How Mourinho found the formula for beating Barcelona

The Portuguese endured a tough time initially in the famous fixture, losing his first Clasico 5-0 and winning just one in 10, but he has enjoyed much more success recently

By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer

The mark makes rather better reading now for fans of Real Madrid. In his 16 Clasico clashes since taking charge at the Santiago Bernabeu in the summer of 2010, Jose Mourinho has now won four, drawn six and lost six: much worse than the Portuguese’s percentage against other sides – but far better than the record read this time last year. So after more than 1,000 days in charge and many bitter battles with the Catalan club, Mourinho appears to have finally found a formula for success against his fiercest foes.

Mourinho arrived at Camp Nou with a point to prove in his first Clasico, but left with his tail between his legs. Five months earlier, the Portuguese had led Inter to a famous aggregate victory over the Blaugrana, which included a backs-to-the-wall, bus-parking performance in the second leg at Camp Nou, when Inter saw Thiago Motta sent off and watched their 10 men hang on for a 1-0 loss which was just enough to advance to the final. “This is my most beautiful defeat,” Mourinho said afterwards.

He also told reporters at Camp Nou he had not wanted his side to have the ball with 10 men because possession would mean abandoning their positions and giving Barcelona an opportunity to exploit those spaces.

At Madrid, however, his team would need to be more positive. Fans brought up on attractive football would be less likely to stand for negative tactics and Cristiano Ronaldo complained right after his side’s 1-1 draw at the Santiago Bernabeu in April 2011, when the home team ceded almost 70 per cent of the possession to their rivals in a game marked by two penalty kicks. “I don’t like it,” the forward responded when asked about his coach’s pragmatic approach.

It was not pretty, but with men behind the ball and Pepe in the role of midfield enforcer, snapping at heels and charging into challenges, it was working. And four days later, an extremely physical Madrid side beat Barca after extra time to claim the Copa del Rey at Mestalla, with Ronaldo heading the only goal of the game. He was not complaining now and Mourinho had done it; despite disappointment in his first Clasico he had now lost one, drawn one and won the other – and claimed a trophy along the way.

Having been successful with that system, Mourinho stuck with Pepe in the middle as the sides met again just a week later in the Champions League semi-final first leg at the Santiago Bernabeu. And again it was working as Lionel Messi saw space squeezed by what was effectively a seven-man defensive unit. With Pepe on the pitch in his midfield role, Barca failed to score from open play in 270 minutes of football, but when the Portugal defender was sent off  for a reckless challenge on Dani Alves, Messi took advantage with two late goals to kill off the tie. In addition, however, the formation was wasting the talents of Madrid’s forwards, who spent most of their time tracking back, and it continued to upset the Bernabeu faithful. Barcelona were still far superior and this type of football was not what the fans wanted to see.

Madrid were more positive in the second leg and carried that more ambitious approach into the Spanish Supercopa series in August of 2011. Back to 4-2-3-1, pressing from Madrid midfielders Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira squeezed the spaces for Xavi and Messi, forcing Barca onto the back foot. In fact, over the two games, Mourinho’s men should have won the trophy, losing out only to an inspired Messi, who scored three and set up the other two in a 5-4 aggregate win. Frustrated at the outcome, the Portuguese coach showed his unsavoury side as he poked Pep Guardiola’s assistant, Tito Vilanova, in the eye.

Despite the defeat, Mourinho was on to something. The mental scars were still in place, though, and not even an early goal by Karim Benzema could inspire Madrid to a win in the teams’ next meeting, which Barca won 3-1 at the Bernabeu.

The two rivals were then paired together once again in the Copa del Rey, meeting in Madrid on Guardiola’s birthday and a week later at Camp Nou. And it was in the first Copa clash where Mourinho hit an all-time low as his side were completely outclassed – despite taking the lead through Ronaldo – in a negative display which induced boos from the Bernabeu faithful in the next match, against Athletic Bilbao. Playing at home, Mourinho had opted to select Lassana Diarra and Hamit Altintop, as well as the unfit Ricardo Carvalho. It backfired badly.

But from perhaps the low point in his entire reign, after Marca had revealed a training-ground bust-up with Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas following the defeat in the Clasico, Madrid improved no end in the second match, a 2-2 draw at Camp Nou which saw the side compete with the same intensity but playing higher up the pitch and stretching the Catalans on the counter. Real were out of the cup, but emerged with credit for their second-leg display.

“People talk about Madrid,” Guardiola said afterwards, “but we are the ones who are through to the next round.” He was right, of course, but something changed that night in January and in their next game at Camp Nou, Mourinho’s men came out on top.

Playing a high defensive line, with four fast defenders (including the much-maligned Fabio Coentrao, who tends to save some of his better games for Barcelona), close to the midfield double pivot, Madrid pushed Messi back deep into the midfield and nullified his connection with Xavi. With nobody ahead of the Argentine, it was left to Cristian Tello to do the damage, but the youngster squandered two good chances and Madrid, with the pace of Angel Di Maria, plus the intelligent passing of Alonso and Ozil, caused havoc on the break. The German set up the Portuguese for the winner and La Liga was heading back to Madrid for the first time since 2008.

Recent Clasico clashes have followed a similar pattern, with Madrid edging out Barca over two legs in the Spanish Supercopa and securing their first Bernabeu win over the Catalans under Mourinho in the process. Tuesday night’s 3-1 win at Camp Nou proved the pinnacle and again, Madrid’s defence played further forward than usual, in the knowledge that their centre-backs – including the excellent Raphael Varane – have the pace to catch any of Barca’s attackers on the break. Messi, meanwhile, was a forlorn figure at times as he had a whole half of the pitch to himself, yet nothing to do there. The Argentine’s quick burst of pace can be devastating, yet he is less efficient when running from deep like Ronaldo or Di Maria and with nobody beyond, he was pushed back deep into midfield similar to the game against Milan a week earlier.

Meanwhile, Alonso and Khedira pressed tirelessly and released the ball quickly whenever was possible to Di Maria and Ronaldo in the forward positions. One such pass led to the penalty won – and converted – by Cristiano early on, while the German’s quick thinking set Di Maria free in the move which ended in his side’s second goal. And when a longer pass forward was not an option, Real’s midfielder’s were instructed to move the ball around with crisp one-touch passing in order to keep hold of the possession. Madrid now see much more of the ball against Barcelona than before, yet still the mantra remains ‘quality over quantity’.

Xabi Alonso recently told Uefa’s Champions Magazine: “At Madrid we are a team of very quick changes, with deep vertical passing that creates many chances. We don’t want to keep possession for the sake of keeping possession, and we always have a clear objective, which is reaching the box. That works well with the players we have in attack, who are good at putting opponents off balance and finding the goal.”

No side is likely to dominate possession against a Barca team with Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets, in any case, yet aside from the mental aspect, there is one key difference now to Mourinho’s approach against the Catalans which has helped bring about a change in his side’s fortunes in the fixture: previously he set out to stop them; now he goes out to beat them. And with three wins from the last six Clasico clashes, he is getting rather good at it.

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