What’s the Mata With Mourinho’s Management?

Jose Mourinho, rightly, is known as one of the world’s top coaches. His reputation is so well-established that even people who know very little about the game know him, and the variety of leagues he’s succeeded in probably make him THE most obvious name when debating who the world’s best manager is.

But Mourinho is in a slightly unusual position in that those who praise him generally overlook his practical faults. His moral faults are accepted – yes he’s a jerk, yes he oversteps the moral lines every now and then. His Porto team’s delaying tactics looked so well organised it almost definitely can’t have been accidental; occasionally he accuses ambulance drivers of negligence; occasionally he sticks his thumb in someone’s eye. But his practical failings aren’t as widely discussed – his failures to adapt, to change his methods.

The lifelike nature of this picture is startling.
The lifelike nature of this picture is startling.

Since taking over at Porto, Mourinho has managed four major clubs in four major leagues, winning at least a league title with each, and European titles with two. Even his harshest critic would consider him to be at least a partial success in each job. (Though, for instance, failing to win a European Cup for Real Madrid while alienating large sections of the Spanish football establishment seemingly played a part in Real not objecting to his departure.)
While the styles at each club have been different, they share certain similarities. For instance, in his first spell at Chelsea his side were built around the physique of Drogba, bullying the centre halves and using that muscularity to create space for the wingers and Frank Lampard arriving from deep to exploit. At Real Madrid, there was more of an emphasis on the running of Ronaldo, creating chaos in a different sense.
But his teams share a similarity – building on the importance of a strong, organised defensive structure, and playing on the counter-attack.

For the most part this hasn’t been a hindrance – after all, if you’ve got players like Arjen Robben and Cristiano Ronaldo to run with the ball, and Didier Drogba, Diego Milito and Karim Benzema to cause a bit of trouble up top, counter-attacking’s a pretty strong tactic.
And for all the modern insistence that ‘the right way’ to play is a possession-based, probing game, there are few sights in football more enjoyable than seeing a dynamic team break at pace.

But not every player suits this style.

Juan Mata casuakky making a mere mortal look stupid, as he often does. The meanie.
Juan Mata casuakky making a mere mortal look stupid, as he often does. The meanie.

The lack of playing time given to Juan Mata so far this season has puzzled many, myself included. Fair enough, in the first game of the season he was left on the bench as his team-mates overcame Hull – he’d been away on international duty, and the midweek game against Aston Villa was always going to be a tougher test anyway.
But he was only given an hour against Aston Villa, and didn’t make the field against Manchester United.
Mata’s removal against Everton at the weekend was puzzling. With Everton the lesser of the two teams, and sitting on a single goal lead, there was always a chance of Chelsea pushing them back, so a probing, passing player like Mata would seem a useful asset.
Instead, he was removed, replaced by Oscar on 57 minutes. Only Ramires (4 chances in 90 minutes) and Andre Schurrle (3 chances, replaced at the same time as Mata) created as many chances for team-mates.

Even the very best managers in the world have their weaknesses. Arsene Wenger’s insistence on balancing the books while arguing his young players will definitely come good is much-mocked. Alex Ferguson was long-criticied for his inability to sign a top class central midfielder, while even Pep Guardiola’s lack of Plan B regularly came in for stick.

Mourinho’s major practical failing is a relatively small one, but with suggestions flying around that Juan Mata will leave the club in January, and seemingly fanciful stories saying he’d been offered in a trade for Wayne Rooney before the season started, it’s worthwhile asking if Jose Mourinho knows how to get the best out of one of the top talents in world football.

This article first appeared on SportLobster on Wednesday. Sign up for free to get content like this, and more, sooner!

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