Jose Mourinho has raised, yet again, the old argument about the pluses and minuses of playing possession-based soccer -- a style that is often scornfully dismissed as “pretty” soccer.
In his latest trashing of the possession game, Mourinho, to his credit, does not use the derogatory term, but there is a latent sneer implicit in everything that Mourinho has to say about possession soccer.
This would be of some interest if he had anything new to say about it. But he doesn’t. He adopts the by-now routine position that possession soccer is really just another way of defining losing soccer . . . so why would any coach in his right mind want to play that way?
No one, says Mourinho, and dubs coaches who ignore the effectiveness of playing a counterattacking game as “stupid.”
The controversy is thus defined, from the start, in Mourinho’s terms, with the result that he comes out as the clear winner.
But Mourinho’s way of defining the argument is sheer hogwash. He would have us believe that there are coaches who flatly reject the counterattack. The stupid ones. Who on earth can these coaches be? As opportunities for counterattacks occur in every game, they would have to be every bit as dumb as Mourinho says they are.
But, of course, they don’t exist. But there are plenty of coaches who reject playing a counterattacking game -- i.e. to format their team to play defensively, to wait until frustration lures their opponents into an over-commitment to attack, and then to strike.
We’ll see about that. For starters, it’s pretty clear that a lot of Mourinho’s disdain for possession soccer is directed at his fellow coach Arsene Wenger, and at Arsenal.
What an irony lies in that position. This past season, Chelsea has quite often been criticized as boring. (Who cares, we won the league, is Mourinho’s retort). And they were boring on occasions. Against Manchester United and Arsenal, near the end of the season, Chelsea were very definitely playing heavily defensive soccer while relying on sudden counterattacks to score a goal. Against United, they made that plan work and won 1-0. Against Arsenal it finished 0-0, and that was boring too. In both games the Chelsea opponents had a sizeable edge in possession. “Boring Chelsea!” sang the Arsenal fans.
The irony I’m talking about is that it was Arsenal, in its 1930s heyday, that pioneered exactly that type of counterattacking game. “The other team does all the attacking, and Arsenal wins the game,” was how one journalist put it. Yes, it was felt to be boring, but the chant from the crowd was always “Lucky Arsenal!”
Later, in the 1960s, Italian club teams -- particularly Inter Milan under coach Helenio Herrera -- perfected catenaccio which was the same type of game. I didn’t see the 1930s Arsenal, but I saw a lot of Inter Milan and rarely found them boring. Catenaccio it was, but catenaccio at its best, with brilliant players to bring it to wonderful life.
Mourinho has plenty of brilliant players, creative attacking players, but he is quite content to use them, not to bring a game to life, but to reduce it to boredom in the service of a dull defensive performance, the “parking the bus” routine that Mourinho tells us is good (i.e. winning) soccer.
Yes, in both the games cited above, Chelsea got the result it wanted. But ... that is not to say that Chelsea would not have done equally well -- maybe better -- if it had been more enterprising and, yes, more entertaining. Mourinho’s way -- with one of the most expensively assembled squads of players in the history of the sport -- is to opt for caution, to play anti-soccer.
Arsenal, of course, have been guilty during Wenger’s long reign of playing what Chelsea’s John Terry derisively calls tippy-tappy soccer. Like it’s a kid’s game, not the real macho game that Terry and Chelsea play, the man’s game, the contact sport and so on.
That pretty well sums up Mourinho’s argument, that there are only two alternatives: Either you play his way, the pragmatic way, the non risk-taking way that will mean killing off the sport of soccer from time to time with defensive dreariness. Or you play the tippy-tappy stuff, and you lose.
Strange how the notion that you can play possession soccer and win games seems to be beyond Mourinho’s intellectual grasp. Barcelona? What about them? They’ve just enjoyed a much more successful season than Chelsea ... achieved with possession soccer and superb creative, attacking play.
And, it needs to be stressed, with the occasional deadly counterattack - the Champions League final ended with a classic counter-attacking goal from Neymar. But that was not the result of Barca adopting deep-lying defensive play to lure Juventus forward. That final goal came because Juventus, trailing, desperately needed a goal to tie the game, because the scoreline, not the Barca tactics, demanded that they flood forward.
Well, of course Mourinho knows all that. He pays no attention -- his team is winning, and that’s what matters. But, evidently, the criticism of his team as boring and defensive has hit home. Mourinho feels he must justify the defensive style he deliberately adopted in those two crucial end-of-season games.
Yet by his own standards -- winning is all that matters -- he has no need to offer explanations, no need to call other coaches stupid. When he talks of the counterattack as “a fantastic item of football,” who’s going to argue? But it is just one item. If it becomes a team’s most important item, then that team must be a defensively oriented team. Which must mean that the team does not have superior attacking players. And we know that is not true for Chelsea.
In fact, Mourinho’s Chelsea includes five Brazilians (I’m including Diego Costa), an unheard of number for an English team. Parking the bus does not come naturally to Brazilians. In short, the feeling is that Mourinho has the players to play sparkling, and winning, soccer, and that his diversions into defensive negativity result not from tactical astuteness but from fear of losing to top teams.
Mourinho’s arguments in favor of a pragmatic approach, no matter how clever they may appear, how critical of other coaches, are unconvincing. How so? A one-word answer that slices through the Mourinhoid hogwash ... Barcelona.