The Special One’s Special Mission

Samuel Dieudonné explores the cult surrounding Jose Mourinho and his trials and tribulations as a Real Madrid manager. You may reach Sam on Twitter @dieudonnesam

He may not be an out-of-the-world manager, but Jose Mourinho is a proven winner across leagues, sitting pretty at the very top of the European football world – the Champions League.

Mission Impossible ?

To the men he interacts with at Real Madrid – players and coaching staff alike – the Portuguese boss is probably the epitome of managerial brilliance, controversial and unorthodox who through his cussed winning mentality has driven them along. Over the past year, since taking over from Manuel Pellegrini, Mourinho has emerged as a fatherly figure at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu; protecting his players from the vicious attacks of the Spanish media through general pettiness rarely expected from an experienced boss his age. At times his attitude has been hard to fathom. However, we would be naive to believe that the task of overtaking a well drilled Barcelona side – arguably one of the best there ever has been – wouldn’t come without its fair share of complications.

Having mused on that, I daringly pose the question:

Is too much expected of Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid?

To say that Mourinho morphed Madrid into the feared side they are now from scratch would be flawed. Yes, they have improved under him but the core of his team – Cristiano Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso, Kaka and Karim Benzema, for instance, were already at the club during his predecessors’ time. These newly arrived stars, along with long-time club servants of the club like Raul and Guti, were expected to lead Real to unprecedented levels of success. Added to likes of Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Gonzalo Higuain and, Marcelo Vieira, this squad was built to be feared for many years. However, instead of reposing faith in Pellegrini, who, to be fair, hadn’t done a terrible job in his one year reign Florentino Perez eyed the man who’d just won an unprecedented treble as Inter manager in Italy, after knocking Barcelona out in the Champions League over two hotly contested semi-final legs. There was no stopping Real Madrid now with this man at the helm.

In the midst of such massive hoopla, Madrid and its supporters somehow left Barcelona out of the equation – a side led by Josep Guardiola, playing what may be branded as scintillating football, without a hint of embellishment, prejudice, or bias. Questions about the fair play standards and of referee favours have been raised; nevertheless, they have set the benchmark for a Mourinho-led Real Madrid to attain.

Upon arriving in the Spanish capital, Mourinho got to work right away. Club icons like Raul and Guti were considered past their prime and shown out. Others like Argentine defender Ezequiel Garay and Dutch playmaker Raphael van der Vaart were deemed not to be fitting in his plans and subsequently sold. In came the German wizard Mesut Ozil and Argentine sensation Angel Di Maria to offer added craft in midfield. Sami Khedira came in to provide steel in the centre of the park and help Xabi Alonso in spreading play wide from the deep. Mourinho came with a dream and demanded the players to believe in his dream. He was given unconditional decision-making powers – Jorge Valdano was shown the door and Zinedine Zidane appointed as the first team director. Though not related to on-field activities, this incident preceded an immediate improvement in the league performance. It seemed that the club could contend for and  lift many trophies for the first time since Fabio Capello won the La Ligain 2007.

With his #1 weapon

Not everything should be measured in terms of Real Madrid vs Barcelona though. Apart from consistent and downright infuriating failures against them, Real have, slowly but surely, made tremendous progress under Mourinho. Defeating the rest of the Liga sides and other power houses in Europe appeared to be second nature. Cristiano Ronaldo started scoring hat-tricks at will; Ozil and Di Maria provided assists just as proactively as Alonso anchored the midfield. Karim Benzema had been transformed from a tame mouse into a devouring lion. Make no mistake, Mourinho had definitely made his mark and built a fearsome team. Progress soon thereafter was to become constant and notable.Little did Mourinho know though, that his worst nightmares were yet to come. Soon enough in the Clasico at Camp Nou he would be embarrassed like never before with a 5-0 thrashing. Barcelona had proven their vast superiority knocking Mourinho out of his comfort zone. For the first time in his managerial career, he had to contend with being the second best. The self-proclaimed Special One could not take it too well. How could such an experienced and illustrious manager allow this to happen? What hadn’t gone right? It really seems that he has been trying to sort that out in every single game against Barcelona since. That defeat instilled fear in the Madrid camp as their attempts to be adventurous had left them cruelly exposed to a merciless score. This marked the beginning of Mourinho’s over-reliance on an ultra-defensive system in every Clasico since then.

In Mourinho’s first season, Real Madrid disappeared early from the domestic title race. They failed to reach the finals of the Champions League, again thwarted by Barcelona, but won the Copa del Rey to save Mourinho’s job, beating the same foes. Though sharply contrasting in outcomes, neither performance was anything to rave about. But by winning a trophy – and more importantly beating Barcelona – Mourinho atleast kept the skeptics pleased whilst reminding them that if any manager could do it against this Barcelona, it was him. But once again hewould display signs of frustration – lashing out against UEFA for decisions which went against his side, over the two Champions League ties. In truth, however, Madrid were outdone by the individual brilliance of Lionel Messi. Playing as defensively as they had over those two games hardly helped them either.

The eye poke

There were positives to garner from that particular display though. For the first time Madrid had actually shown some courage to fight Barcelona blow for blow with an attacking approach. The Special One hadn’t gone with 11 players behind the ball as showcased previously. Real were not embarrassed. In fact, mixed with the disappointment there was a sense of excitement for the season ahead and what it would bring. This time round, Mourinho felt that there was an increasing need for new squad players to improve the team. So, in came Fabio Coentrao, Hamit Altintop, Raphael Varane and Nuri Sahin to bolster the squad.Then in the Super Cup matches early this season, Barcelona came out on top despite a spirited effort from Real. To fans and neutral observers alike, it was clear that Mourinho’s men were dominant over the two legs. However, once again the play of a certain Argentine maestro proved decisive when it mattered. Left fuming in frustration, Mourinho poked Barcelona assistant manager Tito Vilanova in the eye. It was an act sent viral, jokes are repeatedly made about it, videos compiled on YouTube and even some computer game, was made on it. For a Real Madrid supporter, however, such actions were simply depressing.

Madrid started brightly once again – in fact, exceptionally. Playing better than Barcelona was no more a fantasy. It appeared the gap has finally been closed. The team coasted through the Champions League group stages with a 100% winning record conceding the least number of goals; only one team had scored more goals than Real Madrid (no prizes for guessing who). Real started the next Clasico, in the domestic league, with a six point lead over their arch rivals. There was a chance to get a nine point cushion to dispel all the doubts. But Mourinho opted to go defensively once more and was taken apart by a rampant Barcelona side resulting in a 3-1 defeat at home. Suddenly talks of crisis began to arise. Hardly necessary as the team moved on from the loss and continued to perform.

As fate would have it, Madrid drew their arch enemies once again in the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey. A tie to be played over two legs. Many think Barcelona can only be beaten in a one-off knockout type clash. So, it was another chance to showcase the progress this team has made and just how far it has come. But, seemingly having learned precious little from previous outings, Mourinho chose to go with an overly defensive setup once again in the first leg at Bernabéu. Pepe was used as a destroyer in the midfield, along with Xabi Alonso and Lassana Diarra in a three-man midfield. Real managed an early lead through Ronaldo. But Barcelona dominated the game with the lion’s share of possession – over 70%. In the end, oddly enough, two defenders Eric Abidal and Carles Puyol,  found the goals to take a deserved victory back to Camp Nou with them. The media and supporters did not take kindly to the proceedings of Madrid dominating on their own turf; they opted to play defensively and took nothing away. Boos drowned Mourinho chants during the subsequent league match against Athletic Bilbao. The Special One‘s stock had suddenly gone down.

Coincidentally enough, days before the return leg away to Nou Camp, prominent Madrid daily, Marca ran a story about internal rifts in the squad. Supposedly Mourinho and Sergio Ramos had gotten into a heated exchange; where the player called into question his managers’ abilities and knowledge of the game. For the first time perhaps, a player had openly challenged Mourinho, who is noted to be a great man-manager. When questioned, everyone remained adamant that the squad was united and would fight to advance into the next round. Underneath the cover up, one suspected players were fed up with playing defensively and wanted to take a more offensive approach. The sentiment had been voiced before. It was up to Mourinho to respond accordingly.

And respond accordingly he did. Madrid played the best I have seen them in the last five Clasicos. In came Kaka and Ozil supporting Ronaldo and Higuain up front. The midfield was more fluent which translated into more efficient play. Pepe dropped back into defense to partner Ramos and Barcelona hardly got a sniff at goal as a result of their spirited performance. I saw ten players out there running for each other, concerned with defending a precious crest and more importantly fighting to win as supporters had been promised before the game. That display filled Madridistas worldwide with pride. They had actually gone for it with no fear, attacking fluently but remaining compact at the back too. I have no idea what convinced Mourinho to throw caution to the wind for once, but I am so glad that he chose to. Hopefully he he will have realised that having an attacking flair to the game is far more effective than playing 11 in behind the ball. It was a 2-2 draw that felt like a convincing victory owing to the manner in which the team played. You may argue that Barcelona was not at their best, which I shall begrudgingly concede but I prefer to feel that they had never faced Madrid at their finest either under Mourinho. After a long time, Barcelona finally experienced what it could be like to play a Madrid at the peak of its potential. It may never be a walk in the park again.

To answer the question I posed, I don’t feel too much is demanded of Mourinho but the time frame in which he has being asked to achieve that what is necessary is too short. Fans and management alike must show more patience. Madrid continue to make giant strides; the titles will inevitably come. Bearing in mind that Barcelona are undoubtedly the strongest team in the world currently, toppling them is a momentous task that even a manager of Mourinho’s calibre cannot guarantee within a set time frame.

A wise man once claimed: “The power of a bull is not measured at home, but in a foreign field.” Madrid are working towards being a stronger bull at home, and away to Barcelona and to all other sides which ill-fatedly cross paths with them. The progress made under Jose Mourinho is obvious. Real are on a special mission with the Special One – to dethrone the greatest team of their generation. One would be a fool to bet against that Portuguese making good.