteristic press conference. There was, however, a shift in the rhetoric, with a confident rather than arrogant Mourinho extolling the virtues and stature of his new club rather than his own abilities, and making it clear that he relishes the challenge both of ending Barcelona's domestic dominance and of re-establishing the Spanish giants on the European stage. But in taking on what has become the poisoned chalice of European football, has the Special One bitten off more than he can chew?

The internal problems which have blighted Madrid in recent seasons have been well documented. Firstly, whilst the transfer policy at most major European clubs is developed through dialogue between the manager, the sporting director and the owner/president, at Real the former has often been reduced to nothing more than a head coach, employed simply to work with the players he is given. Manuel Pellegrini recently complained that he had 'no voice' at Madrid, that players like Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder were sold against his wishes, and that he had minimal input into the arrival of new recruits. Consequently, Real managers have invariably found themselves unable to build a team which reflects their own footballing philosophy.

The nature of the transfer policy pursued by Real Madrid, and in particular by current president Florentino Perez, has also proved counter-productive. Whilst the construction magnate's penchant for world-class attacking players has helped bring the like's of Zidane, Figo, Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo to the Bernabeu during his three terms in charge, the defensive side of the team has been neglected. With Perez's refusal to pay top-end wages for defensive players, the only world-class name to arrive in this area is full-back Sergio Ramos, and one senses that it was the young Spaniard's considerable attacking qualities which persuaded the Real president to make an exception to his rule. The ultimate consequence of the 'Galactico' policy is that each Madrid manager inherits an unbalanced, top-heavy side, and it has been defensive naivety which has cost Real in both their clashes with Barcelona and the Champions League in recent times.

With the 'Galactico' policy of Florentino Perez centering around a core of world-renowned superstars on the pitch, the appointment of an equally high-profile manager was not considered a priority. The almost inevitable result of this is what I like to call 'Steve McClaren Syndrome' - a good manager, inexperienced at the top level, being placed in charge of a squad full of internationals with big egos and reputations. The result: the manager is unable to maintain control over the dressing room and to get the players to adhere to his tactical instructions, yielding inconsistent results on the pitch, and particularly ineffective performances against top opposition. The ability of Real managers to keep their star players in check has been further undermined in the past by Perez' reported insistence that his 'Galactico' signings play whenever fit, regardless of form. This breeds complacency among the star players in the squad, who view their starting place as secure, and resentment among the squad players, who find themselves unable to break into the side even if they impress in training.

In spite of their internal problems, the biggest impediment to the success of Madrid in recent seasons has been the rise of Barcelona. The Catalan giants have reaped the benefits of the now legendary La Masia youth academy, combining the home-grown talents of Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Pique, Puyol and Victor Valdes with top class internationals such as Dani Alves, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and now David Villa to form the best team of this era. They are a team of superstars with a brilliant collective understanding who play the most entertaining football in the world. In other words, they are exactly what Real Madrid have always traditionally aspired to be. The sheer quality of Barcelona, combined with the insistence of Real fans that their team both wins and entertains, has meant a rapid turnaround of Madrid managers over the past few years. In fact, the last one to survive more than one season was Spain's current World Cup winner Vicente Del Bosque, who left the hot-seat way back in 2004.

There are, however, in spite of all the problems listed above, many reasons to be confident that Mourinho can be a success at the Bernabeu. For starters, the very fact that the brash Portuguese has been appointed hints at a change of policy by the Madrid hierarchy. For unlike some of his predecessors, Mourinho's CV speaks for itself: a two time Champions League winner, domestic League champion in three different countries and, just as importantly for Real fans, the slayer of Barcelona as Inter Milan manager in last season's Champions League semi-final, en route to making the Italian giants treble winners. Since 2002, he has won at least one trophy every season. In summary, Mourinho is a star in his own right, with a reputation which is at least the equal of the players he is inheriting. Consequently he will have no need to win the respect of the illustrious individuals in the Madrid dressing room, and should have no problems in getting them to embrace his tactical approach.

Mourinho is also an uncompromising individual, notoriously intolerant of boardroom interference in team affairs. He will not be told who to pick or what tactical system to employ, and he always plays an active role in identifying transfer targets. Therefore, his appointment is a clear manifestation of Perez' realization that, if the ultimate goal of besting Barcelona and returning to the pinnacle of European football is to be achieved, then principles must be sacrificed. The first such principle to be cast aside was the policy of signing one 'Galactico' per summer. Mourinho invariably does not sign 'Galacticos'. He targets good players who possess the right mindset and suit the tactical needs of his team. 'I am not interested in big names; I think we need three or four defensive players', he said when questioned at the press conference. Perez himself cleverly glossed over his own concession of the 'Galactico' program by stating 'this year's galactico is Mourinho'. The Portuguese has also succeeded in persuading his new president to keep striker Gonzalo Higuain, a player who looked for all the world to be on his way out of the Bernebeu last season as a result of a reported spat with Cristiano Ronaldo, despite an impressive tally of 29 goals in all competitions.

Further proof of the change in policy can be found in a brief look at the signings which Madrid have made since the Special One took charge. Angel Di Maria, Pedro Leon and Sami Khedira are not yet marquee names, but the former two will provide the option of width in attack which was so lacking for Madrid last term, whilst World Cup revelation Khedira will provide energy, dynamism and bite in the midfield. Aside from a couple of defensive additions, there is little further need for a change of personnel in the Los Blancos squad, as no one can deny the embarrassment of riches available to them in attack. Consequently, Mourinho's biggest impact at the Bernabeu is likely to take the form of his tactical organisation of the players at his disposal.

As his Inter side's almost faultless performances in the Champions League knockout stage last year proved beyond doubt, Mourinho is currently the most astute tactician in world football. A combination of exhaustive research into every aspect of his opposition, and the first-class physical and mental preparation of his own players, means that Mourinho's teams invariably approach the biggest games of their season in peak physical condition and with a clear and effective gameplan. Real Madrid have long possessed a team of extremely talented individuals, capable of winning matches against top level opposition. If this ability can be allied with Mourinho's trademark organisation, then Los Blancos will be extremely difficult for anyone, Barcelona included, to beat.

The biggest problem facing Mourinho in the long term may well be the Real Madrid fans. For them, winning alone is not enough: they expect their team to entertain as well. Fabio Capello's ill-fated second stint in charge of Los Blancos is a case in point. In spite of winning the La Liga title in the 2006/2007 season and, in doing so, ending a spell of four seasons without a trophy, the Madrid faithful never took to the Italian's pragmatic style and insistence that results take precedence over performances, and he was sacked. As one who has been subject to similar criticisms during his career, Mourinho must take care to avoid risking the ire of Real fans by placing too much emphasis on a winning mentality, and to the detriment of putting on a show. The noises around the Bernabeu at the moment, however, suggest that knocking Barcelona off their perch is the overriding priority. Manuel Pellegrini's Madrid scored over 100 goals last season and finished with a club record of 96 points, but second place is second place, and so even these impressive numbers couldn't save him. The Real fans want trophies, not just because of their own failure, but also because of the success of their arch-rivals, and so if the Special One can carry over his reputation as Barcelona's bogeyman into his new job, they will surely be happy.

Jose Mourinho's arrival at the Santiago Bernabeu is a clear indication that Real Madrid will stop at nothing to unseat their arch-rivals as the dominant force in European football. Barcelona beware: Los Blancos are coming, and this time 'the translator' is pulling the strings.


  1. i think slightly unfair to say the defensive area of madrid's team has been completely neglected- both Pepe and Cannavaro were both well known (as well known as defenders tend to be) and commanded large transfer fees when bought. surely, the main problem with madrid in the last few years has been the team spirit (or lack thereof) within the squad, although this is also likely to be remidied with mourinho's appointment as has been pointed out.

  2. You're completely right to use Pepe and Cannavaro as examples of Madrid's outlay on high-profile defensive players. What I was getting at was that, although Perez's successor in 2006, Ramon Calderon, had looked to remedy Real's defensive problems by signing the players you mentioned, Perez himself had shown no inclination to spend big on defensive players (Sergio Ramos aside) in his first spell in charge, and it looked until the arrival of Mourinho like he would pursue a similar policy this time around. I'm sorry that wasn't clear in the article. You're also right about team spirit being a key factor. This comes from the manager not being able to unite the dressing room behind him - something which Mourinho has consistently proved he is very adept at doing.