Manchester United: 4 times Mourinho was out-thought in Europe

The Sevilla defeat exposed the manager's tactical flaws. The game is increasingly leaving him behind.

(Photo credit: Aleksandr Osipov)

Despite their domestic problems, some pundits argued Manchester United were genuine contenders for the Champions League, citing Jose Mourinho’s ability to devise a tactical masterclass over two legs.

There’s a logic to this – he has obvious pedigree. When the Portuguese coach led Inter Milan to the Champions League, it completed a treble, the only one in the history of Italian football. He crafted an exceptional team but got to the final after beating arguably the best team in history, Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, by virtue of one of the most effective displays of Catenaccio ever seen. 

That success came six years after he took Porto to Europe’s most prestigious trophy, outclassing Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United on the way. The only team in the last twenty years from outside Europe’s top five leagues to win it. 

In between, he changed the way football was played in England, dominating domestically with Chelsea. They only marginally missed out on two Champions League finals, both times being edged out by Rafael Benitez’s Liverpool. 

But Inter’s Champions League was in 2010. Mourinho has won trophies since then but he seldom masterminds European encounters anymore. He is out-thought a regularity that would have been unthinkable ten years ago.

He deserves credit for winning the Europa League last season but that was against a multitude of teams Manchester United have more quality than from front to back, not to mention a massive fiscal discrepancy. The need for a brilliant strategist is less pressing when you boast a better player in every position on the pitch, as he often did in the Europa League.

Nobody would argue Unai Emery is an elite-level coach, despite winning three consecutive Europa Leagues. There’s a big difference between in the tactical nous needed to compete for the two trophies and Mourinho finds himself slipping away from the elite.

Mourinho was once European football’s golden boy. But elite level football has moved on, and he has lost his edge. The likes of Diego Simeone, Massimiliano Allegri and Zinedine Zidane now stand where he once did, whilst Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola have shown how to swashbuckle against second-tier European teams.

Here are four occasions he’s got it wrong:

  1. 1 Borussia Dortmund 4 - 3 Real Madrid (2013)

    Mourinho deserves credit for taking Real Madrid forward. After six consecutive years exiting the competition at the round of 16 stage, he took them back to their rightful place at the top table of European football, getting to three semi-finals in three years. He can consider himself unfortunate not to make the 2012 final after losing to Bayern Munich on penalties. 

    The shine of that step forward has faded a little after Carlo Ancelotti and then Zinedine Zidane did what he failed to do. In four years since Mourinho’s departure, Real Madrid have won three Champions Leagues. 

    In his final season at the club, he missed a real opportunity. Jurgen Klopp’s team were excellent in this tie but had regressed from their peak. They finished that season 25 points behind by Bayern and only narrowly made the semi-finals after a miraculous late comeback against Malaga. The Spanish outfit finished a distant 6th that season, yet pushed Dortmund closer than Mourinho’s team of superstars.

    Real Madrid rallied admirably in the second leg at the Bernabeu to win 2-0 but the damage was done after a 4-1 thrashing in Dortmund. Robert Lewandowski scored all four goals.

    Dortmund set the tempo and their harrying completely upset the rhythm of Real Madrid. After winning two Bundesliga titles, their intensive pressing style had long been established and even midtable German teams had begun to come up with solutions. The lack of defensive cover offered by Mesut Ozil and Cristiano Ronaldo was especially damaging. 

    The rifts in the dressing room that season have now been laid bare in the media. They finished 15 points behind Barcelona and the players had become unconvinced by the siege mentality instilled by their coach. Against such an intensive pressing game, perhaps a team with more unity might have done better.

  2. 2 Atletico Madrid 3 - 1 Chelsea (2014)

    The story that Liverpool bottled the title in 2014 will always stick, especially with the everlasting image of Steven Gerrard’s slip. But Chelsea were top with nine games to go and seven points clear that season - and lost to Aston Villa, Sunderland and Crystal Palace in the run-in. 

    Part of the reason for coming up short was focusing resources on the latter stages of the Champions League, although they also failed to deliver in the semi-final against Atletico Madrid.

    Given the extra value of an away goal, this tie is a classic example that a 0-0 away from home no longer constitutes a good result - although Mourinho evidently does not agree given his team's lack of endeavour. Drawing 0-0 at the Vicente Calderon might have cost them. 

    At Stamford Bridge, they were overrun by Simeone’s team after taking the lead.

    Despite naming a line-up of six natural defenders - with David Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta played in midfield - they conceded three goals and failed to protect their lead. Juanfran assisted two goals that night, and Mourinho blamed Eden Hazard for failing to stop him or provide adequate cover.

    The bravery of Simeone’s approach was the difference, despite his reputation as a defensive coach. As a pragmatist, he saw the advantage of attacking away. Even after equalising - the away goal being enough to qualify - Atletico pushed for more goals and were rewarded as they took the tie beyond Chelsea, winning 3-1. Mourinho was taught a lesson in the value of endeavour, especially away from home, by his opposite number that night.

  3. 3 PSG 3 - 3 Chelsea (2015)

    Chelsea were Champions-elect as they met PSG in the Round of 16, having spent almost the entire season at the top of the Premier League table. PSG might have had superior resources but the two teams were relatively well-matched in terms of quality, meaning it was down to the two coaches to edge the game with their tactical approach.

    In Mourinho’s only great post-Madrid European display, Chelsea knocked PSG in 2014, as they turned around a 3-1 deficit to win 2-0 at Stamford Bridge, completed with a late goal from Demba Ba. 

    But PSG knocked them out the following season - a notoriously flaky team who have shown themselves to be incapable of claiming major scalps, before and since. That Laurent Blanc, a limited tactician, out-thought him is a damning indictment on Mourinho.

    The first leg in Paris was 1-1. A good result and a vital away goal for Chelsea.

    PSG had their work cut out in the second leg, especially as they had to play more than 90 minutes against Chelsea in the second leg after Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s early dismissal. Such an opportunity called for a proactive approach but Chelsea were cautious and happy to sit on the qualification their away goal from Paris gave them.

    With just ten men, PSG managed to take control of the centre of the field with Marco Verratti, Blaise Matuidi and Thiago Motta setting the tempo in the middle. They were well worth the late goal scored by David Luiz to take the game into extra time. They also deserved their second equaliser, to win the tie on away goals, scored by his defensive partner Thiago Silva. 

    Chelsea looked paralysed - attempting to play a game of containment but were undone by set-pieces in the end. 

    They were in a position to qualify for 104 of the 120 second leg minutes. Despite boasting forwards like Diego Costa and Eden Hazard, they didn’t look to kill the tie and paid the price - a recurring theme for these latter stages of Mourinho’s career.

  4. 4 Sevilla 2 - 1 Manchester United (2018)

    Over both legs, Manchester United were simply pathetic. 

    Mourinho hadn’t learned the lessons from Atletico Madrid in 2013 that a first leg away from home is an opportunity to get an away goal. Again, they simply looked to contain their opponents - and were fortunate that David De Gea made exceptional saves to complete that mission. But against a team as average as Sevilla, this is excessively conservative. 

    At 0-0 they were always running a risk and, at Old Trafford, they were punished. 

    Sevilla are a strange and erratic team, but they showed up in both legs here. But the question must be asked - is that because they were allowed to? 

    Both Madrid teams, as well as their city rivals Betis, and humble Eibar have all managed to put Sevilla to the sword this season, scoring five goals apiece. Three of these maulings came under the stewardship of Vincenzo Montella.

    Manchester United were unable to wrestle control in either tie and take the game to Sevilla. Such a diffident and passive approach was an unforgivable mistake from the manager. 

    Profligate finishing from their opponents let Manchester United off the hook on a number of occasions and, as the tie reached the closing stages, they were still in a good position to push for a goal and qualify. But as Mourinho threw the dice, bringing on Paul Pogba for Marouane Fellaini, space was left in midfield and Sevilla exploited it to score two away goals and kill the tie.

    He is yet to craft a balanced midfield that bridges defence and attack. The variants Mourinho has tried are either too porous in defence or sterile in attack.

    The use of Paul Pogba in a deep-lying role is an indefensible error. The issue is increasingly showing up the manager, as Antonio Conte and Massimiliano Allegri have demonstrated before him how to get the best of the Frenchman. The stubborn refusal to play him further up the pitch blunts Manchester United offensively whilst accentuating his positional deficiencies as he leaves gaps and exposes the defence.

    In European football, fortune increasingly favours the brave. Mourinho’s approach here was cowardly and he got what he deserved.

    Can you think of any other times Jose Mourinho has been out-thought in Europe? Let us know by commenting below.

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Nestor Watach