Will Real Madrid sacrifice style?
Real Madrid go into Saturday's Clasico against Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabéu in superb form, riding a club-record equaling 15 consecutive wins. Importantly for their fans, they are doing it in style. Mourinho's men have scored 57 goals in those 15 games with some stunning interplay between frontmen Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuaín and their deeper lying providers: Ángel Di María, Kaká and Mesut Özil. They now deservedly sit three points ahead of their Catalan rivals at the summit of the Primera División table, having played one fewer game.
During this run, Madrid manager José Mourinho has regularly stressed the entertaining quality of his team's fluid style.
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“I liked the way we played, one touch, two touches, moving without the ball,” he said after his side's 4-0 October win at Malaga. “I liked all aspects of the game. We scored all types of goals and played a very varied game.”
Given how well this approach is working, you’d imagine the Portuguese coach might be wary of changing it, though The Special One may still carry heavy memories from his first Clasico. A year ago, Madrid carried an unbeaten record and a confident mood to Camp Nou for last season’s first derby. They tried to attack Barcelona and were humiliated, losing 5-0. A chastened Mourinho changed tack for the season's four later meetings, opting for a more attritional approach which notoriously featured Portuguese center-half Pepe in a midfield destroyer role.
This move certainly worked. It disrupted Barcelona’s rhythm as Madrid drew the first league game 1-1 and won the Copa del Rey 1-0 in extra-time. However, the overly physical tactics also saw a Madrid player red carded in both those games. When Pepe was then sent off in the first-leg of their Champions League semifinal clash, Lionel Messi and Barcelona took control of the tie, going on to finish the season as worthy Spanish and European champions.
Pepe's move from defense into midfield was key to Real Madrid's relative success in spring, but with Ricardo Carvalho out for Saturday's Clasico, the Portuguese is likely to stay in defense. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)
While it pained Madrid fans to lose out to Barcelona with the world watching, the ‘beauty and the beast’ nature of the games hurt even more. In public, the club defended its coach and players, but not everyone was impressed. Madrid’s honorary president Alfredo di Stéfano used his column in Madrid-based sports daily Marca to do something rarely attempted in those pages: praise Barca.
“You do not watch Barcelona play with your eyes, but with your soul,” he wrote, while criticizing Mourinho’s Madrid as “a team without personality”.
The 85-year-old Di Stéfano had a legendary run as a player during Madrid’s golden era in the 1950s. He remains a significant figure at the Bernabéu, symbolizing for many the club’s tradition for good football and gentlemanly conduct, so this was no random critique. The sight of Pepe rampaging around in a Madrid midfield previously graced by legends such as Zárraga, Velázquez, Míchel, Redondo and Zidane was a welcome one for neither him nor his fellow long-standing Madrid supporters.
By the time August’s pre-season Supercopa between the two sides came around, Mourinho had switched back to a more attacking approach. This succeeded in really rattling their unprepared opponents, with Madrid amassing 26 shots to Barca’s 13 over the two legs. They still lost 5-4 on aggregate, however, with some extra-special moments of genius from Messi pulling Barca through. But whatever strides Real Madrid had made on the pitch were mitigated by behavior off, the reputation of Mourinho (and the club) tarnished by his touchline assault on Barcelona assistant coach Tito Vilanova.
The Portuguese coach has since stuck with the more cultured attacking style, and after a momentary hiccup at Levante in September, the goals and points have flowed. He has also been relatively quiet on the sidelines. This new reserved personality has been welcomed by Madrid’s media.
“Mourinho has made a radical change in his attitude – for the better,” influential Madrid-supporting columnist Tomas Roncero wrote in Marca's rival newspaper AS last month. “This can only be seen as positive and encouraging.”
The question now is whether this evolution will continue into Saturday’s Clasico.
Mourinho’s midfield selection will likely signal his intentions. Ricardo Carvalho’s injury means Pepe is required at center-back, but Mourinho may still opt for a strong three-man central midfield (trivote), with Lass Diarra alongside Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira positioned just ahead of them. This would leave Madrid’s two attacking playmakers Özil and Kaká kicking their heels on the bench, with a front three of Benzema, Ronaldo and Di María mostly looking to hit Barcelona on the counter.
The Mourinho of Chelsea, Inter, and last year at Madrid would not have thought twice about taking such a pragmatic approach. Di Stéfano and Roncero would no doubt prefer to continue Madrid’s self-confident attacking heritage, play Özil or Kaká instead of Lass or Khedira, and look to deliver a knock-out blow to Barca’s title chances.
What will Mourinho do? Has he really changed? With a draw maintaining Madrid’s current points advantage over Barca (and another defeat handing the advantage back to Guardiola’s men), it’s a big call.
Dermot Corrigan is a freelance Irish sportswriter who lives in Madrid and writes about soccer for several publications, including FOXSoccer.com, Sport 360°, When Saturday Comes and Iberosphere. Contact him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan.