Dyballing Out Of Control

image via espnfc.com

image via espnfc.com

“Besides Gonzalo Higuaín, this man right here has been perhaps the best player in Italian football this season,” the beIN sport commentator remarked during Sunday’s Juventus vs. Roma match.

However, he wasn’t speaking about Juve superstar Paul Pogba.

Instead he was referring to Paulo Dybala, the 22-year-old Argentinian who has been a revelation for the Bianconeri this season after being bought from Palermo for €32 million.

Last season Dybala had a breakthrough campaign and finished the year with 13 goals and 10 assists.  He was the talk of many transfer rumors to larger clubs such as Arsenal, PSG and others, but he only wanted one: the Old Lady.

Dybala signed quite early in the transfer window as it became a summer of upheaval for Juventus, who finished as Italian champions and runners up in the Champions League.  Their talisman and leading scorer from the season before, Carlos Tévez, announced that he would be leaving to play for Boca Juniors while Andrea Pirlo decided to take a victory lap playing for New York City FC in MLS.

While Juventus were able to keep ahold of Pogba for another season after reportedly turning down a giant bid from Chelsea, they did part ways with midfield engine, Arturo Vidal.

The Chilean had been the force behind the Bianconeri’s four-straight Scudetto’s and was perhaps the best box-to-box midfielder on the planet.  In a deal that materialized in just days Bayern Münich bought the Chilean for a fee of €37 million.

When Dybala was bought many fans thought that he would be joining this prolific squad and playing alongside Vidal and Tevez.  Instead he was now expected to have a larger role and help Juventus continue their reign in Serie A.

While Juve started off the season slow, they have clicked over the last couple months and much of that has to do with Dybala’s emergence as a genuine superstar.

stats via Squawka

stats via Squawka

Paulo has started the last 11 games in Serie A for Juventus and has delivered big-time.  He has scored 7 goals and delivered another 5 assists.  He will often drift far back and start the attack deep in the midfield.  He dribbles and moves effortlessly around the pitch and is also dangerous from set pieces.

The Argentine had perhaps his best game of the season against Udinese on January 17.  In just half an hour Dybala single handedly won the game for Juventus as he put them ahead 2-0 with a perfect curling free kick and a calmly taken penalty.

Against Roma the week after he scored the only goal in the game off a no look pass from Pogba in the 77th minute.  In a second Dybala has the awareness to receive the pass from Pogba while staying onside to immediately fire a perfectly placed shot at a tough angle with a defender alongside him.

This season has just shown the immense talent that Dybala possesses.  If Juventus manage to win their fifth consecutive title the Argentinian will be one of the main reasons why.  This 22-year-old has taken the leap from talented youngster to budding superstar and can make a case to be truly one of the elite players in the world very soon.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Lukaku’s Rise To Europe’s Elite

image via sportzwiki.com

image via sportzwiki.com

When Romelu Lukaku hangs up his boots at the end of his career, he may look back and realize that one of the defining moments was his last appearance in a Chelsea shirt.  In the 2013 Super Cup vs. Bayern Munich, Lukaku came on as a substitute and ultimately missed the deciding penalty as Bayern triumphed over the Blues.

Just a few days later Jose Mourinho decided his young striker wasn’t ready to play for Chelsea and sent him to Merseyside on a season-long loan for Everton.  The Belgian striker has spent the previous season on loan in the Premier League with West Bromwich Albion where he made 20 appearances for the Baggies and scored 17 times.

During that season with West Brom, Lukaku was the Premier League’s sixth-highest scorer and outscored all of his teammates at Chelsea.

Even more impressive was that the big Belgian was just 19 years of age. Because of this he earned a loan to a more reputable club in Everton.

During the 2013-14 season spent on loan at Goodison, Lukaku had an up and down campaign and scored just 10 Premier League goals with 5 assists.  Despite that, Everton decided to make Lukaku its club record signing as they reached an agreement with Chelsea for £28 million.  Big Rom had now found a permanent home and he has quickly settled in.

At only 22 years of age Lukaku is making his claim for one of Europe’s best striker’s.  As he scored on Monday against Crystal Palace in a 1-1 draw to save a point for Everton, the striker had reached 50 goals for the club in his 100th appearance.

He became the fourth-youngest player to score 50 Premier League goals behind only Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen, and Wayne Rooney — who was at Goodison Park on Monday to watch his former team.

In fact, no man in the top flight this season has been involved in more goals in this calendar year than Lukaku with 27.  With all the success and headlines that fellow strikers such as Luis Suarez and Robert Lewandowski have garnered, its time to realize that Lukaku is right there with them.

stats via Squawka

stats via Squawka

Due to his big, powerful frame, Lukaku was most often compared to former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba.  However, Drogba was playing for Le Mans in France at the age Lukaku is right now and didn’t sign for Chelsea until age 26.  He went on to score 100 goals for Chelsea in 226 appearances for the club.

The rate at which Lukaku is going is a beautiful thing to behold. He is at the age where his incredible natural talent has combined with his experience and confidence needed to create a lethal goal scoring force.

He could be the best striker in the world by the time he is 26.  There isn’t a thing he can’t do.  He is good in hold up play, much faster than people think, and a willing passer.  He can score with either foot and also can be a deadly header of the ball.  His scoring rate of 1 goal every 2 matches for Everton is also elite.

Everton supporters should cherish this talent while they can because the big Belgian will soon be spoken of in the same breath as Luis Suarez and Robert Lewandowski.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Manchester City 1-4 Liverpool: What a Successful Gengenpress Looks Like

LiverpooLReport

Liverpool’s 4-1 victory over Manchester City and the manner in which they did it harkened back to their magical 2013-14 season when Liverpool obliterated Arsenal 5-1 in February via the trio of Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez. It was an incandescent performance in a season full of them. Saturday was obviously different in the most simplest sense, none of the three players from that 13-14 Liverpool side started against Manchester City but the performance by Liverpool was arguably better when taking into account a host of different variables.

Liverpool played what could be best described as a 4-3-2-1 with Roberto Firmino playing at striker. Coutinho and Adam Lallana played in behind Firmino while the midfield three continued with Can, Lucas and James Milner, who was the most advanced of the three. City played their usual midfield two in a 4-2-3-1 formation.

City V Liverpool

Attacking Benefits of Counterpressing

Counterpressing (or Gegenpressing to others) has become a buzzword of sorts to describe Liverpool’s pressing ever since Jurgen Klopp became the manager of Liverpool. In the most simplest of descriptions, gegenpressing is immediately pressing the opposition right after losing possession. The goal is to regain possession and in some cases, creating quick attacking moves from it. (Again, it’s a really simple description of the tactic and here it is in much greater detail). It’s something that gained a lot of publicity since Klopp’s arrival – not just because of his prior success in Germany but to how suitable and potentially revolutionary an effect it can have in the PL.

So far through Klopp’s tenure Liverpool have executed very well in terms of regaining possession immediately, it’s just that it hasn’t always created high level of chances afterwards which speaks to the mishmash talent Liverpool have. When Liverpool beat Chelsea, they were able to press Chelsea and regain possession which led to shooting opportunities but even the goals scored weren’t high grade quality

Against City though we saw the great attacking benefits of counterpressing, with the own goal from Mangala being an example.

City Liverpool

City Liverpool

City Liverpool

Truth be told, Manchester City were already showing some defensive fragilities (we’ll get to that shortly) before the sequence of events leading up to Mangala’s own goal and it only got worse afterwards. Liverpool were more than willing to create these attacking moves from very deep positions on the field.

What was particularly impressive was how quickly Liverpool would try and suffocate the center of the midfield whenever one of Fernando or Yaya Toure received the ball

City Liverpool

The second and third goals weren’t truly created by gegenpressing as those goals were more built off of a successful string of broken plays that fell Liverpool’s way – which then turned into wonderful team goals, particularly the second Liverpool goal from Firmino who got control of a loose ball situation and turned it into Liverpool’s second goal. But the first goal and a few near offside decisions immediately afterwards that could’ve been clear goal scoring opportunities were created from the principles of counterpressing and Manchester City had no answers to cope with it.

Firmino at Striker:

Normally when attacking midfielders are played as a #9 whether due to injury or by choice, they’re most likely given the label of being a false 9 and the team in question is playing a strikerless formation. Some of this is actual truth as we’ve seen teams play midfielders whose sole job was to come in deep and help out the midfield. Firmino’s performance deviated a lot from that because he didn’t just play like a false nine, he played like a genuine world class striker. Firmino has had experience playing as a striker during his time at Hoffeinheim but he was outstanding in numerous ways.

When Firmino wanted to help the midfield, he did so and at times in unusual yet very effective ways. Look how deep he comes to help Liverpool spring a counter that leads to the third goal.

City Liverpool

It wasn’t just dropping deep to receive the ball, Firmino was also more than able to run behind the Man City offside trap and create chaos. On the offside decision just before the own goal by Mangala, you can see Firmino try and keep himself onside with the defensive line from City and be in position for a potential close range opportunity.

City Liverpool

City Liverpool

The goals and opportunities afterwards were a mixture of his willingness to come deep and receive the ball along with the movement of a striker to seek holes within the defense and make the perfect runs to cause massive danger. It was a brilliant performance and one that Liverpool have starved for from their strikers. Divock Origi has been terrible since getting playing time at striker, Benteke has been hit or miss and Sturridge is able to make the runs consistently that Firmino made but he’s often injured.

Firmino doesn’t project as a fulltime striker and long term, his future in Liverpool looks to be as one of the midfield two or three behind the striker depending on the formation but he’s shown that in certain situations, he can perform the duties of a #9 very well which speaks to his multidimensional skill set.

Manchester City’s Defensive Imbalance

Outside the early season defeat to Tottenham, Manchester City have been dominant defensively and coming into the weekend, they were statistically performing at levels that haven’t been seen before in the Premier League over the last 6-7 seasons. Obviously this was a terrible performance and it showed one of the Achilles heels for their squad, which is the imbalance of their team defensively without Fernandinho.

Multiple times, the balance of Man City would be lacking. With Kolarov’s role to play high up the pitch combined with Toure’s lack of effort to track back, City more times than not looked like they were playing a 3-1-5-1 formation which played right into the hands of Liverpool’s pressing.

City Liverpool

This have always been longstanding issue for Manchester City, it’s just that more times than not the imbalance domestically hasn’t been taken advantage of by opponents because either the monopolizing of possession led to goals or most opposition counter attacks would start so deep that it would eventually peter out when they got into their final third. The good news for Man City is that Tottenham, Liverpool and at times Arsenal are really the only teams that could punish them for instances like this in the PL.

Conclusion:

This was by far Liverpool’s best performance of the season and it’s arguably the best performance by a Liverpool side over the last 3-5 seasons, including the near title incarnation of 13-14. Liverpool were brilliant in the way they were able to both create dangerous attacks from winning the ball high up the pitch and make goal scoring opportunities from recovering 50-50 loose balls. The latter isn’t the most sustainable over a 38 game season but it’s certainly devastating in one game scenarios. Coutinho played his best game overall not only as a goal scoring threat but as the talented playmaker that he’s capable of being while Lallana is playing his best stretch of football since his breakout 13-14 season for Southampton.

For Manchester City, this game was both a one off and a concern going forward. Man City played their backup CB’s and a back DM against Liverpool which contributed to their defensive issues and exasperated their problems. We have a decent sample size this season that Man City domestically are one of the top two defenses and they’ll be fine on the total aggregate. But against teams that press high up the pitch and expose the spaces in-between the back four and the midfield two, City have struggled and perhaps slowly but surely, PL teams will start to use a variation of what Liverpool did to create havoc instead of simply conceding possession and hoping to play counter attacking football from deep in their defensive third.

It’s only been less than six weeks since Jurgen Klopp was hired by Liverpool but already we’re slowly starting to see his vision of a gegenpressing high octane team come to the surface, which is a far cry from the static Liverpool side that was present in the final days of Brendan Rodgers’ tenure.

Posted in English Premier League, Features, Tactics | Leave a comment

The World’s Best Decoy

If you haven’t noticed it because you’ve been transfixed by Neymar doing his best Ronaldinho impersonation, Luis Suarez has been on a tear this year. He’s currently tied for second in La Liga in scoring with eight goals, with only Neymar (oh hey!) ahead of him with nine. But a lot of the things that Neymar is doing are only possible because of Suarez, the world’s best decoy.

Barca fans imagined the worst when Leo Messi went down a month ago with a knee injury. The rest of the world thought they’d be fine with Neymar and Suarez, but culers thought Barcelona was doomed. (We always think Barcelona is doomed.) Having the best player in the world go down with a two month injury on an already thin as bones squad will cause even the most optimistic fan to shout crisis, but with two of the trident in the fold, Barcelona have been doing fine.

Barcelona have played 8 games, winning 6, drawing one, and losing to Sevilla without their Argentinian talisman. Since Messi went down, Barcelona have scored 14 times. Neymar has seven, while Luis Suarez also has 7. The rest of the team has had none.

That’s basically the formula Luis Enrique has utilized without his best player: just let the other two do their thing and get out the way.

And while Neymar has gotten all the plaudits for his performance – rightfully so, I might add – it is the understated brilliance of Barcelona’s number 9 that has allowed the Brazilian to thrive.

In many ways, Barcelona’s striker is an update of Real Madrid’s striker, Karim Benzema (without the sex tape blackmail bit). And in all of the ways that Real Madrid’s offense stutters when Benz is injured, so too does Barcelona’s. I’ve pointed this out before, but one of the best things Luis Enrique has done last season is not try to pigeonhole Suarez. He lets Luis do what he wants, and what Luis does better than most footballers is attract defenders’ attention. As long as Suarez is occupying center backs and making runs, Neymar can be devastating. If Suarez wants to direct the other forward and tell him where to go (as he did when he scored the 5th goal against Rayo Vallecano a few weeks ago), well then that’s just icing on the cake.

This is not the Luis Suarez of Liverpool. Even with Messi out of action, Luis hasn’t minded taking a back seat to Neymar and helping the Brazilian develop. Sid Lowe wrote about this in the Guardian, about how both players have stepped their game up in Messi’s absence:

“….this is a different Neymar now. He has taken on responsibility to lead the side creatively: it is not just the talent that is often mind-blowing, it is the willingness to go at people, the determination to lead, the nerve.”

The star of this show is most definitely Neymar, but its a dynamic that Suarez is more than comfortable with. “We know our roles: I don’t dribble round three or four players like Ney does,” said the Uruguayan.

And if folks are too busy watching Neymar do his thing, too busy worrying about when Messi is coming back, then they are missing perhaps one of the best displays of understated brilliance in a long time.

Posted in La Liga, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Kalinić Fueling Fiorentina’s Scudetto Push

(Zimbio)

(Zimbio)

The most fascinating Serie A season in years is just over two months old and has a clash between top-three sides on Sunday afternoon. Roma, in third place, are no strangers to these high-profile fixtures. Say what you will about the Giallorossi’s Champions League woes, but Rudi Garcia has a good squad that thrives when not stretched to the limit as it is in Europe.

Roma will visit the Stadio Artemio Franchi on Sunday to face the surprising table-toppers, whose vibrant brand of football may not be doing wonders in Europe but has certainly rejuvenated their domestic prospects. Fiorentina reached the summit after a 4-1 win away at Inter last month, and despite losses to Napoli and Lech Poznan in the past week, are still top thanks to that demolition at the Giuseppe Meazza.

The Viola’s surprising start followed a tumultuous close season, which peaked when the club sacked the otherwise-successful Vincenzo Montella after he showed the club a “lack of respect.” Aside from severing ties with Montella, the club lost several key players between January and August. Juan Cuadrado transferred to Chelsea and subsequently secured a loan move to Juventus. Mohamed Salah left for Roma under inauspicious circumstances. Neto made the 280-mile trek to join Cuadrado in Turin. Mario Gomez had his struggles, but he left too, for Beşiktaş. Stefan Savić moved to Atlético Madrid, and Joaquín went home to Real Betis. New manager Paulo Sousa had won trophies in three other countries – impressive enough, but he never stayed very long. Viola fans issued a collective “gulp.”

If Sousa’s Fiorentina keep this up, however, he’ll be at the Artemio Franchi for a while. The Viola made some shrewd signings to replace the dearly departed and all have played roles of varied importance at the club this year. The reliable Davide Astori arrived on loan from Cagliari. Winger Jakub Blaszczykowski also arrived on loan after eight years at Dortmund; he scored the eventual winner against Bologna last month. Former Steaua keeper Ciprian Tătărușanu has stepped up to take over for Neto. But most importantly, Fiorentina acquired the services of ex-Blackburn and Dnipro striker Nikola Kalinić. The 27-year-old Croatian has provided the goalscoring touch the Viola desperately needed, because relying on Khouma Babacar and (sigh) Giuseppe Rossi  is for teams that want to finish seventh.

(Look, I know Federico Bernardeschi is going to be good, but he’s still a wee lad.)

The 3-4-2-1 is the vehicle through which Sousa is developing a new and devastating brand of football at Fiorentina: heavy possession (second in Serie A in average possession at 62.6%) with quick, incisive midfield passing (Milan Badelj and Borja Valero appear back to their best) and ruthless Kalinić finishes. It’s worked to the tune of six wins in eight and a +9 goal difference. Only Roma and Napoli have scored more than Fiorentina’s 15.

Capture176

Kalinić and Slovenian international Josip Iličić bear responsibility for more than half these goals. Iličić is a key piece playing as a CAM/pseudo-second striker, but Kalinić’s remarkable efficiency is the bigger talking point. Kalinić has recorded 17 shots over his eight Serie A appearances, which of course is a low total for a center forward. However, his shot accuracy stands at 65%, and of his 11 shots on target, five have gone in. Kalinić is producing at a rate unlike any he’s produced at before and is already very important to the Viola.

Whether he continues at this rate remains to be seen, though. Obviously, the concern here centers on who assumes the scoring load once the former Dnipro sniper cools off (which is somewhat inevitable), but in the meantime, Sousa’s formula is working wonders for him and his team so far. A victory against Roma on Sunday would be yet another statement in this topsy-turvy Serie A season and continue to push Fiorentina’s Scudetto credentials – unlikely as those may seem.

Posted in Serie A | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mourinho’s Toughest Test

mou

via umaxit.com

As Graziano Pellé struck for Southampton in the 72nd minute to put the Saints ahead 3-1 at Stamford Bridge the Sky Sports commentator remarked, “This is turning from a blip into a full blown crisis for Chelsea.”

Southampton would win the match by that scoreline and keep Chelsea in 16th place in the table ahead of only West Brom, Aston Villa, Sunderland, and Newcastle.

The reigning Premier League champions have begun this season with only eight points from their first eight league matches, sitting 10 points behind league leaders Manchester City.  Even worse they have won only half their league games and only six of 12 in all competitions to begin the year.

After the match, Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho was asked by Sky Sports what he thought of his team’s performance in the loss.  He went on a seven minute rant that first started blaming the referees for his team’s troubles in this particular match and then spoke of the squad’s terrible start to the season.

“If the club wants to sack me, they have to sack me because I’m not running away from my responsibility, my team, my conviction,” Mourinho said. “If the club sacks me, they sack the best manager they ever had, and secondly the message is again the message of bad results the manager is guilty.”

Mourinho is a master at interviews and manipulating the media to deflect criticism from his team, but this was something new.  He appeared somber yet cocky and sneered at the camera.  After being asked a simple question he launched into a seven minute diatribe and said the “S” word, sack.

Who thought Chelsea would be here just five months removed from winning the 2014-15 Premier League title?  Just two months ago Mourinho was given a new four-year deal. After a history of leaving clubs after three seasons, this seemed to perhaps cement Mourinho as Chelsea’s long-time manager.  Maybe he could finally be what Sir Alex Ferguson was to Manchester United or Arsene Wenger is to Arsenal.

One man knew better though, The Guardian’s Barry Glendenning.

Last season Chelsea clinched the title with three matches remaining and finished eight points above Manchester City.  They began the year looking like a complete squad capable of playing team defense and also scoring goals with the potent combination of midfielder Cesc Fábregas supplying striker Diego Costa.

However, Fábregas — to no surprise of Arsenal or Barcelona fans — trailed off after the December holiday period and the Chelsea attack suffered as a result.  By the end of the season they had secured the title based on their healthy lead established earlier in the season while they were setting the pace.

While Chelsea claimed the title they did so by playing 11 first team players over 2,000 minutes total.  (In comparison the only team with more that I looked at was Real Madrid with 12 players total.)  This included 34-year-old John Terry and 31-year-old Branislav Ivanović playing every single minute of a 38-match Premier League season, while Eden Hazard wasn’t far behind with 3,379 minutes played.

Nemanja Matić was next on the list with 3,124 minutes played while Gary Cahill finished at 2,985. Fábregas was at 2,890 after being sent off in the second to last match of the season vs. West Brom, ending his season early.

Did Mourinho’s refusal to rotate his first-team last season have major effects?  Terry, Ivanovic and Fábregas have been Chelsea’s three worst players to begin this season. While Mourinho’s calling card was once a strong defense, this team looks lost both ends of the pitch.  Mix in an early season injury to starting goalkeeper Thibault Courtois and the results aren’t pretty.

“He’s tried everything so far, all his old tactics, coaching, confrontation, siege mentality, scorching words… nothing has seemed to work,” Sky Sports remarked on Mourinho during the match on Saturday, Oct. 3.

It’s certainly true.  Mourinho has tried everything in his bag of tricks from benching captain John Terry, to firing team physio Eva Caneiro (all of which is an entirely different matter), to leaving behind players during Champions League play.  He even substituted Matic at halftime on Saturday’s defeat only to sub him out at the 73rd minute mark for Löic Remy.  Now this has ended with Chelsea’s latest loss and the Portuguese manager daring owner Roman Abramovich to sack him.

Chelsea are in a dangerous position.  It is still early enough in the season for the team to build momentum and collect points, but is it too little too late?  Manchester City with a front four of Sergio Agüero, Kevin de Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, and David Silva haven’t even hit top form yet and are rolling, while Arsenal and Manchester United will most likely keep the pace behind them.

The Blues are in major trouble due to their lack of offensive output.  Diego Costa hasn’t been effective in months and he’s either continuously injured or suspended for behavioral problems.  When watching Chelsea vs. Southampton it seemed as though the Blues strategy was to give the ball to Hazard and have him try to create something out of nothing.

The Belgian was hailed by Mourinho as better than Real Madrid star, Cristiano Ronaldo in July, but has struggled to get off the mark so far.  The reigning PFA Player of the Year has only two assists and zero goals so far in the league.

You have to wonder how Chelsea would look with the likes of Mohamed Salah, Juan Cuadrado, Kevin de Bruyne, and André Schürrle, all former Blues that Mourinho decided to jettison out of the club due to a lack of defensive commitment.

oscar

via The Guardian

The only players that seem capable of producing an offensive spark are Hazard and Oscar, both of whom were curiously dropped from Chelsea’s Champions League squad on Matchday Two vs. Porto.  Hazard was relegated to the substitutes bench, while the Brazilian was left in London altogether.

In his third season at Real Madrid — where he also won the league title the year previously — Mourinho encountered struggles like this and it turned into a full blown meltdown.  He had alienated his team so badly the Portuguese players were feuding with the Spanish ones and he accused legendary goalie Iker Casillas of leaking information to the press.

Chelsea fans should be concerned about the future of the club ahead of this season.  Things don’t look to be improving especially with the Caneiro situation potentially heading to court.  Fans should be worried of the lingering effects due to Mourinho.  Loyal players to the club were basically run into the ground by playing so many minutes last season and the young talented players could seek to leave to other clubs in the summer.

Hazard and Real Madrid are rumors that circulate on an annual basis, while Juventus was poking around for Oscar last summer.  It would be devastating to the club if those two key players decided to jump ship to greener pastures solely due to Mourinho’s impact.  For the manager who fancies himself as the world’s best, he has never been faced with a challenge quite like this in his career.

He has to do his best to patch up whatever relationships he has harmed in his locker room and swallow his own pride to grind out this season and try to earn results.  Even he is not untouchable.

“I want to carry on no doubt,” Mourinho told Sky Sports following the defeat on Oct. 3 to Southampton. “It’s time for everyone to carry on in their responsibilities.”

Mourinho needs to look in the mirror and realize that he is the major reason for Chelsea’s early season struggles and if he wants to live up to his reputation the club will only go as far as he takes it.

Posted in Champions League, English Premier League | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Myth of Mourinho

(caughtoffside.com)

(caughtoffside.com)

I remember the first time I watched a José Mourinho team, and I think that’s very much telling. Usually, you don’t really focus on the manager, no matter how good he is, when watching a game. Back then, managers were a presence that, while very much respected for their importance, weren’t the focus of the coverage, unless some controversy or special occasion arose around them. But with Porto in 2003, people rarely talked about the talent they had in Deco or Ricardo Carvalho. The focus of the broadcast at least in Poland (making it even more rare) was just this insanely young manager who was taking the UEFA Cup by storm.

Soon enough, he won it. And the next year he went on to win the Champions League, of which my lasting image is his passionate celebration as a last-minute goal pushed him past Sir Alex Ferguson’s United side. This was very much consistent with the Mourinho we saw on the sidelines for Porto. Flamboyant, engaged, aggressively emotive. Back then, in a world that hadn’t quite embraced managers as personalities, with only a few outspoken ones shining in post match interviews, in a world discovering that with a bunch of cameras on the stadium you can make a simple match look way more entertaining than it is, Mourinho became THE entertainment and THE personality.

His narrative was pretty unique in itself. Here he was, 40 years old, barely having played 100 games in his career – most of them for low-tier teams – managing a European giant, his narrative pretty similar to Arsene Wenger – with one difference. He was new, and he was storming through Europe, celebrating in the face of Sir Alex and winning everything he could’ve won on the way. Mourinho was the most exciting manager in Europe. He wasn’t an anecdote, or the guy on the sidelines, he outgrew his players (yes, even Deco) to become the symbol of that success, then he moved to Chelsea.

Mind you, a big part of the excitement around Mourinho was his personality. Understandably arrogant, he took over every room he was in. He knew he was special, and he embraced it, he rolled with it. As a young Chelsea fan (courtesy of my love for the colour blue and Gianfranco Zola) I must say that I was very excited about the prospect of the Special One of leading them to glory. Chelsea didn’t really have that much personality. It may have had a young Arjen Robben, a promising Didier Drogba, a great Claude Makélélé, but outside of Frank Lampard and John Terry it did not really have an electric, magnetic personality. Mourinho gave them one.

Despite his current reputation for defensive football, Mourinho’s Chelsea actually scored 72 goals in 2004-05, trumped only by Arsenal’s 87 that year. That’s almost two goals per game. Remind you of anything? Chelsea scored 73 goals last season, second only to City’s 83. At Mourinho’s peak, they don’t go below that mark, meaning that they attacked enough to score nearly 2 goals every game, which is pretty respectable in the ever-competitive (if not genuinely good) Premier League. At his best, Mourinho is a very balanced manager, whose teams are capable enough of scoring.

(Just look at the game against Everton at the start of last season, to see how entertaining Mourinho’s teams can be.)

Courtesy of Ronnie MacDonald

Courtesy of Ronnie MacDonald

So what happens in the dreaded Third Year of Mourinho’s second stint at Stamford Bridge? Why are Chelsea now on pace for 57 goals in a season? (and that’s boosted courtesy of teams like West Brom, Newcastle and HAHAHAHAHArsenal) Some will blame the team being dead tired (and that’s not a bad reason) others will blame John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic regressing to walking hunks, and Cesc Fabregas turning into a clueless joke of a midfielder (and that’s not a bad reason either). But the truth is, that despite all that, Chelsea has enough of a team to deal with it. Or at least they should have had one, weren’t it for the Special One, the master of deflecting blame and subtle trolling, who doesn’t see that the only thing stopping this team from prospering is his own fear of failure, his inability to commit to a more risky style of football that would be beneficial to his personnel.

This game week, we witnessed a Mourinho classic “the refs are against me, and I’m the best manager ever” moment, the moment where, knowing that he’s slowly approaching the abyss of another failed third year, he just has to make sure that the media, his current, and his future boss know that this is just the world against him. Just making sure he tells the world he’ll never become Sir Alex, the refs have a conspiracy against him, his players are failing him. But he, the Special One, is not to be denied. He has never made a wrong decision in his life, he has never even thought of making one.

And this, if anything, is the source of Mourinho’s biggest issue: his own myth, the myth of the greatest mind in football, whom everyone conspires against. Much like a FIFA player who goes out and complains about the game being scripted against him, his opponents being inferior despite clear evidence to the contrary, and finally, that he deserves better, his high-rated players didn’t deliver, and whatever other whiny reason he’ll find to blame anything but himself for his own losses, Mourinho seems convinced that it’s not his fault. He does everything right, it’s just Fabregas who doesn’t know how to play as a defensive midfielder. He does everything right but Eden Hazard can’t create anything when forced to play a very limited role and is double-teamed at every turn. A good manager would play around that or find some better-suited personnel.

(101greatgoals.com)

(101greatgoals.com)

Mourinho buys Pedro and John Stones Consolation Prize™ Papi Djilibodji, ignoring the gaping gap in the middle of the park, the dying Nemanja Matić, the ill-suited Fabregas, who I think we all can agree should be able to play further up the field to be any effective. Sure, there was a chase for Paul Pogba; Pogba wisely declined those advances.

Bad buys aren’t the end of it though. Mourinho actually managed to fill a need with one of them, Baba Rahman, a very promising left-back from Augsburg, a player that allows him to play Cesar Azpilicueta back on his more natural right side, and most importantly, get rid of Ivanović. Mourinho excuses himself, saying that the young one never learned the system, that he’s too short, that he’d be a liability on set-pieces. All of this when left wingers around the league have been turning Ivanović inside out at every turn, all while he lost every ounce of his offensive luster. He might still be a solid centre back. He’s no longer a fullback, and Mourinho has an excellent replacement rotting on the bench.

However, this refusal to incorporate new players into the team isn’t new by any stretch of the imagination. Sure, Diego Costa and Fabregas were brought right along right into the fray, but at the same time, the likes of Andre Schurrle, Kevin De Bruyne, Juan Cuadrado – all players that Chelsea needs to create right now – have been sent away for “low defensive work rate”, “doesn’t fit in” reasons. And this would be all fine and dandy, if they ever were given a chance to fit in. De Bruyne went to Wolfsburg, scored for fun, and got his ticket back to the PL courtesy of Manchester City. Cuadrado has been a catalyst for Juventus. Only Schurrle seems to have been floundering a bit (in a deep Wolfsburg team, to be fair) but with the lack of depth on the wings and at striker (I didn’t even mention Falcao in the transfer bit, because… Why would I?) he’d probably be of much more use to Chelsea than the 3-deep Wolfsburg.

But Mourinho’s successes have blinded him. Recently, Deco claimed that Mourinho is unable to trust his players the way he used to before he went to the cesspool of pressure that is Real Madrid, where he had one spat with a beloved captain already. Now, with another beloved captain being benched, you must feel like one universal Mourinho truth reveals itself.

His power must be absolute.

That’s why he did so well leading underdogs; underdogs are too hungry for success to question his power. But now that Chelsea know they should be top, and he’s still making bad moves, you kind of feel like his grasp is slipping. What seems to have slipped is Mourinho’s passion as well. I don’t think we’ll ever see him running towards his players in absolute joy, his emotions on the sidelines are slowly becoming limited to a selection of smirks. It’s no wonder that his teams seem to play with a similar, lacklustre attitude. Mourinho seems to feel that he has proven that he’s the best. And if you’ve proven everything you wanted to prove, you can’t really motivate the players to do the same.
Not by throwing excuse after excuse out you can’t.

Perhaps it’s time that Mourinho went back to a team where he can go around proving that he’s the best all over again. The Serie A is rife with teams that need his underdog Midas touch. Since this seems to be his comeback tour, why not Inter? He can go to Porto after three years there. Because every three years, his myth is going to die, and every next year, it will be reborn. Thus is Mourinho’s way, the man who outshines the competition on the pitch. The man who will not abide any credit being given to anyone but him, while he’ll always look to deflect blame. He comes, he conquers, and then he leaves as his attitude sours on everyone around him. Mourinho will stay in this vicious cycle, as long as there are teams that will indulge him in the rollercoaster of success and failure.

All the while, I find myself missing that passionate young manager running down the pitch, creating the moments that would ultimately manifest themselves in a self-destructive myth.

(ablueheart.com)

(ablueheart.com)

Posted in English Premier League, Features | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment