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Not unlike some other notable managers, Jose Mourinho endeavours to shift media scrutiny from his players onto himself, and it’s a skill he’s developed to a ridiculous level of mastery. From time to time, however, the scrutiny belongs squarely focused on him in the first place – this is certainly the case following Sunday’s disaster at bottom Almeria.
To be fair, this was the headline I had intended for last week’s aborted write-up: “Villarreal 2 – Mourinho 4.” That solid performance seemed a good occasion to re-examine what I had previously laid out as the task at hand for Mourinho to transform Real Madrid into a side that can legitimately hope to take three points from the Barcelona juggernaut in April – that task being to strip his superstars of their self-serving tendencies.
While the Villarreal result provided more evidence that he is in fact doing this (notwithstanding Ronaldo’s razzle-dazzle-give-aways), the convincing reversal of the early double-deficit also was almost entirely the wages of Mourinho’s tactical manoeuvring.
That Sunday’s goal-fest seemed to mark a point of departure for the type of football Real had been playing last year. It was also the emergence of something rather resembling character and perseverance for the team as a whole.
Without question, Mourinho’s still-questionable back-line, along with Alonso, absolutely fell asleep on Cani’s goal. But while Real’s leveller did come from its superstar-in-chief, it was also a flawless example of a team-goal: Benzema not just holding up the ball, but getting it to Özil, who befuddled the defence by continuing the exchange before giving Ronaldo one of his easier markers.
Of course, the Real defence promptly demonstrated that it doesn’t quite have the concept of the trap sorted out. But the Whites very much knuckled down after that, and Alonso’s superb serve to Ronaldo’s head for a sharp finish set the tone for what was to come in the second half.
After correctly sizing up the Submarine’s performance during the first half, as well as the effectiveness of his own tactical adjustments (like getting his defenders to be much more disciplined in the second half), Mourinho leveraged his side’s growing domination of the tiring visitors’ midfield by going offensive.
First he stabilized his own midfield by replacing the ineffectual-if-energetic Diarra with a more judicious Khedira, which enabled him to add Kaka’s creativity to the leading edge.
A two-goal lead firmly in hand, Mourinho promptly slammed shut the crack in the backdoor with Gago. So, while the perseverance of a team finding its stride is what kept the score level up to that point, it was this tactical master-stroke that earns Mourinho the credit for the convincing victory.
And Away . . .
Now, whereas the Special One is due his credit for the fine home performance, he is equally, if not more so, due the blame for needlessly dropping the two points vs. Almeria.
In fact, starting Benzema on the bench was such an obvious blunder that it rather smells of a managerial power move much more than an earnest attempt to take all three points from the cellar-dwellers.
Other not-insignificant managers have, to equally disappointing effect, attempted to use Ronaldo to lead the line—and typically out of necessity instead of a less than subtle dislike of the other available personnel—so it’s exceedingly doubtful that Mourinho was unaware of the risks involved in such a move.
No, whatever the legitimate criticisms of Benzema as a finisher, his presence on the pitch is critical to creating the space necessary for the likes of Özil, Di Maria, and now Kaka, but especially Ronaldo to operate.
Goals may have been lacking, but Benzema has relatively consistently delivered the goods in terms of holding up the ball, and more recently he’s even learned how to release it to good effect, with Ronaldo and Özil certainly having benefited.
We’ll probably never know what Mourinho was truly thinking in making his selections, but it’s reasonable to infer that his primary motivation was to compel some action from Valdano and Perez in the transfer market, by sneaking three points the bottom team without his striker in the line-up.
Almeria, of course, had other ideas, and Mourinho’s scheming was fully foiled by what had to be Di Maria’s worst day at the park this season, while Marcelo had relapsed into his give-away phase. Even the Germans were no help, and that’s not counting Sami’s momentary lapse of reason.
By the time Mourinho conceded to reality, the Real defence was set to disappoint once again, which it did at minute-60. Worse yet for his scheming, the goal that saved a point was capably set up, albeit not scored, by Benzema.
Still, the risk of this tactical approach must have been apparent to a manager of Mourinho’s stature, so he must have accounted for it in his overall strategy. It is, however, challenging to see how his league calculus comes together – at this point, even if he gets the striker of is choice, he seems to be counting on injuries creeping into the bigger of the Catalan sides as the season wears on.
With Mallorca missing some key personnel, and Santander not about to present a problem for Barca, this weekend is unlikely to shed much additional light on how things will turn out, but whatever the outcome at season’s end, Mourinho cannot now say that it wasn’t of his own making.
And in the wake of Almeria, the media spotlight shouldn’t trouble his players too much for their remaining fixtures.
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