“I am the kind of guy that moves on and has no regrets.” Jose Mourinho has taken his unique relationship with the truth to absurd new levels ahead of Monday's FA Cup tie against his former club - writes Tom Bennett.
Manchester United's Portuguese manager Jose Mourinho (L) shakes hands with Chelsea's Italian head coach Antonio Conte (R) after the final whistle of the English Premier League football match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge in Lond
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho has gone on the offensive ahead of the quarter-final against Chelsea, on one hand claiming that he doesn’t look back or obsess about his former side, while on the other hand looking back and obsessing about his former side.
First Mourinho spoke about Chelsea’s amount of preparation time compared to the other top teams in the division, saying:
The reality is that he [Chelsea manager Antonio Conte] got in his hands a situation where they have time to work, time to rest, time to relax, time to disconnect, time to travel, time to have holidays, time to go to America and enjoy America for a couple of days. They have time for all of these things, so they are in a position of privilege - the same privilege that Liverpool had a couple of years ago and they almost won the Premier League - but I don't want to say that they don't deserve credit for it.
But even more intriguing was Mourinho’s insistence that Conte’s Chelsea play a defensive, counter-attacking style:
They choose a certain style of play that I think is very adapted to the qualities of these players. They defend a lot and well, and they counter-attack and kill opponents on the counter attack similar to my Chelsea. But the difference is they play with five at the back and I played four at the back, but the same criteria: a very strong team to defend and a team that kills on the counter attack, and they are doing very, very well and that is why they are going to be champions easily.
These are comments that will rile Chelsea fans, but why has Mourinho spoken out now and is anything that he's said true?
Chelsea’s ‘counter-attacking’ style
Chelsea's David Luiz
Image credit: Reuters
Mourinho’s snipe at Chelsea is self-serving, but parts of what he’s said are correct. However, as always he’s used a base of truth to disguise his jibes and political maneuverings… so let’s break his comments down.
"They choose a certain style of play that I think is very adapted to the qualities of these players."
This is the truth, a purposefully disarming truth. It underplays the fact that Conte has successfully brought in a three-at-the back system to a country that has been less than receptive to such ideas in the past, and also underplays the extent to which the current Chelsea boss has maximized the quality of his squad. But in essence what Mourinho has said is true, which gives his later comments a veneer of respectability that they don't deserve.
"They defend a lot and well, and they counter-attack and kill opponents on the counter attack similar to my Chelsea."
Here we go, this is where it gets interesting. “They defend a lot” is a misleading interpretation of Chelsea’s style this season. Yes, they do often keep possession in defensive and midfield areas, but that’s designed to draw out opponents, not as a defensive tactic. The non-selection of John Terry is as clear an indication as any that Chelsea don’t defend a lot. If Conte had based his side around relying on defence then Terry would have played a part, but instead the line is pushed high to aid the attack, not to add security at the back.
And Mourinho’s also incorrect in saying that Chelsea “kill opponents on the counter attack similar to my Chelsea”. Any squad containing players like Eden Hazard and Willian would be dangerous on the break, but it’s not the preferred method of Conte’s Chelsea. As with Tottenham’s 3-4-2-1, the aim of Conte’s team is to overload attacking areas, pull defences out of shape and create an extra man on the outside. Counter-attacking is not the aim, and Conte has taken the bait, responding with:
I have to tell you one thing, not only here [at Chelsea], but I never, ever, ever train for the counter-attack.
"The difference is they play with five at the back and I played four at the back."
Mourinho's really playing fast and loose with reality on this, hoping that onlookers' grasp of tactical shapes will be weak enough to believe that what he's saying supports his claim that Chelsea are "defensive".
Only on paper do Chelsea play five at the back. In reality the two wing-backs are the wide attacking outlet of the team, providing both the width of wingers and the defensive legs to get back and help support their wide centre-backs. It's a system that suits the styles of both Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses and the moment Chelsea switched to their new shape the wing-backs became more a part of the midfield than the defence.
Chelsea’s extra training time
Jose Mourinho’s other justification for Chelsea's improvement since his departure is that they have greater amounts of time off than they did last season due to a lack of involvement in other competitions.
It’s a drum that Jose's banged before and it’s clearly a factor in the way the west London side have dominated the league, but whose fault is it that Chelsea are not there? We all know the answer to that.
Nicht mehr Trainer beim FC Chelsea: José Mourinho
Image credit: Imago
It’s also disingenuous to suggest that Chelsea will win the league simply because they have more rest, given that already they have 16 more points than in the entirety of last season. It’s a factor, of course it is, but it’s misleading from Mourinho and he knows it.
What’s Mourinho’s motivation?
Manchester United’s mammoth unbeaten run has disguised the fact that Mourinho’s side have tailed off in recent weeks. Draws with Stoke, Hull and Bournemouth are poor results for United in any circumstances, but those six dropped points in the last five matches have left Jose’s side off the pace in the race for Champions League qualification – which had to be the minimum aim given the club’s summer strengthening.
Mourinho is talking about Chelsea now because he wants the conversation to be about the form and style of his former club, not his current one – and he’s largely succeeded.
The issue of extra rest is particularly timely given United’s trip to Russia for the Europa League, never mind that the competition’s organisers have given Mourinho and his players the greatest possible recovery time from their trip to Rostov.
FC Rostov's Christian Noboa in action with Manchester United's Paul Pogba
Image credit: Reuters
Highlighting Chelsea’s advantages going into the fixture gives Mourinho an excuse if his team lose – and given the attacking injury problems he has (with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Wayne Rooney ALL expected to be out) defeat does seem likely.
Mourinho’s also in a position where he can minimise the impact of a cup defeat by pointing to the team’s League Cup success and Europa League involvement. In fact, he has done exactly that, saying:
It comes in the wrong moment for us because the Europa League is a competition that can give us a Champions League spot and the FA Cup isn’t. So the Europa League is more important than the FA Cup for us.
The mind games started early for Jose Mourinho
Image credit: PA Sport
This is the classic Mourinho formula: set up a tone of coverage where a victory for his team seems to be against the odds and defeat can be explained away. He does it time and again, and time and again it succeeds.
It’s transparent but clever, as Mourinho knows that an FA Cup defeat to his former side and a league placing of sixth is simply not good enough. Anything he can do to distract from that is a good thing… and if that means throwing out obscure and misleading criticism of his former team then all the better.