José Mourinho & "Defensive Line-ups" - An Analysis.
Mourinho does not normally tinker very often with his preferred starting 11. At Chelsea, Inter and now at Madrid one could normally guess exactly the players he would pick. He also, contrary to received wisdom, prefers offensive line-ups to defensive ones: a pair of games against Barcelona in a certain semi-final (and Inter did win one of those games 3-1) notwithstanding. His Chelsea, Inter and Madrid sides were always the top scoring sides in their respective leagues.
Chelsea and Inter didn't conceded much. But that is not the same thing as playing defensively. Meanwhile, Real Madrid can be so unstable at the back that the fact that this perception of Mourinho's sides as "defensive" continues to persist says something about the bloody-mindedness of fans in the face of evidence that challenges dearly held beliefs.
One can even take it further: the few times Mourinho has varied his Madrid line-up to make it more defensive, it has normally failed. The Copa del Rey final of 2011 does not count. While Pepe was a formidable presence in midfield, he was not acting as a fifth defender. In fact, his attacking was so energetic he hit the post with Madrid's best chance of the game (one of several in a dominant first half) before Ronaldo clinched the win with his header in extra-time.
The last time Mourinho "went negative" was against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey quarter-final (first leg) last year at the Santiago Bernabéu. And even this requires some explanation because arguably, he had no choice.
At the time, Madrid had suspension and injury problems that made Mourinho's line-up (as unlikely as it was with Fábio Coentrão at right-back, Hamit Altintop - in his debut at the stadium in a Clásico - at left-back and no play-maker) rather predictable. Madrid had also come off a humiliating loss in the league only two months earlier at home to Barcelona with an objectively "strong" and "attacking" line-up. Injury to Ángel di María and Sergio Ramos, Álvaro Arbeloa suspended, and two in-form strikers available meant that, as odd as it was, it was a perfectly rational set-up in context.
Fans quibbled after the game, and so did Marca, that leaving out an in-form Özil was a mistake. But hindsight is 20/20. Madrid's injuries did the rest. And with so many injuries, Mourinho was probably counting on his strike-force - Higuaín, Ronaldo and Benzema were all on the pitch when the latter assisted the opening goal for Ronaldo - to get the goals that Madrid needed.
A week later, 2-1 down in the first leg, Mourinho went for broke at the Camp Nou - or at least, that is one interpretation. He tossed Kaká and Özil onto the pitch together in an early example of the partnership they were to form for the next three months. One striker: this time it was Higuaín. Madrid dominated entirely before Barcelona had two goals against the run of play. But it was to end 2-2 (with a good goal disallowed for Madrid) in a thriller that nearly saw Madrid steal it.
Why is this trip down memory lane instructive? Because last week, Madrid played in another Clásico - once again struggling with injury and suspension. Only this time they were not 9 points ahead of Barcelona. The domestic cup means something this year with the league already lost. So what did Mourinho do this time around - in a year in which a domestic cup actually means something? He started Özil, he started Callejón instead of the arguably more skilled (but also more defensive) Luka Modrić, he put an inexperienced teenager in the back to cope with Messi and gave our new goalkeeper his debut with the club.
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A New Approach?
In that game this year, even more than last, Mourinho would have been justified in being cautious. The injury and suspension list last week puts last year's in the shade. This year his entire first choice (and most of his second-choice) defence were injured or suspended. His goalkeeper had arrived in Madrid 48 hour earlier. His right-winger was suspended. But he didn't even start his solid new signing - Luka Modrić - instead of the energetic if defensively unstable José Callejón.
In all, five of his preferred 11 were not starters on the night - all of them players who had drawn Barcelona at the Camp Nou in October. Madrid got, under the circumstances, a positive result: 1-1 with everything to play for in the second leg.
Football games, when they are played, make a nonsense of analysis. To add to the difficulty in guessing what Madrid's approach will be is the event, the opponent, and the two-legged nature of the tie.
The Copa is all very well. But Madrid is the team of the European Cup. Tactics suitable to a domestic cup-tie - even against Barcelona - may not suit Mourinho in his quest to get his third, and the club its tenth, Champions League.
In a two-legged affair with Manchester, Mourinho may also be more cautious than recent lessons suggest. Madrid have played Barcelona, after all, fifteen times in two and a half seasons. This is not a case of familiarity breeding contempt, but Barcelona are entirely the known quantity and one gets the sense that even the fringe players Mourinho was forced to send out two weeks ago are no longer particularly impressed when they come for a visit. With a Clásico being played, on average, every 6 weeks during the season, the encounter is losing its ability to impress.
But these same players are not familiar with Manchester United.
It must also be remembered the disadvantage Madrid have in playing the first leg at home. There's more to it than possible extra time or penalties in front of opposition fans. Two-legged ties are so often dull because the first leg is spent "getting to know you" while the second so often represents the tinkering that brilliant managers do well and mediocre ones are inclined to over-think.
There is also the away-goals problem (hence the movement to discontinue the practice). To what extent will Mourinho pre-emptively react to Manchester in the first leg? How daring does he think Alex Ferguson might be?
That Mourinho should have some interesting lessons to mull over after coaching Madrid for a third season and from witnessing the repeated errors that the team makes while playing defensively or being made to go from an attacking formation to a defensive one, is hardly surprising. He is a manager who seeks to understand the culture of the club, and the league, in which he is playing and to adapt his tactics to suit. Madrid has always sought to produce football with flair: and flair means scoring a few more than one's opponent.
For that reason it will be interesting to see how he tinkers with his line-up over the course of the two legs, what changes may be made over the course of the match in terms of substitutions, and the 11 he chooses to hit Manchester with from the start.
Nine Key Players
They may or may not start today, but they will likely be important over the 180 minutes.
Cristiano Ronaldo & Mesut Özil
Madrid's offensive strength is considerable and Ronaldo is key to this. Ronaldo can finish a ball from a few inches out or 40 metres off a dead ball. His free kicks, with their unique spin and technique, are no longer flying wide or over - he is regularly forcing difficult saves out of keepers. To sum up Ronaldo's effect on Madrid's games we can quote Emilio Butragueño who noted yesterday that an attacker who scores a goal a game on average forces the opponents to score at least two to win.
Based on some of Manchester's recent games against powerful or influential forwards like Gareth Bale or Marouane Fellaini, the odds are on a man-marking job on Cristiano Ronaldo.
Is Ronaldo so easy to mark, though? The answer is no. It's anyone's guess what Ferguson does but isolating Ronaldo instead could be as effective a solution as trying to mark him out of the game.
Cristiano Ronaldo is in the form of his life. He has been for nearly 4 seasons. His teammates are no inconsiderable reason. It's possible, for example, that Ronaldo will play against Ryan Giggs over the course of the tie. He will almost certainly play with Mesut Özil. Giggs used to be Ronaldo's chief assistant - until last March. Mesut Özil surpassed the number of assists Giggs managed in six seasons for Ronaldo in just under 18 months.
The stats would suggest that if one marked Özil or a player like Xabi Alonso (who feeds Ronaldo indirectly through Özil) out of the game it should be as effective as marking Ronaldo. Another player Manchester should look out for is Karim Benzema. He has provided Ronaldo with the second largest number of assists at Madrid.
Karim Benzema, Gonzalo Higuaín & Ángel di María
This season's "Benzema and Higuaín problem" isn't that they are both in form and scoring at every opportunity. It's that they aren't. Benzema, a confidence player, seem to be running low and could have benefited emotionally from a hat-trick against some minor domestic cup rival to help his league form. It is unfortunate that the opportunity did not present itself.
Higuaín is returning from lengthy injury.
It is important that these players have a good night. Scoring may be less important than feeding in good balls (Benzema) or keeping the opposition centre-backs occupied (Higuaín). And at this point, it is anyone's guess which striker Mourinho will choose. Or if he goes, as he did on the weekend, with both.
Di María presents another difficulty with guessing Mourinho's line-up. He is out of form and he has arguably been out of form for a year. Never particularly consistent to begin with, he has not played two good games in a row since returning from injury last April. His last suspension, the result of a moment of (it has to be said) characteristic indiscipline, left his team in the lurch against Barcelona at a time when injuries were rampant. His coach was reportedly furious.
His like-for-like substitute, José Callejón, played against Barcelona and could provide an option.
Luka Modrić, Sami Khedira & Xabi Alonso
Modrić, an excellent player when in England, could also provide an option in the centre to leave Özil on the right, where he also excels.
Khedira and Alonso, with their pace, positional intelligence and physical strength will be responsible for shielding the defence and directing the game on and off the ball. It would be helpful, from Madrid's point of view, if Khedira could manage (as he did last week for Germany) to score off one of the balls he sometimes gets from an incredible run into the box.
The only member of the defence who is a dead-certainty to start in his actual position, Coentrão is important because he plays behind Madrid's greatest attacking threat and because it is expected that Ronaldo will be heavily marked. With Marcelo running rampant on the left, man-marking Ronaldo is even more than usually dangerous: you don't only leave Özil, di María and Co. with some extra space - you give Marcelo license to barrel forward.
Coentrão has frustrated Madrid fans. It's not easy living up to fan-favourite Marcelo - a player who encapsulates the Madrid culture of flair attacking, secretly reminds everyone of Roberto Carlos, and has been a fixture since he arrived at Madrid wet behind the ears a full 6 years ago. But there is also the puzzling example of Coentrão's form for Portugal: which is so brilliant when compared with his more lacklustre attacking displays for Madrid.
If Ronaldo is heavily marked, Coentrão could be the player to help him out. Or not.
Mourinho's lineup will depend on the risks he is willing to take and (because risks will have to be taken eventually) when he decides to take them. He may set up his team to score early. He may want a convincing win at home. He may decide preventing away goals is more important than scoring. He may draw on previous lessons and let Madrid attack. He may decide he needs at least an hour against Manchester United to decide how his remaining 120 minutes (assuming there is no injury time) will look.
He is widely considered to be the best cup-tie coach in the world.
Readers are invited to post their line-up guesses in the comments.
And finally - should you find you still want some extra reading: Rob Smyth of The Guardian has written a brilliant article on the evolution of Alex Ferguson as a tactician in Europe. It can be found at this link.