Another summer of change at Old Trafford; for the third time in four years a new manager, from Sir Alex Ferguson to David Moyes to Louis van Gaal and now to Jose Mourinho. Many United fans, while unhappy with the brand of football delivered by Van Gaal, still have reservations about the appointment of Mourinho; they may have wanted change but have concerns on the grounds that he brings controversy and conflict, others because he plays dour, boring football. We shall see, but this seems a little unfair; change was clearly needed and in truth the appointment of Mourinho feels like a return to an approach we should be familiar with. Here’s why.

Judgement and Flexibility

Leadership and management are hard, they require self-belief and an ability to make good judgements; there is no substitute for good judgement. It’s not surprising, then, that in the face of difficulties, many managers seek out the comfort of a previously successful approach, a formula, or in football terms, a pre-determined tactic or philosophy.  But the best don’t do this. They may have a preferred general approach or set of principles, but there are no preconceptions; there is usually more than one answer so they ask, what is right for now? They have a more flexible approach.  Which brings us to the age old, chicken or egg question facing any football manager: What comes first – choosing a system to suit the players or the players to suit the system?

Managers with a strong guiding philosophy often have a preferred formation. To be fair to Van Gaal on this issue he was more flexible. In the space of two short years at United he used a variety of tactical shapes from 3-5-2 to 4-4-2 with a diamond, to 4-3-3 and this last season to 4-2-3-1.

Van Gaal’s Philosophy

Van Gaal philosophy was based around a set of principles or beliefs rather than team shape. In a nutshell that philosophy is – control the ball and so control the game. Press high and win the ball back early. Rotate possession quickly and the chances will come.  Although Louis believes in the Dutch philosophy – that any outfield player should have all the basic football skills and should be able to play in any position – his approach is fairly rigid, he did not necessarily promote players interchanging positions during games and his teams nearly always retained their shape.  This helped United achieve a good defensive record last season but the problem for Van Gaal was that the chances didn’t come. Why?

Van Gaal was prepared to be flexible in terms of his selection of team shape but he seemed unable to compromise on his philosophy in response to circumstances. His belief remains unchanged come what may, win, lose or draw. As a consequence, this last season his side looked trapped in an ever repeating pattern of dominating possession but struggling to create chances and win games. The playing style and tactical methods remained the same from match to match, with the manager putting his faith in the belief that if he stuck to his philosophical approach it would come good eventually.  As the season wore on, the rigidity of his preferred approach seemed to stifle players who appeared scared of making judgement calls on the pitch. This led to caution and an almost ‘football by numbers’ approach which most found stiflingly dull.  While United ended the season on a high with a trophy, they didn’t really come good; did he have the players who were good enough to pass at the tempo his philosophy needed in order to disturb the opposition’s defensive organisation? Van Gaal seemed not to have the players to suit his method, or if he did, they didn’t have the courage to show their worth.

The irony is that despite coming to dislike Van Gaal’s emphasis on a philosophy driven football, many United fans themselves have a philosophy:  Attack, attack, attack, play with wingers and 4-4-2.  For many this is “the United way” and for them the concern is that Mourinho may not adhere to this preferred system.  Are United fans more like Van Gaal than Mourinho?

Mourinho’s Philosophy

Looking back, all Jose’s teams have exhibited a couple of common characteristics: the maintenance of a midfield trivote and the ability to “rest in possession”, so you could say that he too has a philosophy.  Many would assert that his defining philosophy, however, is to win, and it is that which marks him out as a more pragmatic manager than others; he will embrace the methods he feels are necessary utilising the players available and selecting a system to suit their characteristics. It’s not about the chicken or the egg question, he wants both to take equal prominence.

This more balanced approach means that although he will look to sign better players when he can to strengthen areas of weakness, he does not allow a pre-determined tactical shape or the available players to determine the plan. Put another way, Mourinho trusts himself to make a judgement call every time and is less likely to use a tried and trusted formulaic approach that has worked before.  He is prepared to make the decision each time based on its particular circumstance. The method isn’t determined by the players available and the players don’t need to be shoehorned into a system.

Mourinho has employed any number of tactical methods over the years, from a 4-3-3 and then a 4-4-2 with a diamond at Porto, to a 4-3-3 in his first spell at Chelsea and in more recent years a counter-attacking 4-2-3-1.  Each time he has tweaked these methods significantly to suit the players available to him. All these teams have maintained common characteristics; they have had a minimum of three central midfield players, the aforementioned trivote, designed to ensure control of the space in the centre of the pitch and an ability to circulate the ball and so retain possession for periods to allow players to conserve energy.

Possession; Resting with the Ball

Mourinho’s attitude to possession shouldn’t be confused with Van Gaal’s obsession with possession. Consider this quote, Mourinho talking about his concept of resting with the ball,

But it was ball movement for ball movement’s sake, without a particular objective, so that we could then introduce other game elements aimed at going further, consequently creating dangerous and potential goal situations…When we don’t have the ball, we immediately start looking for ways to regain it…this wears the players out, and so once they’ve regained the ball they have to decide if they can attack successfully and continue to wear themselves out, or if, on the contrary, they cannot and must choose to rest and keep the ball moving.

Jose Mourinho (Luis Lourenco: Made in Portugal, 2004)

This sounds a lot like a Van Gaal mantra at first, but when you re-read it, it is more than that. Mourinho is trusting his players to make a judgement, to decide when the right moment to attack is.  This acknowledges that the philosophy itself, the strategy, is not enough, it cannot win the game on its own without the judgement call. That is a subtle but significant difference.

Give Youth a Chance

There are a number of misconceptions circulating about Jose and his methods. One is that he doesn’t give youngsters an opportunity.  Mourinho even made reference to this in his first press conference as United manager (even if he wasn’t wholly convincing). There is no doubt that he is more cautious in his introduction of youngsters than Van Gaal or Ferguson and this criticism has recently crystallised around the lack of youth players progressing to the Chelsea first team from their highly successful youth set up.

Is this down to Mourinho, or something to do with the way Chelsea develops their players? Did players come through at Chelsea in the years before Mourinho’s second spell at the club, have players come through since he left?  No. Chelsea regularly sign up some of the most promising youth players from across the world and they have regularly won the FA Youth Cup in recent seasons.  But winning youth cups is not the same thing as developing players for the first team. Last season United played Chelsea in an FA Youth Cup tie at Altrincham’s Moss Lane.  Those present were dismayed to see United lose 1-5 and be thoroughly outplayed by the visitors; it felt like men against boys.  Marcus Rashford and Tim Fosu-Mensah played in that game. Enough said?

Controlling Space

Another misconception is that he is a defensive coach. Is this fair?  Mourinho has “parked the bus” on occasions, but equally, on many others, his teams have played expansive attacking football, most recently in the first half of his last Championship winning campaign at Chelsea. What people tend to focus upon though is the games when he plays against his main rivals or towards the end of the season, “squeaky bum-time”.  Then he noticeably tightens up his tactical approach, often focusing on retaining team shape to control space in order to await the opportunity to counter-attack. In this he is really no different than that other great football pragmatist, Sir Alex Ferguson, so in this sense Mourinho could be said to represent a return to something we have seen before.

Mourinho’s teams will always look to control the space in the centre of the pitch. That is the centre in terms of its width and length. His usual method of controlling this space is by strength of numbers, whether his side has the ball or not; hence the aforementioned trivote. In possession, Van Gaal’s United would constantly look to distribute the ball around the classic U-shape from fullback through centre backs or defensive midfield players to the fullback on the opposite side. Mourinho expects the players in the middle of the pitch to work harder and move up and down the pitch more to link play in possession. He can do this because his teams invariably have a numerical advantage in the centre. Mourinho has already alluded to this in his first press conference when he stated that he expected his side to produce more direct lateral play.

Back to the Future?

Jose Mourinho is a manager who varies his team shape and tactical approach, he is flexible and pragmatic, someone whose teams often play attacking football but also know when to dig in and park the bus. He is a manager who has charisma and charm but can be prickly and abrasive to the point of deliberately getting under the opposition’s skin. Above all else he is a manager who values victory ahead of all other considerations and is constantly prepared to back his own judgement to achieve that end. His judgements are often, even usually, right.  He usually wins. Does this sound like anyone else we know?


This article was written for the RoM charity season preview.