Football Features

The eight best examples of ‘Mourinho-ball’ from Jose Mourinho’s career

By Felix Keith

The eight best examples of 'Mourinho-ball' from Jose Mourinho's career copy

Published: 14:15, 25 January 2024

Winning is everything to Jose Mourinho and criticism of how he achieves it is of little interest to the Portuguese manager.

Such debates have arisen regularly throughout his managerial career, surfacing from fans, pundits and players whenever an extreme example of Mourinho’s tactics occurs.

Should fans be allowed to object to the team’s style when they are getting results? Is a defence-first tactical system less worthy than one focusing on free-flowing attacking play? Does style matter as much as substance?

Mourinho himself is clear in his view. 

“Football is full of philosophers, people who understand much more than me,” he said in April 2014 following criticism of his Chelsea side.

“Amazing. But the reality is the reality. A team that doesn’t defend well doesn’t have many chances to win.

“If the opponent is very fast and needs space behind your defence and you give them that space, you are stupid.” 

Does Mourinho, a man who has won two Champions League titles and eight league titles across four different countries, really have to defend his methods?

Here we look back at some of his most polarising performances to assess whether his critics have a point.

Bayer Leverkusen 0-0 Roma, Europa League, 18 May 2023

This was classic Jose in every respect. With Roma leading the first leg of their Europa League semi-final tie against Bayer Leverkusen, Mourinho knew all he had to do was keep a clean sheet and his side would be in the final. Problem? Not for football’s pre-eminent pragmatist.

Away from home at the BayArena, Roma battened down the hatches from minute one — no scratch that, second one, and said to Leverkusen: ‘try your best’. Xabi Alonso, a former player of Mourinho’s at Real Madrid and now Leverkusen coach, did exactly that, but Roma refused to yield.

The stats are truly staggering, but just peak Jose. The Eternal City club attempted one shot, which wasn’t even on target, and had just 28% possession. Leverkusen, by contrast, had 23 shots (six on target) and made 621 passes to Roma’s 253.

Still, it worked a treat.

Jose attempted something similar in the final against Sevilla. After going 1-0 up, Roma set up in a very low block and refused to attack. The Europa League serial winners eventually found a way through and won on penalties.

It would have been another Jose masterclass but for an unfortunate own goal from Gianluca Mancini.

Tottenham 2-0 Arsenal, Premier League, 6 December 2020

One of the most recent of Mourinho’s archetypal displays. Spurs had just 30% possession at home to a struggling Arsenal side but still sent their 2,000 fans home happy with a North London derby win.

Spurs sat back rigidly and looked to use Son Heung-min’s pace on the break. The game plan worked perfectly as Son curled in a stunning opener before setting up Harry Kane to blast in a second before half-time.

The hosts showed little attacking ambition from thereon, forcing Arsenal into wide areas before dealing with the crosses. Spurs made 16 fouls as they successfully frustrated their rivals.

It was the Mourinho blueprint in full effect and became the 11th time one of his sides has had 35% possession or lower in a Premier League match. A record of nine wins, one draw and one defeat on those occasions tells you all you need to know about its effectiveness. 

While the second half was entirely backs-to-the-wall defending, Tottenham’s goals contained plenty of quality to entertain the critics, who had to appreciate the team’s ruthless efficiency.  

Juventus 1-2 Manchester United, Champions League, 7 November 2018

Juventus held a 19-game unbeaten home run in the Champions League, stretching back to 2009, but Mourinho’s United found a way to win.

They rode their luck at times, with Sami Khedira and Paulo Dybala striking the woodwork, before two set pieces turned the game on its head late on and cancelled out Cristiano Ronaldo’s goal against his former club.

United’s front three of Anthony Martial, Alexis Sanchez and Jesse Lingard spent the match working back towards their own goal before Mourinho’s substitutes changed the game.

The introduced Juan Mata curled in a free-kick before Ashley Young’s set-piece found its way in after Marouane Fellaini, another sub, caused chaos in the box.   

United had 45% possession overall, but their 17 fouls, three shots on target and smash-and-grab endgame bore all the hallmarks of Mourinho. 

Chelsea 1-0 Manchester United, Premier League, 18 April 2015

A win which put Chelsea within touching distance of the 2014/15 Premier League trophy.

It was not a pretty one, though, with 30% possession, 13 fouls and just two shots on target telling the story of Chelsea shutting down a resurgent United, who were looking for a seventh straight league win.

Eden Hazard did the damage, placing the ball between David De Gea’s legs and although Chelsea hardly opened up, the Belgian’s goal was the Blues’ 101st from 48 games in all competitions, showing they were not simply built on defence.

Liverpool 0-2 Chelsea, Premier League, 27 April 2014

The ultimate Mourinho performance, which had absolutely everything.

Before the match started, Mourinho was reeling off the classics from his playbook. He threatened to field a weakened side, with Chelsea’s Champions League semi-final second leg against Atletico Madrid on the horizon.

The Blues had just 27% possession at Anfield but still managed to shut out a side that had won its last 11 league games to reach the top of the table. 

Yes, the victory owed a lot to Steven Gerrard’s famous slip. Still, Chelsea’s solidity was admirable, with the inexperienced Tomas Kalas at the heart of things behind the brick wall of Nemanja Matic and John Obi-Mikel. 

“Credit to Chelsea for that, they sat in really deep,” Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers moaned post-match. “There were probably two buses parked today instead of one.”

Barcelona 0-1 Real Madrid, Copa del Rey final, 20 April 2011

It is a classic meeting between two completely different sides. Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona were the archetypal possession-based side; Mourinho’s Real Madrid were based on defensive solidity and counter-attacking.

Madrid has less than 30% of the ball and was forced to repel waves of attack from Barca, who had Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Pedro, David Villa and Lionel Messi in their ranks. 

Mourinho had set out his stall with Pepe deployed in holding midfield and after keeping Barca goalless, Ronaldo headed in the winner in the 103rd minute from Angel Di Maria’s cross.

It was the first time Madrid had beaten Guardiola. Against such a brilliant Barca side, which won La Liga and the Champions League that season, Mourinho’s tactics were surely justified.

Bayern Munich 0-2 Inter Milan, Champions League final, 22 May 2010

It is one of Mourinho’s greatest achievements and his second Champions League triumph.

Inter allowed Bayern the majority of the ball but were deadly on the break, with Diego Milito scoring twice to clinch it. 

The Italians did have to ride their luck, dealing with 10 shots on target and Arjen Robben threatening down the flanks, but this game firmly established Mourinho as a manager for the big occasion.

The Portuguese coach out-thought his former mentor Louis van Gaal, one of the most influential proponents of the Ajax-style, possession-based system, to earn him his move to Real Madrid.  

Manchester United 1-1 Porto, Champions League round-of-16 second leg, 9 March 2004

Porto went to Old Trafford with a 2-1 lead from the first leg in Portugal, but it would not be easy against Sir Alex Ferguson’s side.

Paul Scholes headed the hosts in front after 32 minutes and wrongly had another goal ruled out for offside as Porto dug deep to stay in the game. 

However, they were going out on away goals unless they scored. Thankfully for Mourinho, his side got one.

Francisco Costinha pounced on an error from Tim Howard to score in injury time to dump United out 3-2 and prompt boos around Old Trafford. 

Mourinho and his side hadn’t won many admirers, with his team built around pragmatism and plenty of tactical fouls, as well as time-wasting and the questionable winning of fouls. Still, they were through on their way to a stunning Champions League win. 

It was another case of his methods being justified by the result..