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Mourinho playing a dangerous game

Real Madrid boss Jose Mourinho had his first answer ready when he sat down in the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu press room about half an hour after the final whistle of Wednesday night's thrilling 3-2 Champions League Group D win over Manchester City.

The opening question came from an English journalist and was, predictably, about how the Madrid coach had felt as he slid across the Bernabeu grass on his knees to celebrate Cristiano Ronaldo's 90th-minute winner.

"Running through my brain was the sight of computer screens and everything that was ready to be published being deleted and journalists having to write again," Mourinho said. "But the celebration does not matter - what matters is the match, the way people that love football around the world enjoyed it for sure."

Once he had got his initial jab at his critics in the Spanish media out of the way, the press conference went on as normal. Mourinho praised his players for "fighting like animals until the last minute" and having the character and ambition not only to come back twice but to then also keep going for the win after equalising with time running out.

That was all fair enough - these factors had been key to Madrid winning the game. And Mourinho, as a coach, is maybe the best around at instilling this type of mentality into individual players, and especially into teams. At Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan and now Real, he has shown he is an excellent motivator and team-builder, an astute selector of players, perhaps, and a masterly controller of dressing rooms, definitely.

But nobody in Madrid (except a very few with axes to grind) claim Mourinho does not have all these very useful coaching qualities. What he is more often accused of is a lack of tactical acumen. This is a big issue in Spain, particularly at the moment, given how many see that a particularly innate Spanish (and/or Catalan) genius has invented a new tactical way of playing which is just better than any other way of winning football matches. And it looks as though this slight actually does hurt the self-proclaimed 'Special One'/'Only One'.

Back in his Chelsea days, some in England viewed Mourinho as an innovative thinker on the game, but there was little subtlety to his Premier League-winning teams. They played fast, aggressive, physical and successful, football; they were excellent at overpowering teams and either smashed them to pieces or ground out results.

Mourinho's most famous 'tactical' move from that era was the half-time treble substitution which involved removing a full-back when Chelsea were losing to a smaller team. If that didn't work, there was the trick of throwing on teenage defender Robert Huth as an emergency centre-forward. Even Huth's current boss at Stoke, Tony Pulis, does not see that as a tactical innovation worth copying.

Mourinho's reputation as a tactician is most often based on the 2009-10 Champions League semi-final, when his ten-man Inter team held on to defeat Barcelona 3-2 on aggregate with an outstanding defensive display in the Camp Nou second leg after midfielder Thiago Motta had been sent off in the first half hour.

The most important tactical move in that tie, however, came in the first game at the San Siro, when Inter went for Barca's suspect defence and Wesley Sneijder pulled them apart.

The Serie A side's rearguard action in the second leg was less planned (obviously, as they didn't know they'd be down to ten men). It also relied on some very poor Barca finishing and especially a refereeing error when Bojan's injury-time strike, which would have sent the Catalans through on away goals, was harshly ruled out for a Yaya Toure handball.

At Madrid, although there has been plenty of success and records broken, there has been even less evidence of tactical genius. Following his team's 5-0 thrashing at the Camp Nou in November 2010, Mourinho cooked up a number of different schemes to try to undo Josep Guardiola's Barcelona, but for over a year the most effective were the ugly ones which involved physically intimidating Barca with Pepe in a midfield destroyer role.

None of these really worked (Copa del Rey final aside) until midway through last season, when Madrid's players finally got their way and were allowed to go at the Barca defence and prove they could take them on man for man.

Mourinho's tactical genius is rarely seen against other La Liga sides. Last season's Real were, unusually for such an expensive collection of players at a big club, a counter-attacking team. They almost always overcame Spanish rivals through their fitness, commitment, spirit and, most of all, individual talent. Not just Guardiola, but also Unai Emery of Valencia, Marcelo Bielsa of Athletic, Marcelo Pellegrini of Malaga and even Jose Ramon Sandoval at Rayo Vallecano out-thought Mourinho in games, but Madrid were able to see off all their teams through an Iker Casillas save, a Sergio Ramos tackle, a Xabi Alonso pass, a Mesut Ozil assist or, most often, a Cristiano Ronaldo goal.

Madrid often had to come from behind in games, and their players often seemed to remove tactics completely and turn matches into an attacking showdown which Ronaldo and co almost always won.

The one occasion on which they were really unable to do this was the Champions League semi-final, when Bayern Munich's better organisation and game intelligence helped them through to a penalty shoot-out victory.

This season, those individual elements are not working as well (in La Liga), with the players below their physical and mental top levels, and Madrid as a team have struggled badly.

Against Getafe last month, Mourinho sent on three attacking substitutes and finished the game with five forwards on the pitch, but it was Luis Garcia's decision to bring on the previously little-used Adrian Colunga to run at Raul Albiol which won the game for his side.

During the 1-0 defeat at Sevilla last weekend, Mourinho also changed things during the game, but to little effect, ending with midfielder Sami Khedira at right-back, even though the player himself has since admitted he had never played there before.

This is not to say that Mourinho is not brilliant at what he does - just that he is no master tactician. Compared to Bielsa, Emery, Guardiola, Pellegrino, and now Tito Vilanova, he is neither a deep thinker on the game nor a designer of particularly inventive schemes or systems. That does not have to matter - there are many ways to win in football. But it still seems he would like to be. Towards the end of his press conference on Wednesday night, he shared his description of how the game had gone.

"In the first half they were very defensive, they could play with one striker in (Carlos) Tevez and three in the midfield, but in the second half they scored and the game was more open," he said. "I started with (Michael) Essien and Khedira to the left and right of Alonso in midfield and ended with (Luka) Modric and Ozil. It was a very good match for the crowd, but also for the people who understand football deeply, as the game was rich."

The game was indeed "rich" - but in incident, not tactical genius. If anyone won the battle of coaching minds, it was City's Roberto Mancini, whose midfield slowly took control of the game. This was especially so after Mourinho withdrew Essien (at 0-0) and Toure was free to set up the opening goal and generally dominate the proceedings, at least until he tired towards the end and (as the Italian lamented in his press conference) City began to sit deep and invite Madrid closer to goal, where their talented individuals could finally make a difference.

Mourinho's initial selection or changes did not win the game for his team, they almost lost it. It was some individual brilliance from Benzema and Ronaldo (and some dodgy goalkeeping on both goals from England's No.1 Joe Hart) that saw his team turn it around. His claim that those who "understand football deeply" would see how he had decided the game just does not hold up.

Nor does his answer to Wednesday night's final question, when he decided to gloat at the journalists who had been forced to quickly revise their match reports as the game turned in the closing stages.

"I know what you were going to say," he said. "He is crazy playing Varane (instead of Ramos) and leaving out all his creative players. (Gonzalo) Higuain does not score in the Champions League. Coentrao is fresher than Marcelo. I know all that was prepared." Then, already on his feet and turning from the desk: "Bad luck."

This overlooked the fact that Ramos was missed as Madrid conceded two preventable goals, and that Higuain had again squandered at least two simple chances at 0-0. There was no time for those present to put these points to Mourinho, but they could at least console themselves with the knowledge that, generally speaking, they were not suffering at all from "bad luck".

On the contrary, having a personality as compelling and colourful as Mourinho managing one of the world's top clubs is good luck for everyone involved in football, and especially journalists. This Madrid team must be one of the most entertaining sides to watch, and cover, that the game has ever seen. But the coach is no tactical genius, however much he'd like to be.

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