In recent years, Football ideology has been divided into two main philosophies. On one side there are the offensive purists who have a unilateral view of football: winning should be married to aesthetics, and most importantly should not come at the expense of class. On the other side there are the pragmatists. They are much less ideologically rigid when it comes to the way they win, and often their teams rely on defense and tactical discipline.
Of course there are many philosophies in between those school of thoughts. German football, especially in recent years, has been particularly successful at displaying a unique form of aesthetic pragmatism. Louis Van Gaal, a cruyffist by origin, has often been malleable to say the least with some of his tactical choices. However, in the era of post-modern football dominated by Barcelona and with the rise of pragmatism – exemplified by Diego Simeone’s Athleti, the debate between pure Cruyffism (circa 2009) and physical realism is ever present.
As a disclaimer, aside from a few purists from both sides – Marcelo Bielsa, Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho, or Pep Guardiola – most football coaches are pragmatists. Perhaps I’m showing my bias1, but I would like to believe that most coaches do the best they can with available players to win.
In modern football, no other two men represent those ideologies better than Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho. With Mourinho leading United, we will get the opportunity to see those two ideologies battle once again in the same country. This time however, the playing field will be much more equal. Both are taking over underperforming club that will need some form of retooling. Both will be given money and managerial authorities to shape the clubs they lead. Three years from now, barring impatience from their owners, we should be able to answer the raging question that has divided football punditry in the last 8 years: Of the two, who is the better coach?
In 2010, Mourinho’s Inter Milan proposed a modern alternative to the new Barcelona order dominating football. While most remember this tie for the bus parking Eto’o-Playing-Right-Back Inter performance at the Camp Nou, the Nerazzuris actually outplayed Barcelona in the first round. They came back with a stunning display and scored three goals after being down one. Yes, Barcelona dominated the ball in the last ten minutes that night but the play was objectively open throughout the game.
In general, Mou’s career has unfairly, too often only been associated to his defensive mindset. For all his antifutbol reputation, most Mourinho sides have been fairly dominant football teams. Some of sides have genuinely played well against cruyffist teams. Chelsea’s2 2005 Champions quarter finals win against Barcelona being a perfect example.
Mourinho is above all a pragmatist. He wants to win and is ready to adapt his game plan to exploit his opponent’s weaknesses. He’s more cautious when it comes to important games, and definitely has a style when it comes to his football ideology but overall the Mourinho-way preaches functionality, precision, and defensive rigor. The Mourinho brand also entails an incredible bond with his players and of course bizarre, if not unpleasant, psychological behavior off the pitch. Aside from his tactical knowledge and his flamboyant personality, Mou’s most overlooked skill is to get the best out of his players. Lampard, Maicon, Sneijder, Di Maria are just a few examples of great talent that became world class under his leadership.
Guardiola on the other hand sees football differently on almost every level. From a neutral point of view, Pep has been extremely successful. For starter, he coached what perhaps is the best team of all time. In the process, he showed both character and hindsight in his managerial decisions. Cutting Ronaldinho and Deco3 had to be a difficult decision, albeit both were passed their prime at that point. He promoted the development of many youngsters from la Masia, the most successful of them all being Sergi Busquets. Most importantly, he facilitated the explosion of perhaps the best player of all time and in the process repositioned him in his natural post-modern false nine position.
Tactically, during Pep’s tenure, Barcelona displayed some the most impressive elements of Cruyffism to date4. However Guardiola will need to address important questions about his legacy. Is this brand of football truly reproducible outside of catalan borders? Has Guardiola ever pushed for a career defining signing that made sense? For all of Guardiola’s greatness, losing in the champions league as he did in the last three seasons is a stain that must be removed. At Munich, Pep’s decisions were not always in sync with the front office and the fans so it will be interesting to see what moves he makes, what player he gets and what system he enacts.
Mourinho will also have things to prove on the pitch. First, we know he will be controversial but can he tone down his proclivity to melodramatic behavior? Referee-bashing and bickering with other managers should be kept to a minimum. Youngsters (such as Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford) should not be dismissed from first team opportunities Lukaku-Morata style. I will also be watching very closely his recruiting decisions. Finally, this cannot be a short term stop as most of Mourinho’s stop. Manchester United needs a lot of work and I doubt staying there two seasons will help fix all the problems.
Both Mourinho and Guardiola need long term stints to cement their legacy. Both will need to be more flexible with their approaches. There are additional questions such as how will Mourinho handle playing on Thursday nights? What will be Guardiola’s plan B when his tiki-taka faces adversity? The premier league is no longer the best league in the world in terms of overall football quality, but it remains nonetheless the most competitive one. The presence of Mourinho and Guardiola will certainly make for must watch television. Ironically, while the battle between the great Cruyffist and the defensive wizard will be a spectacular battle of two opposite philosophies, I suspect that I’ll be supporting the centrist German approach at Liverpool.
- I’ve loved every Mourinho team except his most recent Chelsea team. I genuinely liked Dunga’s Brazil. In general I like watching direct, precise, physical football.
- 2004-2006 Chelsea was truly a great team.
- Often forgotten in football history, Deco finished second in the ballon d’or voting in 2004. If voters gave the Portuguese league just a little bit of respect, he probably would’ve won the award. Which brings me to another point, it’s been 8 years since the ballon d’or (winner) has not been either Cristiano Ronaldo or Messi.
- The effective use of the false nine, the 4-3-3 turned 3-4-3 in transitions are a couple examples.
I invite you to follow me on twitter to continue the conversation. Partly in response to Patrice Dumont’s book, partly because I have a strong opinion on the subject, we tackle the interesting case of Messi versus History.