Mourinho defends counterattacking soccer, calls other coaches stupid

By Paul Gardner

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.

22 comments about "Mourinho defends counterattacking soccer, calls other coaches stupid ".
  1. Gene Jay, June 9, 2015 at 10:09 p.m.

    Jose Mourinho Paul? Are you aware there is a world cup going on? maybe show a little respect for the women's game and at least pretend interest. i am sure there is a foul or two you could drone on about for pages and pages.
    If women's soccer it too beneth an old soccer sage like yourself, you should watch TV and catch up on a big evolving FIFA scandal. Spoiler alert--this one is really big, and with your ournalistic instinct i bet you could find a story in there somewhere.
    No one cases about Jose in June Paul

  2. R2 Dad, June 9, 2015 at 11:10 p.m.

    Everyone should stop writing about him. He's like a child demanding attention, and will say anything to get it. I just find this all amusing since the UEFA Champions League is the only competition the "big" clubs measure themselves by, and Jose/Chelsea went out before the quarters this year. Seems that parking the bus & counterattacking only works when the stars align and Barca is misfiring.

  3. Ginger Peeler, June 9, 2015 at 11:58 p.m.

    The Women's World Cup is suffering from refereeing errors that affect the outcome of the games. And I sincerely believe that every announcer, whether play-by-play or color commentator should be required to take and PASS a Laws of the Game course and test. Fox even has a man on hand who explain referees' decisions, in accordance with the Laws...and the commentators disagree! What?! Are you kidding me? They suggest that it's not a foul if the offender "got the ball"... or it shouldn't be a foul because the offender's actions weren't intentional. People who may be watching the sport for the first time are being misled by the announcers. Bad enough that some of the these announcers were professional player themselves. It's so discouraging!!!

  4. Ginger Peeler, June 10, 2015 at 12:02 a.m.

    And Mourinho says so many outrageous things, I've stopped reading his comments. At some point he will be fired or retire and some sanity may be restored.

  5. Zoe Willet, June 10, 2015 at 12:25 a.m.

    When Mourinho has a front line like Neymar/Suarez/Messi, a front line as good as their back line, well then they can attack more. His strategy is based on reality, and it works- so there!
    Also, I agree with the first commenter- why don't you talk about the Women's World Cup?

  6. John Soares, June 10, 2015 at 12:35 a.m.

    Women's soccer??? You mean that sport that the president of FIFA said they (the women) should wear shorter shorts to attract more attention to "their" game. The same FIFA that scheduled the EURO finals on the same day as the WWC opener and has dozens of countries playing friendlies at the same time.... OH; Yeah! THAT SOCCER, Paul.............. No respect should come from the idiots NOT those that make a living from it!

  7. Chris Ogle, June 10, 2015 at 3:39 a.m.

    Paul's comment that Mou's "park the bus" strategy is based on fear of losing to top teams is right on the money. I believe that Mou was traumatized by Barcelona during the "classico" game in the fall of 2010. It was obvious that he felt Real Madrid could play an open attacking strategy in this game and win but Real ended up being absolutely slaughtered 5-0. From that point on as coach of Madrid and now Chelsea he always parks the bus against good teams and I believe that in his mind he is determined that never again would he experience a defeat like in that classico game of 2010. Far from being a swaggering "hard man", Mou's style of play is actually based on fear of losing.

  8. Kenneth Barr, June 10, 2015 at 3:42 a.m.

    Paul, the only arguments that are unconvincing in your piece are your own. Even Barcelona, the so-called gods of possession soccer, played the counter to their advantage in beating Juventus for the Champions League title. What Mourinho was saying, if you bothered to pay attention, is that possession for possession's sake is no way to win matches. Besides, in the matches you describe, Man Utd and Arsenal, Chelsea were down to their third choice striker. That you conveniently forget to mention. Chelsea with Diego Costa were a totally different side, playing the attacking game with devastating results.

    My club, Crystal Palace, usually won matches where they were out-possessed (Liverpool, Man City home) and lost matches where they had the most possession (West Brom home). Why? The Eagles are a side that rely on pacey attack rather than slow build up. With the three headed dragon of Puncheon, Zaha and Bolassie, Palace prove the old adage that speed kills. Same with Chelsea. With Costa up front, speed merchants like Hazard & Willian tear opposing defenses apart. Total time of possession becomes irrelevant, what is done with whatever possession gained is. The proof of the pudding is Chelsea won the title and Palace finished an unexpected 10th, ahead of such "possession" sides as Everton, Newcastle and Aston Villa. This coming season, watch Alan Pardew continue to add to the Palace attack with the introduction of pacier players replacing the likes of Jedinak and even Murray. Watch clubs like Man City and Liverpool add pace to their sides. The name of the game in the Premier is going to be pace, not merely keeping possession.

  9. Santiago 1314, June 10, 2015 at 4:58 a.m.

    Boring Chelsea or Boring Tiki-Taka...Take your Poison... I think Luis Enrique got the Mix just right this year with Barca.. (choking on my words, as I'm a Madrista)...The addition of Suarez (Nastiness) and Neymar (finally integrated) ...minus Xavi(hardly played any meaningful minutes this year) (Slowed the game down too much the last couple of years as he got older)...I agree that MoWhineYo got Traumatized at Madrid..u20 just scored vs Colombia...Tab has got them playing Well tonight... Excellent High Pressing Defense..2nd half they are interchanging Offensive Positions...Goal from Rubin off Deflected Arriola Shot...Arriola had moved to Ct. Fwd..

  10. Santiago 1314, June 10, 2015 at 5:30 a.m.

    USA!!!..USA!!!...USA!!! u20 Overcome some Bad Reffing and Poor Substitutions to Beat Colombia...More on that later.. Got to get some Sleep... Rubin is the Real Deal...

  11. Kenneth Elliott, June 10, 2015 at 9:28 a.m.

    I'd like to see Jose as manager for West Ham, Sunderland, Bournemouth. THAT would tell us about his coaching acumen much more clearly than having star studded teams year after year, club after club. With the players he has he should be challenging Barca and Real for titles, but as it is he can't even beat Arsenal.

  12. cisco martinez, June 10, 2015 at 12:12 p.m.

    Mourinho's trophies speak for themselves, if Chelsea, Real Madrid, or Porto can win the league, champions league, then who cares how they play if they get a result? Brazil is the best example of that, from 1958-70 they would play beautiful football, however after they lost there talent, they tried to play like Europeans and played bad. When Pereira and Zagalo ran the team in 1994 and in 2002 they played more practical soccer of winning the world cup, the only critics that though Brazil played ugly were the media, would the fans, coaches, or players rather play pretty and lose or win championships?

  13. Kent James, June 10, 2015 at 1:14 p.m.

    Chris and Santiago, I think you guys are right about Mourinho's fear; many bullies/braggarts are covering up deep-seated insecurities. It is hard to argue with winning, but winning with style is certainly better. Barcelona this year (and I think Bayern and Real Madrid) all demonstrated that with the right personnel, you can play attractive soccer and win. So there does not have to be a trade-off between playing "pretty" soccer and winning. That's where Mourinho's wrong. And while Mourinho's record is obviously quite impressive, Gardner is right to suggest that "parking the bus" with a squad as talented as Chelsea is really an affront to the game. The reliance on the counter-attack is a reasonable one when you don't have the talent to control the game and attack with numbers, but when you do, failing to do so suggests a lack of confidence rather than a brilliant strategic mind.

  14. Santiago 1314, June 10, 2015 at 1:45 p.m.

    Right on Kent... It's an affront to waste all that Talent

  15. Rick Estupinan, June 10, 2015 at 3:43 p.m.

    Again Bradley,playing like he always does,very stupidly.I hope he gets better. What a guy can't pass the ball properly,can't shoot on goal when he has the chance,(3 times)can't dribble,and instead of getting rid of the ball he keeps going until they take it away from him.He was outstanding against Holland,playing ala Pirlo for most of the game,but now...ho my GOD HE JUST MADE A GREAT PASS AND DISKERUD JUST SCORED A BEAUTIFUL GOAL.GERMANY 1 USA 1.
    I better shut up and wish for the best now

  16. Santiago 1314, June 10, 2015 at 5:47 p.m.

    @ Ric... I had that same problem with Diskerud.. Eating my own words...Welcome to the club....USA!!..USA!!!...USA!!!

  17. Scott Johnson, June 11, 2015 at 12:07 a.m.

    Styles of play do not win football games. Matches are won by talented players who train hard, and by coaches who select and prepare their teams well. If you have a talented defense, but lack a corps of forwards who can break down a defense, defend-and-counter is a good strategy. If you have Messi, Suarez, and Neymar, not so much. If you have players who play on the ground well, tiki-taka is a fine idea. If not, a long passing game might work better. The best coaches adapt their style of play to the players they have--or if they ARE in love with a particular style, find the players who are best suited to play it.

  18. Scott Johnson, June 11, 2015 at 12:15 a.m.

    That said, a few points against defend-and-counter, Chelsea's success notwithstanding: a) It does seem to be a strategy that lesser-talented teams employ, kind of like the motion offense in basketball. After all, it's easier to find halfway-decent fullbacks who can mark everyone but the superstars, than it is to find guys like Messi. And it keeps poor-quality midfields (i.e. some USMNT sides of recent vintage) from getting exposed. b) All else being equal, I'd rather the ball spend most of the time closer to the other team's goal, than to my team's goal. Even with a skilled defense, bad thing happen: Set pieces occur. Someone nails a prayer from 30 yards. A defender makes a mistake, and someone gets loose in front of the goal.

  19. Ivan Gavric, June 11, 2015 at 3:28 p.m.

    Bottom Line Mourinho is a winner!
    He plays winning football not pretty football.

  20. Tim Brown, June 12, 2015 at 6:06 p.m.

    I don't like Chelski or Jose. But he wins consistently. After all that is the object of the Game.

  21. Scott Johnson, June 13, 2015 at 10:58 p.m.

    ...and today, the Colombian women's team plays defend-and-counter perfectly against France, winning 2-0 despite getting only 3 shots on goal against 20+ for Les Bleus. Of course, a different ref might have produced a different result, and if a defend-and-counter team concedes the first goal, they're often in trouble if they can't manufacture offense when the other team parks the bus...

  22. Scot Sutherland, June 25, 2015 at 1:28 p.m.

    It is interesting to me how Mourinho has allowed the possession versus counter-attacking soccer question to define him. I, too, am critical of any team that focuses on possession as the goal. The purpose of soccer is not to possess the ball but to score goals and prevent them.

    I don't like counter-attacking as a term. I prefer transition. A team that defends can catch the opponent in transition by breaking out quickly and forcing the opponent to retreat. It can also bunker in to the point that the game becomes an exercise in blocking shots.

    A team that possesses creates a constant transition problem for the defense. They must continuously transition to a new defensive positions to adjust to the movement of the ball. A possession team catches the opponent in transition when it breaks quickly on goal through a series of passes an movement. A possession team can also move the ball around the back without ever causing the defense to adjust until the game becomes an exercise in keep ball and no dangerous attacks are accomplished.

    The point is all goal scoring opportunities come from some kind of break that catches an opponent in transition, either through pulling them apart through passing or by winning the ball and creating a numbers up transition.

    I think Mourinho has become more one-dimensional because of the debate.

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications