Management, Mourinho and The Beautiful Game

Last night Inter Milan completed an unprecedented treble for Italian football and the focus of the achievement was on the manager.

Among other book reviews to be posted here is the joy I had in reading Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid.  A constant theme in the book is the battle of effective winning football and the aesthetically endearing football that had people referring to the sport as the Beautiful Game.  Inter’s success raised the same issue again.

Indeed there were two matches on yesterday that highlighted the tension between the two aspects of football especially from the British perspective.  Whilst the far more high profile and prestigious game was the Champions League final between Inter and Bayern Munich, the more financially lucrative game was played at Wembley as Blackpool played Cardiff in the Play-Off final to determine who would join Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion in promotion to the Premier League.  Apparently as much as £90 million was at stake in the game.

Typical British observers suggested the play-off match was far more exciting and exhilarating than the Champions League final and you could not contrast the football principles between Mourinho and Ian Holloway, manager of the successful Blackpool side.  Mourinho’s side were comfortable holding their lead and allowing Bayern to play against them catching them on the break as Munich’s toothless attack faltered.  Blackpool meanwhile played attacking football from the start and proved their mettle by coming back after going behind twice before clinching their winning goal before half-time.

Further still many maligned Mourinho’s style in winning and seemingly taking the credit for it.  There were words about how dour the side were and at best how functional they played.

I can understand the criticism … to an extent.  I know the type of football I love watching.  I love the beautiful game as expressed almost mythically by sides like Brazil of 1970 and the all conquering Real Madrid of the early 1960’s or the Cruyff inspired sides of the 1970’s whether Ajax or Holland and their expression of Total Football.

More recently I believe there are only two football sides in Europe that can claim to be part of that lineage of eye-catching awe-inspiring football those being Arsenal and Barcelona.  Where I know Bayern Munich were apparently hailed for their methods, it wasn’t even that convincing when they beat Manchester United earlier on in the Champions League and the final highlighted how much they rely on Ribery.

Barcelona play beautiful football and its successful as well as proven in back to back La Liga wins and that acclaim of Europe’s critics.  Arsenal since Wenger have been committed to a higher plain of play than the typical blood and guts of English football previously.  To the point now that it highlights how functional Manchester United are now.  So although they are capable of entertaining football from time to time, they eek out victories by tenacity rather than overwhelm sides with the wondrous play that was the feature of some of their earlier sides.

Here’s my point, though.  In as much as I love watching quick and slick passing sides with creative, inventive players dominating the midfield and that maestro in the floating role weighing in with wonder goals here and there, I am realistic enough to know that this is not always the most effective way for teams to play to be successful.  The reason I love football is the many ways you can play to reach the end goal of winning games and trophies.  I know Italian football can be boring to watch from time to time, but I do like the intellectual play that goes on between the sides to see how the breakthrough can be achieved and if there is nous on the opposition to overcome going behind.

In fact the many differing issues involved in developing winning football is all the more reason for admiring those who are capable of producing it and the bottom line about the game for all the stars involved is that it is a team game.  That is why managers get in trouble when teams don’t succeed.  Players can get the acclaim, but it’s the managers or head coaches who are ultimately responsible for getting the mix right in releasing their eleven players on the pitch with the balance and information to ensure the right result.  Selecting them, motivating them, identifying their best style of play and blending them together to fit the task given.  It’s not a case of getting eleven fit men who roughly know where the pitch is and send them out and say ‘enjoy yourselves’.  The task of management I think still tends to be underrated as reflected in how much (or little) clubs are willing to pay and invest in proper management rather than look for the quick fix option.

This makes the achievements of Mourinho in his career all the more remarkable.  I have on and off monitored the brother’s progress and been impressed at his method of knitting a group of players together round the cause and take the focus away from them and on himself and leave them with the job of carrying out the instructions and playing to their strengths individually and collectively.  He did that at Porto, the dudes still respect him highly at Chelsea and now that he’s done the unprecedented at Inter there’s a group of players who will reflect on just what a significant achievement they have been a part of because of their charismatic coach.

It’s not pretty to watch all the time, but it fits the function of the players available and there are three trophies in one season to show for it.  If I was an Inter fan I’d be over the moon.  No reason at all to be miserable and you have to be a real misery guts not to acknowledge what a huge deal that is.  Most teams would give anything for that level of success and remember it’s not just dour football, it is effective fully realising football that can be exciting at times.

Interestingly enough, though, his expected move to Real Madrid might be the brother’s undoing.  Here you have a club whose name and establishment has been bigger than any manager that has managed them.  It’s almost a poisoned chalice.  So much spent on players in the hope of getting success and for what they’ve got so far it has not been a good return at all.  Will a club used to players and directors far overwhelming the manager get used to a man who patently wants to be the man in charge?  Will a manager who had to leave one club because there was no more room to exercise his control fit in with that type of culture?

I would love to see him back in the Premier League, managing a club like Manchester City who could comfortably give him the financial backing and leave him to it in terms of shaping a club in his own image to go on and achieve undreamed of success.  (I like his comments in this article about looking to return to the Premier League.)  Other than that it is going to be fascinating witnessing the next steps of the man.

As for the beautiful game, it’s up to the innovators to develop that football that can overcome sterile, lifeless, defensive unimaginative football that dominates most thinking and not take out their bitterness on a man who blatantly knows how to bring success.

Meanwhile, congratulations to Inter Milan and especially the man Mourinho on such a fantastic feat.




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