Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Mourinho's Fleet Arrives at Midway

Barcelona and Real Madrid meet this evening for the ninth time in the last ten months.  Real Madrid have won only one of the previous nine meetings, that in extra time at the Mestalla in the Copa del Rey Final last spring.  Los Merengues are five points clear of their hated enemy in La Liga, which one would think would be cause for celebration among their fans.  Instead, discontent is building because of Real's failure to beat Barca head-to-head.  Real got two shots at the Blaugrana in recent weeks, both at home.  In both matches, Real went ahead early and then lost as Barca's midfield asserted control over the matches.  Most gallingly for Jose Mourinho and Real fans, they can't even throw up their hands and say "Barca have the best player in the world and he beat us."  Leo Messi hasn't scored in either match, although he assisted on the equalizer in December and the winner last week. 

Mourinho's failure to beat Barca is now starting to become an issue.  Real Madrid is a massive institution, even by the standards of European mega-clubs.  It has a complicated political structure involving various executives and sometimes players (read: Raul) that often illustrates the saying "too many chefs spoil the broth."  For years, the manager was set up as a fall guy.  He didn't decide the style, he didn't have control over signings, and if anything went wrong, he would be the scapegoat for the failings of others.  The experience of Vicente Del Bosque at the Bernabeu is Exhibit A:

In his four seasons in charge Del Bosque ushered the club through its most successful spell in modern history, having steered the club to two UEFA Champions League titles in 2000 and 2002, two domestic La Liga titles in 2001 and 2003, a Spanish Supercup in 2001, a UEFA Super Cup in 2002, the Intercontinental Cup in 2002 as well as finishing in the last four of the UEFA Champions League every year he was in charge. Not since the great Madrid side of the 1950s and 1960s that had Alfredo Di Stéfano and Ferenc Puskás did the club succeed so consistently. Del Bosque was famed for his humble, patient and unassuming style which saw him manage the club as it underwent a policy during Florentino Pérez's tenure as club President that was known as 'Los Galacticos'- where the world's best and most marketable stars were signed for the club beginning with Luís Figo, and including Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo. Del Bosque's management was successful in uniting the many different modern player egos in his star studded team: in the Del Bosque era Real managed 104 wins out of a possible 186 in his time as coach of Madrid. Despite the level of success, many players – in particular the so-called 'Galacticos' – were bought without the input of Del Bosque amid often made allegations that the Real Madrid hierarchy (in particular Pérez and general manager Jorge Valdano) had more control over transfer policy, team selection and other aspects of club that minimalised the level of control Del Bosque had during his time as manager.

Shockingly, Real Madrid decided not to renew Del Bosque's contract in 2003, just a day after he won the club its 29th League title and a week after the club signed David Beckham. Del Bosque was offered the post of technical director but turned it down, leading to many suggestions in the Spanish media that there was indeed a much rumoured political split at the club involving Del Bosque and several players, especially captain Fernando Hierro (who was asked to leave the club in the summer of 2003), on one side, while Jorge Valdano and Florentino Pérez wielded the axe of control to in their words, 'shake up the team', on the other. Pérez said in an interview with BBC Sport: "Del Bosque was showing signs of exhaustion. I want to be sincere about this – our belief that he was not the right coach for the future."
Del Bosque then added the World Cup to his personal trophy room in 2010.  Depending on Barca's trophy haul this year, his list of accomplishments is not that far removed from that of Pep Guardiola's four years in charge in Barcelona.  Guardiola is untouchable; Del Bosque got the boot because winning La Liga and losing in the last four of the Champions League (in a close, enthralling tie with Juventus) was just not enough.  Moreover, the guy who made the decision to axe Del Bosque - Florentino Perez - also happens to be the current president of the club.

One of the issues that makes Real a snakepit for a manager is the local media.  Madrid has two sports dailies - Marca and AS - that provide exhaustive coverage of the club.  Marca has especially close ties to Real, such that its campaign against Manuel Pellegrini during the first year of the new Galactico era in 2009-10 was thought to be encouraged (or at least tacitly permitted) by upper management at the Bernabeu.  So, when Marca prints an exchange between Mourinho and Sergio Ramos verbatim, this is not a good sign for Mourinho.  Here is Sid Lowe's description of the Marca story:

Marca's cover showed Mourinho and Sergio Ramos face to face. Word for word, they reproduced a conversation between the two men, and Iker Casillas, at Real Madrid's Valdebebas training ground on Friday morning – two days after Madrid, playing ultra-defensively, had again been beaten by Barcelona; two days after Ramos had noted: "We follow the coach's tactics. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't." According to Marca, the conversation started with Mourinho turning towards Ramos and saying: "You [plural] killed me in the mixed zone." To which Ramos replied: "No, mister [the Spanish term for a coach], you only read what it says in the papers not everything we said."
Mourinho replied: "Sure, because you Spaniards have been world champions and your friends in the media protect you … and because the goalkeeper …" At that point there is a shout from Casillas, training 30 metres away: "Eh, mister, round here you say things to our faces, eh!"
Another part of the conversation starts with Mourinho saying: "Where were you on the first goal [against Barcelona], Sergio?"
"Marking Piqué"
"Well, you should have been marking Puyol."
"Yes, but they were blocking us off [using basketball style screens] with Piqué and we decided to change the marking."
"What? So now you're playing at being coach?"
"No," replies Ramos, "but depending on the situation in the game, sometimes you have to change the marking. Because you've never been a player, you don't know that that sometimes happens."
This story represents all sorts of issues for Mourinho.  First, it illustrates a less-than-content locker room, which cuts against one of Mourinho's noted strengths: his ability to get wealthy, egotistical stars to all pull in the same direction, even if they might not like being on the bench or playing in a defensive style.  Second, it hints at cliques based on nationality, hence the "you Spaniards" remark.  (The current rumor is that there is a division between the Spanish and Portuguese players in the side.)  Third, it hits Mourinho where it hurts, which is that unlike Guardiola, he was not a successful player.  (Think Tracy Flick here.)  Fourth, the fact that Marca has a source within the team and ran a cover story pulling up Mourinho's kimono implies that Mourinho's political situation is not entirely secure.  For someone with a well developed sense of paranoia (Simon Kuper attributes this tendency to Mourinho growing up in a dictatorship), Marca's story is ominous.

Jose's teams generally don't play attractive football, with the match against Barca last week generally and Pepe's behavior specifically being a nadir.  If his teams win, then everyone is happy.  If they don't win, then there is really nothing to commend Jose at all.  Real Madrid are winning, but they are not accomplishing what Mourinho was brought to the Bernabeu to do: conquer Guardiola's Barca.  (Mourinho's wins over Barca at Chelsea and Inter were a major credential in hiring him.)  Thus, today's match is critical because it comes at an important juncture.  If Real can overturn the 2-1 deficit and win at the Nou Camp (a feat that Mourinho has never accomplished, despite three chances at Chelsea, two at Inter, and three so far at Real; he has four losses and four draws), then his reputation as a Barca-killer returns.  He will re-establish his credibility with his players and accumulate political capital to deal with management and the media in Madrid.  If Real lose, then Jose faces a genuine crisis because the impression will be further cemented that he cannot do what he was brought to Madrid to do.  It's one thing to lose to a historically great team; it's another to do it while deploying eight defensive players, including your compatriot - a center back playing midfield - stomping on Messi's hand.  It's strange for me as a Cule to say this, but today's match is more about the enemy. 


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