Helenio Herrera, also known as Il Mago (the Wizard), is considered one of the founders of the famous Catenaccio, an overly defensive style of football based on the five-defender formation, with one of them a so-called libero. Herrera didn’t actually invent Catenaccio. The style was developed in Italy by Giuseppe Gipo Viani and Nereo Rocco, but Herrera perfected it. On the offensive side, catenaccio football is based on counterattacking – Herrera insisted that his players launch several vertical passes to win the space behind opponents’ backs while the opponent is trying to get through the defensive block. However, although he did not invent catenaccio, Herrera was a man who defined the role of a manager, as told by Jonathan Wilson. Wilson notes a quote from Herrera where he said how managers before him just ‘carried the teams’ bags.’
“I put them in the place they deserved to be”, boasted Herrera.
The Argentine took absolute control of the team affairs. He was one of the first coaches to introduce dietary plans for his players. He insisted that his players get 12 hours of sleep at night. The system he devised, called the ritiro, required his players to stay confined to the team’s training base the night before games. He is considered as one of the pioneers of sports psychology in training process. Herrera would pin motivational messages in the dressing-room to provoke fighting spirit and winning mentality in his players. Wherever Herrera went, all the elements of training process were subject to strict regulations.
Herrera was particularly obsessed with detailed game preparations. Players who played for him often highlighted how they were able to recognize opposition players from the info Herrera gave them even though they’d never seen them in photos.
The Argentine manager demanded blind obedience, discipline was imperative. His rules were more important than his players’ craft. When he was the manager of Barcelona, Herrera axed Ladislav Kubala from the team, even though the Hungarian was their living legend at the time, idolised by the fans. Like Kubala at Barcelona, Antonio Angelillo, Herrera’s countryman and a top class scorer, suffered the same fate at Inter. Throughout his career, Herrera stuck to the following rule: hard work, perfectionism, physical training, special diets and three days of full concentration before every game! Herrera was associated with a number of controversies. Supposedly, he gave his players pills containing uncontrolled substances before matches. He had to win at all costs. Also, while coaching Roma, he fielded a player who had been sick – Giuliano Taccola – who, after coming off, died a few hours later. At last, the players he managed complained about his propensity to = credit for the big wins to himself and his tactical genius, while ascribing defeats to lack of effort from his players.
Players didn’t fancy his insistence on complete isolation from the outside world leading up to big games, either. Tarcisio Burgnich, one of the Inter greats from their golden era, thinks their defeat from Celtic in the 1967. European Cup final was a consequence of Herrera’s decision to isolate the players from the outside world completely leading up to the game. Players were not allowed to meet anyone else outside Inter staff. According to Burgnich, Inter players were on the verge of mental breakdown. Upon his arrival to Milan, English striker Gerry Hitchens likened Herrera’s Inter with an army boot camp. However, Burgnich says Herrera’s approach would reap rewards when used occasionally. “The problem with such retreats is that they’re OK once in a while, but if you do them too often it’s really tough on the players.”
Similarities between Herrera and Mourinho are striking: focus on defending and counter-attacking; insistence on player discipline and motivation; egocentricity and ascribing wins to their tactical tweaks, and losses to his players; spats with his creative footballers; and physical and mental draining of their players.
Mourinho’s fall: causes
If we return to basic principles of Mourinho’s football, we can try to answer the question from the beginning of this piece. What is, then, the reason behind Mourinho’s fall?
There are three possible answers to this question:
-Defensive approach has been found out and rendered obsolete.
– Mourinho lost his ability to match his opponents tactically, meaning that his game preparation aren’t as meticulous as before.
-Or perhaps he is unable to establish and sustain team discipline and absolute trust and loyalty of his players over a long period of time.
Direct football and possession game (Juego de posicion) in particular have dominated the football world in recent years, but this didn’t prevent Mourinho frm winning trophies and thus keeping the defensive approach alive, making it the third most relevant trend in modern football. When Guardiola’s Barcelona looked unstoppable, Mourinho’s Inter succeeded in stopping them. When Guardiola’s Barcelona dominated, Mourinho won the La Liga title with Real Madrid. When many were writing him off upon his second coming to Chelsea, thanks to good defence, he managed to win another Premier League title. Eventually, he won the Europa League with Manchester United and finished second in the league last season. So, even if Mourinho, in his understanding of football, has fallen behind, this doesn’t mean he’s unable to win trophies. Besides, even during the times when defensive football dominated, teams playing offensive football still won trophies. However, it is a fact that defensive approach in big games with direct competitors does not suffice. It is crucial to beat so-called weaker opponents as well, and being defensive just does not help. This is the area where Mourinho has many problems.
At the same time, Mourinho’s tactical brilliance is still undeniable, he scouts and analyses opponents well and knows how to work out tactical solutions defensively. The case in point was the match against Sarri’s Chelsea in London where he managed to deploy Lukaku and Mata to isolate Jorgihno, perhaps the key player in Sarri’s conception, from the rest of the Chelsea team.
He was able to cope with Emery’s Arsenal by changing the system of his team to 3-4-2-1 instead of usual 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation. When in mid or low defensive block, this system would look more like 5-3-2 and 5-2-3, enabling him to contain Arsenal’s offensive 3-4-2-1 formation. Even in games his team lost, he succeeded in implementing interesting tactical tweaks that didn’t work out in the end. In the derby against Manchester City, he deployed a defensively oriented trio of Matić, Herrera and Fellaini and tasked Herrera with marking David Silva. By creating a low zonal block made of 6 or 7 players (four defenders and three defensive midfielders), his team shut out last third of the pitch, thus minimizing the space for City players to maneuver on when attacking, just like he did with Inter against Guardiola’s Barcelona.
In his final match as manager of Manchester United against Liverpool at Anfield, Mourinho again used the 3-4-2-1 formation which morphed into 5-3-2 and 5-2-3 when in defensive block, but 5-1-3-1 as well – by having Herrera drop between two centre-backs, while the third centre-back (Darmian) moved to the flank to play as right-back, and the left wide player (Young) tucked in to left-back position. This allowed the wide player on the right (Dalot) to push up high, in line with Lingard and Rashford, and track Liverpool’s left-back Robertson who likes to venture forward. Unfortunately for Mourinho, it is Robertson who created the most problems for his team, which meant his tactical tweak didn’t work. At last, in support of Mourinho still being a good tactician – he would often introduce Fellaini from the bench, who would change the system and balance of play, thus enabling him to get good results.
This could mean that perhaps the reason behind Mourinho’s fall is his inability to maintain discipline in the team. After one or two seasons, the trust bond between him and his players deteriorates and he is unable to convince them to carry out his instructions and ideas and give their best. It is possible that Mourinho would start to lose control every time his players stopped believing in him, in other words – every time he lost their absolute trust.
That there’s some truth to this is evident in concrete examples from the Portuguese tactician’s coaching resume. In Madrid, Real players complained about Mourinho who would make them practice counter-attacking and defensive phase only, while completely neglecting sessions where they would practice playing against teams defending in low zonal block. Mourinho usually doesn’t take criticism from players lightly. He treated the complaints coming from Real players as acts of treason. In May 2013. Mourinho refused to travel to Malaga with the team, where Real Madrid played against Málaga CF. While certain sections of Real Madrid supporters sided with Mourinho, a group of players lead by the captain Iker Casillas got into open conflict with him. During his second stint as Chelsea manager, it was reported some players were unhappy with Mourinho’s way of work – Eden Hazard in particular. At United, as well, he was far from ideal in this respect – English media claimed only three United players were against his sacking.
However, if we remember how Inter players spoke of Herrera’s methods, which were a precursor to Mourinho’s way of working, we can conclude that the approach favoured by Mourinho eventually leads to player indiscipline and deterioration of the atmosphere in the team. Fabio Capello once said Mourinho is a great coach, but after a year-and-a-half, he ruins his players.
“His lads are also psychologically unable to give him what he wants”, remarked Capello.
In such conditions, players begin to show discontent and even disobedience. This leads to quarrels and bad vibes in the dressing room. We can notice here that Capello only restated what Burgnich already said about Herrera and his way of work.
Another important thing about Mourinho is that he fares much better at clubs without a well-established tradition, footballing philosophy and culture of play, unless this tradition and culture were founded on defence, as was the case at Inter. This is why José didn’t really find his feet at Real Madrid and Manchester United despite succeeding, particularly at Real Madrid (La Liga title). His appointments to these two clubs may seem strange to some because it looks like a miscalculation, both by the two clubs’ leaderships and Mourinho himself. The concept of football at these two clubs is attacking-oriented and defensive-minded managers are usually unwelcome. This does not correlate with the number of goals scored over a season – this is only a matter of stats. The problem lies in the style of play favoured by Mourinho: defensive responsibility, physical dominance, disregard for possession play and taking few risks. Such style of play, even when winning titles and scoring over a hundred scored goals in one season, as was the case at Madrid, is not well-tolerated in settings where attractive and attacking football is part of the club’s tradition.
It was always only a matter of time before these clubs cease cooperation with him. Additionally, Mourinho does not tolerate players with distinct individual features, and it is this type of player that is given a key role in a club like Real Madrid or Manchester United. Once club owners start bringing in that type of player, Mourinho is not happy. A recent statement from Kaka speaks to this.
“The problem in Madrid was continuity. I spent three years trying to convince Mourinho that he could give me opportunities. But it was his choice, it was beyond my reach”, said Kaka.
Everyone at Barcelona obviously got this early on. When it became clear Rijkard will be leaving Barcelona, José Mourinho made the short list of candidates to succeed him. Even though he had gone through “Barcajax” school, the club judged he would not be able to fit into philosophy and culture of play of the Catalan giant. Guardiola eventually got the job, and the rest is history.
What now, José?
Hungarian manager Béla Guttman, today best known for the curse he said upon getting turned down by Benfica, spoke of the so-called three-year rule which states that a team must go through a change after three seasons – whether we’re talking about a change of manager or players. Jonathan Wilson thinks Mourinho’s experience confirms the reasoning behind Guttman’s rule. Mourinho obviously suffers from some kind of a curse. If this rule does not apply to the representatives of “Barcajax” school whose main principle is continuity in their application of certain footballing culture, then the rule still applies to those managers who want to be renegades with their own set of principles. Wilson thinks things get even more complicated for such managers if they cultivate reactive football meant to destroy rather than create.
The conclusion is relatively clear: Mourinho stubbornly sticks to his reactive football philosophy, but its implementation cannot provide the necessary trust in the long-term and allow for player discipline. Once the trust bond between Mourinho and his players is broken, the best of Mourinho’s qualities as manager simply can’t shine through. Without one of the key elements of his approach, Mourinho obviously isn’t able to put his ideas into fruition. When there are also disagreements between Mourinho and a club’s hierarchy, atmosphere in that club can get rather dreary. Looking from a tactical perspective, Mourinho’s problem is the defensive strategy he favours stops working because the trust bond between him and his players deteriorates. He simply does not know how to develop his teams so they attack creatively and progressively. This is why his teams, typically in his third seasons, lose their identity and appear lifeless and dull. Over a long period of time, Mourinho just isn’t capable of perfecting and maintaining one tactical quality, while also being unfit to add another tactical quality to his team.
If he wants to make a return to former glory, he needs to deflate his ego and try to be more flexible tactically, like Cholo Simeone for example, and with that perhaps earn his future players’ trust long term, allowing him to develop defensive part of his game continually. Or maybe he can change altogether and adapt to new trends in modern football. First option looks possible, while second one appears all but impossible.
Be that as it may, Mourinho’s future career will be one of the most interesting developments in modern football. It remains to be seen whether Mourinho can rise again, or if his career will be going downhill with no chance of a turnaround. We are not sure if Mourinho has ever read poetry of one of the greatest poets in Portuguese-speaking world – the Brazilian Carlos Drummond de Andrade. One of his poems, coincidentally named José, is, at this time, appropriate to describe the current situation of one José who likes to call himself the Special One.
And now, José?
The party’s over,
The light is out,
The people have gone,
The night has chilled,
And now, José?
And now, you?
You who are nameless
Who scoffs at others
You who versifies
Who loves, protests?
And now, José?
But you don’t die,
You are tough, Jose!
Alone in the dark,
Without Hesiod’s Theogony,
Without a bare wall
To lean upon,
Without a black horse
To escape upon
José, where to?