It seems unnecessary to say it, but Jose Mourinho will undoubtedly be missed. He brought so much to football in this country, and our native football journalism will be all the poorer for his abrupt departure.

But it is the football journalists, rather than the fans, who will miss him the most. A lot of fans tired of his ungracious moaning and shameless referee-baiting a long time ago, but when you read the testimonies of journalists who have spoken to him face-to-face, you get an impression of a warm, charming and immensely generous individual who couldn’t be any further removed from the endlessly parodied cardboard cut-out ‘Special One’ so readily paraded before us at pre-match press conferences and post-match interviews.

Mourinho certainly did a great deal for English football. Tactically, he introduced a counter-attacking 4-3-3 formation that – in his first season at least – was breath-takingly efficient, and which has since been aped by managers the length and breadth of the country.

He developed promising young English players like John Terry, Frank Lampard and Joe Cole into the genuinely – OK, occasionally – world-class performers they are today, gave Eidur Gudjohnsen the chance to prove himself a midfield artisan of the highest quality and placed sufficient faith in Didier Drogba to enable him to become one of the most complete centre forwards in the world.

Likewise, he reminded us that, behind every media-peddled stock image of a manager – Ferguson the Firebrand, Wenger the Scholar – is a man, with a family and concerns of his own that have absolutely nothing to do with the over-hyped, endlessly self-publicising Premiership.

But, for all this, we must be careful not to overstate his achievements. He certainly produced a tremendously successful team at Chelsea – galvanised by a team spirit that, for all the rather stage-managed training ground joshing appears to be real and lasting – but he was nonetheless able to do so thanks to a quite simply incredible budget that is unprecedented in English football.

Yes, he brought the Premiership trophy to Stamford Bridge – twice – but he inherited a team already brimming with international talent that had finished second in the league (behind Arsenal’s 2003-2004 Invincibles) and reached the semi-finals of the Champions League.

He produced a trophy-winning team capable of playing brutally effective football, but how many top European managers would be confident of achieving similar results if given a budget of hundreds of millions of pounds?

And for all the success that players like Drogba, Michael Essien and Petr Cech achieved, let’s not forget the turkeys. Over £57 million were spent on Paulo Ferreira, Mateja Kezman, Asier del Horno and Andriy Shevchenko, not to mention free transfer Michael Ballack. Mourinho may have lamented how his team struggled without John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba in the side, but with the resources at his disposal it’s hard to feel genuinely sympathetic.

The less palatable elements of Mourinho’s managerial style must not be overlooked either. For all his great soundbites and mischievous charm, he remained a terribly ungracious loser, and was partly responsible for hounding Anders Frisk – one of the best referees of the last 10 years – into retirement in 2005.

Mourinho was – and is – a truly gifted manager. He brought a style both on and off the pitch which had never been seen before on these shores, and he achieved notable success. But he was also, at times, deeply unpleasant, and for all his love him-hate him popularity, his most impressive achievement to date remains the Champions League trophy he won with Porto in 2004. That was a team he can genuinely claim to have crafted himself.

The record books will show that Chelsea were an ambitious, underachieving club who suddenly won everything there was to win in the domestic game following the arrival of a Russian billionaire. The sad thing for Mourinho is that he wasn’t given the time to intertwine his own story with Chelsea’s more irrevocably, and for that the blame must lie squarely with Roman Abramovich and Peter Kenyon and a Stamford Bridge hierarchy that expected too much too soon.

If they want to know what the future holds for Chelsea Football Club now, it might be an idea to cast their minds back to the summer of the 2003, and the departure from Real Madrid of a certain Vincente Del Bosque…


Making an impression

July 27 2007

Far be it from me to suggest that new Liverpool signing Lucas Leiva’s claim that he turned down Everton and Man United is anything but truthful, but it seems a remarkable coincidence that the only other clubs to have tried to sign him just happen to be Liverpool’s two biggest rivals.

Mind you, when it comes to winning over the fans, the first press conference is fraught with danger. Who can forget Jonathan Woodgate addressing the Spanish media following his move to Real Madrid and stating how much of an honour it was to sign for a club which had been represented by such legendary players as “Hierro, Raul and… um, many others…”?

Given Steven Gerrard’s suspicious response to Craig Bellamy’s claim of life-long allegiance when he signed for Liverpool last summer, I suppose we should probably be congratulating Lucas for using his imagination.

And if all else fails, there’s always the Graeme Souness approach

Former Real Madrid coach Jorge Valdano thinks teams like Liverpool and Chelsea are taking the skill out of football with their conservative approaches to the game. He likened their Champions League semi-final to “a shit hanging from a stick”.

I’m not entirely inclined to agree with him – there are no rules in football as to how you should go about winning, and both Chelsea and Liverpool are capable of playing fairly attractive football – but I do think he has a point. The style of football both teams play is arguably a result of a coaching style that relies on dossiers and statistical analysis which calculate hard running and defensive solidity to be of greater value than individual expression.

Valdano attributes the two teams’ direct tactics to their respective managers’ failures as players, arguing that, as they had no talent, they are unable to trust the talent of their players, and rely instead on compactness and physicality.

While it’s a commendably interesting argument, I feel the aforementioned tactics are symptomatic of a wider malaise affecting football around the world.

With the money currently sloshing around in the game (particularly in England), the financial risk of failing is just too great. Quite simply, cash-strapped clubs run on tight budgets can’t afford the extravagance of having flair players in their team. They need solid, honest grafters who are going to keep them in the league.

At the same time, weak teams are learning that, by being organised and hard-working, they can achieve success. You just have to look at what Greece achieved in Euro 2004 to see that a relative absence of talent needn’t be a barrier to achievement.

The sad fact is that a lot of teams no longer go out to win. Instead, they go out not to lose, and the popularity of the lone-frontman 4-5-1 in the Premiership bears testament to this.

You can see it in the way results have evolved over the years. Look at the Premiership. When was the last time one of the smaller clubs got absolutely spanked? Teams occasionally score four or five goals, but if you look at an average weekend of First Division football from the 1950s, you’ll see that such hauls were more regular occurrences.

The same thing is happening on the international stage. Germany’s 13-0 mauling of San Marino last autumn caused such a shock because results like that just don’t happen any more, particularly in Europe. The Republic of Ireland can certainly testify as to how far San Marino have improved in recent years.

Smaller teams are getting organised, and as a result, the game as a spectacle is suffering. You can hardly blame them, but then, when the stakes are so high, you can hardly blame Liverpool or Chelsea either.

Mirror, mirror…

April 10 2007

Stumbled across this rather interesting video on YouTube this morning.

It depicts a number of very famous goals but in mirrored form, as if they had been scored at the opposite end of the ground and with a different foot.

It’s a funny idea, but makes for interesting viewing, if only because it suggests what it would have been like if players like David Beckham and Alan Shearer had been left-footed.

The only goal which doesn’t strike you as being odd is Zinedine Zidane’s sublime volley against Bayer Leverkusen in the 2002 Champions League Final, because he struck it with his (supposedly weaker) left foot in the first place.