Traditionally, José Mourinho’s pride has been one of his greatest allies, enabling a self-confidence that’s permeated through each team he’s coached. It’s a confidence that defined his tenure at Chelsea and allowed his Inter Milan team to derail Barcelona in 2010. It’s also allowed Real Madrid to break its Champions League curse, close what was a growing chasm between themselves and their rivals, as well as come into Saturday’s match in control of the Primera Division.
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That pride may have also cost him today’s game.
Sometime between now and last spring, José Mourinho decided it was not enough to win; rather, he wanted to win while accumulating style points, which is too bad. Had he employed the same approach he accepted in April (when Real Madrid pushed Barcelona in league and Europe while snatching the Copa del Rey), Lionel Messi wouldn’t have cut his team open at the half hour mark, creating an equalizer for Alexis Sanchez. Messi would have run into Sami Khedira, who started today’s match on the bench. Or he would have met Pepe, who was deployed in defense today.
Had José employed the same approach he accepted last spring, his team would have been perfectly situated to protect the 1-0 lead Victor Valdes delivered Real Madrid seconds into the match. The personnel he needed to offset Barcelona’s advantage in the middle would have been on the pitch, and he could have slowly lured Barcelona to exposing themselves to counter attacks, just as he’d done with Inter Milan.
Instead, Mourinho let pride get the best of him. He mistakenly relied on Xabi Alonso and Lassana Diarra to hold the best midfield in the world at arm’s length. Instead of using an extra ball-winner in the middle, Mourinho stayed with the Mesut Özil in a playmaker’s role. He persisted with the team that had pushed the club to first – that had just finished a perfect Champions League campaign.
There was too much pride in his ability to shape a more attractive winner; pride in the players he’s chosen to enact that style; pride in his ability to deliver a progressive approach that would satisfy critics who want to dance to titles.
But if the last three years have taught us anything, it’s that you can’t have it your way against Barcelona. Hardcore Madridistas may want to both win and win with style, but that aspiration comes as grandiose and naive when juxtaposed against the challenge of Barcelona. Not only do Madrid’s supporters want to beat one of the best teams ever, they want to handcuff themselves to ideology while doing so.
This is the same mistake Mourinho made at the Nou Camp last year, believing his team could go toe-to-toe with Barcelona only to be handed a 5-0 loss. It is the same mistake Mourinho’s friend Alex Ferguson has made twice in three years, going into Champions League finals thinking the formula which got him there would be the formula which would win trophies.
The results Barcelona’s accumulated under Pep Guardiola show us the opposite is true, a fact that nobody should know better than Mourinho. No coach has had multiple successes against Barcelona in the last three years except ‘The Special One.’ With Inter, he knocked Barça out of Champions League in 2010, while last spring he stifled the Blaugrana while claiming the Copa del Rey.
How’s the opposite approach worked? Manchester United’s been run through twice by Pep Guardiola’s charge, while the only times Mourinho’s been embarrassed while at the Bernabau have come against Barcelona, when deference to pride has gotten the better of pragmatism.
That Mourinho is intimately acquainted with how to frustrate Barcelona makes today’s decisions even more startling. Mourinho is clearly not abhorred by having to win ugly. Fair or not, he’s become synonymous with footballing pragmatism, an association which may be feeding into his apparent desire to beat Barcelona on different terms. Bombarded for the better part of two years with expectations that he’ll eventually win with style, Mourinho may be out to show he’s more than a one trick pony, no matter how successful (and versatile) that trick has been.
If that’s Mourinho’s intent, Real Madrid supporters are in for another disappointing season. Barcelona has far more invested in being the team that wins these types of games. They have unmatched attacking talent deployed in a system that plays to their strengths. It’s the system of a club that is deeply, philosophically invested in being the world’s best at this type of soccer. You should always be wary of engaging a better motivated opponent, and when it comes to winning games with style, Barcelona’s got drive to match their talent and riches. Los Blancos merely have talent and riches.
Real Madrid can’t consistently beat Barcelona at that game – nor should they want to. Between what they showed last spring and the man who led them to those results, Real Madrid has a formula that puts them near even-footing with the world’s best. Instead of implicitly apologizing for it by acquiescing to some big name dissenters, they should be looking to augment it. They should be asking how they can continue to frustrate Barcelona while generating more chances. Instead, they seem to be developing a whole new plan.
Today, that plan didn’t come close to working. Real Madrid would have been blown out had it not been for Victor Valdes. They failed to score a goal of their own making, and for only the second time under Mourinho, they gave up three goals at home. While today’s performance may have been a good showing or moral victory for most, Madrid is not most. It’s a club that considers itself the world’s greatest – a team that was in first coming into the day.
Ultimately, the choice is simple. Mourinho can accept an approach that works, or he can play into pride. It’s a shame he can’t be more like his opposing coach, Pep Guardiola, and tinker rather than reconstruct. But if he has become like many around his club who want to win some right way or not at all, then pride’s ceased being his ally.