Jose Mourinho is known for a lot of things – coaching ability, tactical nous, success, arrogance, to name a few. But one thing that is almost synonymous with the name “Mourinho” - on the field, at least – is a devotion to having a solid defensive midfield presence.
Unlike his peers, such as Guardiola, Wenger and Klopp, Mourinho is not a manager prone to allowing his teams to play scintillating forward-driving attacking football. Safe positioning and defensive balance are the order of the day. And on that bedrock of solidity has his immense success as a manager been built.
At Porto, where Mourinho first made a name for himself, he relied on a base of Costinha as the defensive mid, and then switched between a 4-3-3 and a 4-3-1-2, depending on the game and the tactical situation. This gave him the anchor in midfield on which to base his defensive structure, and consequently the patterns of play in his counter-attack:
When he moved to Chelsea, he largely tried to replicate this by utilizing Makelele in the defensive mid position. Given the speed and aggression of the 5 players in the attacking positions for Chelsea (consisting of Drogba, Gudjohnsen, Robben, Duff, Cole, Lampard, Ballack and Essien) at that time, a solid midfield base was crucial. Makelele, of course, performed the role to such a high standard it became known as “The Makelele Role” for a long time after, in coaching and match-analyst circles.
At this point the double-pivot in midfield - with one central midfielder holding as a shield in front of the defense, and another having defensive responsibilities but still having some license to roam forward – became an obvious hallmark of Mourinho’s tactics. The crucial component was the physically dominant defensive shield – something he repeated at Inter Milan with Cambiasso as the destroyer and Muntari as the free-running second pivot, but couldn’t really build at Madrid, where artful midfield play drove the transfer policy more than functional reliability.
Unable to find the right player or balance (especially to compliment the passing of Alonso and the industry of Khedira), Mourinho at times had to resort to playing the defender, Pepe, in that role to at least give an impression of tactical destruction. The same problem existed at Chelsea in his second stint; with no Makelele to call upon, Zouma – another defender – would be utilized at times to fulfill the purely destructive midfield role that is so important to Mourinho’s game-plan.
Fast forward to his current tenure as Manchester United manager – a disappointing sixth place finish, a League Cup win, and a Europa League victory to take them into the Champions League was an auspicious start to his reign, but the dominant football he is famous for wasn’t something that was seen from game to game. The brick-wall inevitability of his Porto, Chelsea (first time) and Inter Milan teams was conspicuous by its absence.
Despite having talented players in the attack (Ibrahimovic, Rooney, Mata, Mkhitaryan, and the emerging Rashford) at his disposal, and able bodies in the middle of the field (Herrera and Pogba, mainly), there was a soft center to the United of 2016-17 which showed in their inconsistent league form.
United in 2016/17 (left) | United in 2017/18 (right)
Screenshots taken from SoccerPulse's Team Tactics Feature
In the summer of 2017, though, that changed with the purchase of Matic. Having been sold previously by Chelsea in 2012, Matic returned to Chelsea to great acclaim, bringing power and aggression to the central midfield that has flattered to deceive for the first part of the 2013-14 season, bouncing between 5th and 3rd position before the return of Matic that January gave them the push they needed to solidify their intentions.
Having missed out on a Top Two spot (to the free-scoring City and Liverpool), Matic helped Chelsea to yet another league title for Mourinho the following season, marshalling a defensive effort that was the best in the league. The qualities be brought to that Chelsea team clearly impressed Mourinho enough to make him the lynchpin signing for his revamped United team for the start of the 2016-17 season, even in contrast to the more illustrious and expensive Pogba. Matic’s intelligence, height, technique, aerobic endurance, and physical presence on the field have so far contributed to a near-perfect United performance in the league.
Having played West Ham, Swansea, and Leicester so far, over 270+ minutes, United have succumbed to only four shots on target. This is testament to the work being done in central midfield by the iron-like Serb. His presence in the middle allows Rashford to be almost a wide forward, with Lukaku central, Mata and Mkhitaryan as lop-sided playmakers, and Pogba running box to box.
So far, this system has worked as well as any that Mourinho has employed in his trophy-laden teams. Although it is only three games in, they have scored 10 goals, conceded none, had the lion’s share of possession, and restricted all three teams to a handful of shots past the defense to trouble the keeper.
If the template of successful soccer is a top class goalkeeper, a strong defensive partnership, creativity out wide and in the middle, a box-to-box midfielder of quality, and a battering ram Number 9, built on a bedrock of a quality defensive midfielder, then United look to have all the ingredients to put a bona fide title challenge in this year with the signing of Matic.
Could he be the difference-maker that brings to a close a frustrating period for United fans harking back to an era of total domination? Time will tell. But if there are any more pieces of the puzzle required by Mourinho, in Matic he has probably at least found the most important one.