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Mourinho and Real Madrid: Unfinished Business?

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Should Real Madrid rehire Jose Mourinho?

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And for the second time in the last 10 years, Chelsea have sacked their greatest manager ever: Jose Mourinho. 3 years after leaving Madrid, he has once again left a club having underachieved in the season and fallen out with his key players. Mourinho still remains a divisive figure at the Bernabeu often provoking extremities of responses. His current season has been painful or blissful to watch depending on which side of this gaping divide one stands on. But this sacking has one major effect on Real and raises a question which has often lingered around: Is Jose Mourinho coming back to Madrid?

Mourinho first came to the club on the back of a treble winning season at Inter 09-10 which culminated in a Champions league final at the Bernabeu right after which Mourinho joined the club. Florentino Perez had returned to the club a year earlier and brought back his ‘Galactico’ policy immediately with the signings of Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso and Karim Benzema. Manuel Pellegrini, brought in from Villareal at the start of the 09-10 season was fighting against the odds from the start. I believe the team performed well in the league where they were up against the best Barcelona team of all time. The Champions League exit against Lyon in the Round of 16 was shameful but in line with the trend going back to 2004. But it was the 4-0 defeat to Alcorcon in the Copa which singlehandedly ensured his sacking at the end of the season.

Mourinho was brought in as the 1st Galactico coach himself. If the policy of buying superstars had not brought the needed results, perhaps a superstar coach was the answer. Mourinho firstly demanded a different dynamic at the club. Coaches at Madrid are normally expected to get maximum results while having minimum control over actual operations at the club. The onus for any bad results falls primarily on the coach. The players may receive criticism and even abuse but they often don’t pay a serious price in the manner a coach does with his job. Mourinho and his stature meant that Perez had to approach him differently. He was given a relatively free hand with transfers and choice of the first 11. Based on a good 09-10 season and world cup, he signed Angel Di Maria, Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil who all went into the 11. He also added lowkey players Pedro Leon and Sergio Canales. All of them were moves which were not typical of Perez mainly because none of them had the glitz and glamour that a typical Galactico signing has. Jorge Valdano, the sporting director was given a back seat and at Mourinho’s behest, he was eventually forced out in 2011. Therefore, finally the coach had true power at Madrid. The chance to truly shape a team and develop a team in his image.

Madrid were really a sleeping giant at this point as shown by their dismal Champions League record from 04-10. The situation was further exacerbated by an absolute monstrous Barca team who simply could not be beaten in an outright game where the play was taken to them. Mourinho was brought in to revive this team and he definitely delivered on that promise. He further promised to knock Barca off their perch and win La Decima. He managed to significantly deliver on the former while desperately coming close to the latter which would anyway be won a year later.

I believe the only way to beat that Barca team from 09-12 was to play on the counter and park the bus really hard just as Inter did under Mourinho and as Madrid would do. Early into his 1st season at the club, the team was absolutely spanked 5-0 in one of the greatest club performances of all time. This defeat was crucial in shaping Mourinho’s approach to Barca. The perfect way to implement a ‘park the bus’ strategy is to develop a siege mentality. Players had to be psyched as though they were going to war and the opposing players were their enemies in an aspect beyond merely the game. Ramos absolutely lost it at the end of the game, lashing out at Messi, Pique, Puyol and Xavi. There was a however a distinct brutality and strong feeling in that whole incident. Ramos has always been rash and aggressive but he was truly at war here. And that is how the Mourinho era began. In the spring, fans were treated to 4 Clasicos in a 20 day period. Each of them were savage contests with every player playing their heart out.

Mourinho’s buys fitted perfectly with his style of play: a 4-2-3-1 with Alonso/Khedira in the pivot, Ronaldo/Ozil/Di Maria in the 3 and Higuain or Benzema up front. The team was lightning quick and was undoubtedly the best counter attacking team in Europe. Teams often lost the ball near Madrid’s box and would concede before they could even react. Ronaldo, the striker and Di Maria were the speed kings with Ozil and Alonso feeding them into space. The 4 Clasicos produced a 1-1 La Liga draw, a 1-0 Copa final victory and a 3-1 semifinal defeat in the Champions League. But Mourinho had showed that there was a way to at least restrain Barca and had taken Madrid to the CL semifinal. It was a good start.

The 11-12 season and team is possibly the best Madrid team I have seen (been watching since 2006). Mourinho in the Spanish Supercup had taken the El Clasico internsity to the next level. Madrid were just stunning to watch. So fast, so agile, so silky smooth. The spine of the team was clear. Alonso to start the play, Ozil to feed the final ball and Ronaldo to finish it. I believe that 11/12 was each of their individual best seasons to date. Higuain and Benzema almost alternated starting and scoring every game which was ridiculous. However, winning the league without beating Barca would have been bittersweet. The 2-1 victory at the Camp Nou which effectively sealed the 100 point 120 goal league trophy was the epitome of Mourinho’s approach to Barca. The team almost conceded 75% but Barca almost never looked like scoring except for that 1 goal. And the famous Ronaldo Calma goal once again could not have been typical. Ramos wins the ball, passes it to Ozil on the halfway line, who plays a ball behind the defense to Ronaldo who scores. All under 10 seconds. Frighteningly fast and efficient. The defeat to Bayern on penalties was unfortunate but still acceptable because we were once again reaching far into the CL.

The incidents in the 3rd season have been repeated too often and therefore I do not want to spell out the whole Casillas rift. Mourinho royally messed up the last season. One of the factors which adversely affected him was the healing of the Spain squad rift. It hurt the siege mentality and reduced the intensity and brutality of the Clasicos. There is no way one can say that Mourinho was even remotely right in how he treated Casillas and subsequently lashed out at Ramos, Pepe, Ronaldo etc. In terms of performances, the team was average, consistently around 7/8 points behind Barca. We were knocked out by Dortmund in the semifinals again over 2 stunning games and lost the Copa final to Atletico. However, over 6 games, we beat Barca thrice and lost only once.

Looking back on Mourinho’s reign 2.5 years later is drastically different from how I left at the end of that season. I felt betrayed and hurt by him, intensely hated the man and really wanted him to leave. But I definitely respected him for how he had managed to revitalize the team. Ancelotti came in the next year and won La Decima. I take no credit away from Ancelotti but it has to be said that Mourinho laid the foundation of the win. The 13-14 team had its own identity but the core was still Jose. Think about Ronaldo’s goal to make it 3-0 against Bayern in the semifinal. Benzema receives near halfway line, holds up ball, passes to Bale who runs a bit and lays it off to Ronaldo for the goal. It was classic 11/12 counter attack which is just so devastating and overpowering. There is no doubt in my mind that he put Madrid back on the map and returned us to our rightful place among the European elite. He did manage to handle Barcelona and even knocked out Pep Guardiola in the process. But I think hindsight was been tainted with a bit too much nostalgia for me.

The siege mentality and the toxicity that came with it were realistically not sustainable. It worked for a while to change the intensity but it was just that: short term fix. Seeing him lose the dressing room was surprising because he was known for player loyalty. Something has changed in that aspect because he lost this Chelsea dressing room as well. Coming to the main question: should Mourinho come back?

Not now. Firstly, now is not the time because the current squad in no way fits Mourinho’s ideal squad profile. There are too many superstars, not enough team workers. He will only indulge a maximum of 1 player in terms of tactical/defensive indiscipline (Ronaldo/Hazard). Secondly, Ramos, Ronaldo, Pepe etc still have issues with him and it remains to be seen if they can work it out. Third, I think his 1st spell is still too fresh in memory for him to be allowed another chance here. The expectations at Madrid are insanely high and coming off a disastrous sacking, even he might not be able the pressure cooker environment.

But I think he should come back at some point. After he has again had a good spell elsewhere and the current squad changes. Mourinho and Madrid are tightly linked with CL folklore and that is unfinished business between them. Perhaps, I am slightly biased here. Some of my favourite players in the game ( Ozil, Di Maria and Alonso) played in his team and I also am not a huge fan of some players now ( Bale, James). I also loved watching that team play. While I was optimistic about Benitez a few weeks into the season, it is clear that this is not going to end well. Who will see next? Probably Zidane. And who knows maybe Mourinho again at some point.