(Champions League, Serie A, Coppa Italia)
Domination is not something that is just achieved by attacking the opponents and taking control of the game by being very offensive. Control of the game can also be achieved by smart defending and restricting the opponents the opportunities of creating chances to scoring a goal. Inter Milan under Mourinho is one such defensively dominant team and we shall see why.
FC Internazionale made the rivalry very tight with Milan in the early stages of the 21st century after being considered to be under the shadows of AC Milan often in the previous century. Known for its great era under the reign of the legendary Helenio Herrera, Inter once again became a force to deal with when they won their 17th Serie A title under the Portuguese Genius Jose Mourinho. This victory equalled AC Milan’s number of League titles won.
More than just the rivalry, the title win in that season showed how Inter were poised to achieve success in the next season in all competitions. But what Jose Mou’s side did was something ecstatic as they did create history under the Portuguese manager. In the 2009/10 campaign, they won their 18th Scudetto and edged past Milan, this was Inter’s fifth consecutive title as well and they were the first team to do so in the modern era and first-team ever outside Turin.
In addition, Mourinho’s Inter won their first-ever Champions League in the modern era. In doing so, Inter clinched their first Treble by winning the Serie A and Coppa Italia that season. The Milan based club were the third club from a major league to have won the treble and were the first Italian club to achieve the feat. In Mourinho, the players witnessed a brilliant man-manager and a tactically adept manager while on the other hand, the players Mourinho had were technically and tactically proficient. It was a perfect marriage for both Inter and Mourinho as the team dominated great clubs on their way to glory.
Jose Mourinho tactics at Inter
Mourinho once touted the Italian League as the “Tactical League” and he was at his zenith when he managed Inter in terms of tactical battles. He pulled off some tactical masterstrokes throughout the campaign. The tactics of the Mourinho era at Inter revolved around the defensive discipline and quick, fast counter-attacking. He set up his side in a structure which complemented his tactical philosophy. The basic setup of a 4-2-3-1 was visible in most of the games in the season.
The side’s base was constructed by a back four which was physically strong and tactically adept. Lucio and Walter Samuel formed the central two while the club captain and legend Javier Zanetti was positioned at left-back. In the right, Maicon provided the width as he often joined the attacking players and became the outlet in that flank. In the centre, the double pivot of Stankovic/Motta and Cambiasso was employed. Two forwards Eto’o and Pandev were deployed wide and Sneijder at 10 completed the attacking trio behind the striker Diego Milito.
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Transition between formations
One of the key tactics in Mourinho’s master plan in attack was the transition between formations and the speed with which these transitions were carried out. The side defends deep and once the ball is won back the side quickly takes shape in a 4-2-3-1. And this is done with great speed and the 4-2-3-1 transitions to a 4-3-3. The two wide players in Pandev and Eto’o are quite important to the side in these set of moves as their movements decide the shape of the team. Eto’o is given more of an inverted winger’s role and he cuts inside to join upfront with Milito. In the case of Pandev this doesn’t occur as he is deployed to stay wide to prove the width in the left.
On the other hand, in the right wing Maicon bombs up forward to provide the width. This is the reason why Pandev stays wide. As Zanetti is not attackingly sound when compared to Maicon Pandev is deployed upfront. While Maicon runs upward Cambassio, deployed in the right half of the pivot, moves into the space vacated by him to provide the defensive support. These supporting movements in order to maintain structure were typical of Mourinho as he is always one to focus on retaining the structure.
It was quite evident in certain games as well. In the game against Chelsea in their 2-1 win at San Siro, Mourinho introduced Balotelli and deployed him wide to cut the threats posed by Chelsea full-backs. In that game, Inter started in a 4-3-1-2 with the attacking Sneijder starting behind Eto’o and Milito. The midfield trio of Cambassio, Motta and Stankoic was deployed in front of the back four. From the image below, we can identify Inter’s starting formation.
In the course of the game, when Chelsea started to attack down the wings as the midfield was very central. Mourinho immediately identified the situation. The fullbacks were Chelsea’s weaponry in this case and Mourinho brought in Balotelli. One would think that Mourinho may have failed by bringing in the Super Mario and didn’t add to their goal. But Mourinho brought him to see out the threat created by Malouda. The side had transitioned to a 4-3-3 and defended in that shape. Mou was successful as his attacking substitute won him the defensive battle and then the game, the Portuguese gaffer had pulled off a masterstroke. This is how it happened in the game.
Wesley Sneijder, who had the best time in his career, played as the classic 10 behind the striker. His movements decided how the team transitioned during attack and defense. He was also adept at falling back to help out his defense in order to win the ball. In certain instances he was deployed in central midfield but he was given the full freedom when the team was sent out in a 4-2-3-1. Two pivots made sure that he got the freedom as he was one of the most important players responsible for the team’s transition. The video below shows how Inter transitioned in various ways.
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Defensive discipline in the land of Catenaccio
Inter and Mourinho were a perfect marriage for many reasons. One of the main reasons was that Mourinho came to the land of Catenaccio and the club which used the philosophy. Touted as “Grande Inter”, the Milan based club reached great heights with this philosophy under Helenio Herrera and showed how astute can a team perform defensively.
The Portuguese, known for his defensive master class tactics, sold out to his players how they can win accolades when using his philosophy to a great level. And to his man-management credits, the players bought it. Even Eto’o who finished his Barcelona career with a record 30 goals from 36 games in the previous season bought it though he finished the season with 12 goals from 32 games and 16 from 48 games in all competitions. Eto’o was taken off offensive responsibility to concentrate on the team’s defensive phase and the stats prove the same.
Mourinho was not unhappy when he sacrificed his attacking options to make sure that his defense excelled. In most occasions, even the most attacking Sneijder was deployed in central midfield when his team defended. The two wingers would drop back in the defensive phase to form the two banks of four. However it became banks of four and five when Sneijder joined the midfield four. The team defended with the 4-5-1/4-4-1-1.
In the Serie A, Mourinho made sure his team were defensively very astute. He collected 17 clean sheets from 38 games and this goes on to show Mourinho was able to churn out results by being defensively strict. Mourinho was not afraid to hang on to 1-0 wins and believed that his side had the strength to get past any team with one goal and defend all day. In the both the seasons under Mourinho, Inter conceded fewer goals than any other team. In the game against Fiorentina which they scored early through Samuel Eto’o saw them defend ugly in the last half an hour. Interesting starting Maicon in the right wing with Cordoba at the right-back it went on to show Mourinho wanted his side to defensively strict.
In the game, during the last half an hour, the team defended in a 5-4-1 shape. And Fiorentina could not get past the Inter defense. Most of the games happened this way as Mourinho looked to score goals through quick one-touch counters and set pieces and defend all day with zero risk to his side. The graphic below shows how Inter players positioned themselves in the last 30 minutes of the game.
Dependency on the counter – Cambiasso and Sneijder
If anyone who should be credited more to the side’s treble other than Jose Mourinho, then the duo of Sneijder and Cambiasso should be loaded with bundles of praise. The two players are more responsible for the team’s structure and transition from defense to attack. The two players are very much different in playing attributes but what they give to the team is same – consistent performances.
Cambiasso flourished under Jose in this system. Often deployed as one of the midfielders in the double pivot, he is more reliable on the ball. When the team plays a trio in the centre, he is played at the bottom of the three thereby being the link between the line of defense and attack. Cambiasso role at Inter was associated with collecting the ball from behind and play long balls to find players up front. He was urged to play the balls very quick so that the offensive players could take it to the goalkeeper before the opponents could regroup defensively.
In the video above (under transitions), we could identify the movements made by Cambiasso when Maicon bombs up forward. Also Cambiasso was adept at playing long balls finding Eto’o who would be stationed in the left. In other cases, the Argentine would play the pass to Sneijder who would then find Milito or the forwards who cut in from the wing.
The counter attacking basically not only depended on Cambiasso’s ability to pick a long pass but also the attacking skill set of Sneijder at the classic 10. Sneijder’s job was mainly based on collecting the ball from midfield and find Milito or the wide players through his brilliant play making skills.
Sneijder was able to showcase that he possessed the ball winning backs that was much needed for a classic 10. In most games, Sneijder proved to be the x-factor. In many occasions, the Dutch was also deployed as a second striker when the team were sent out in a 4-4-2. His ability to take up any positions in the final third became very important for the side as he became the integral part of the counter attacking plans.
Barcelona 1-0 Inter – The Epitomic Drama
The Champions League Semi-Final second leg game featured two great teams of the tournament along with the best managerial rivalry ever. Jose Mourinho had a 3-1 lead from the game at San Siro and the best-attacking team faced the best defensive team in the competition. The game had all the drama right from the beginning as this was the one Mourinho wanted after being rejected by Barcelona for the managerial role.
Mourinho sent his side in ultra-defensive mode and the game ended 1-0 in favour of Barcelona however the 3-2 aggregate win sent Mourinho’s team into the finals. The controversy during the game and tactical master class became the talking points. Thiago Motta was sent off and Inter had to play with 10 men. Not many managers would’ve kept the same team and many would’ve wanted to remove one of their attacking players for the holding midfielder. But Mourinho didn’t do that.
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Mourinho played a lopsided 4-2-3-1 in the game and when Motta was sent out, he pulled Chivu into the left half-space and to play alongside Cambiasso. Eto’o was stationed in the left-wing while Diego Milito was given defensive duties in the right-wing. Sneijder was put into the central midfield and the team played in a defensive 4-5-0 structure. We can notice below how Inter defended in this structure and Barcelona were given no space between the lines to play in the final third.
The 3-2 win however sent Mourinho into the finals and after the game he was pointing towards the stands when his side saw out Barca though they were a man down for more than an hour. Not many managers would’ve had the belief and the confidence in the team to keep the opponents such as the mighty Barcelona to 1-0 with just 10 men. The match was not won by the individual brilliance of any player or player battles. It was won by a collective performance of Inter players and one can only imagine how Jose managed his team to withstand such an amount of pressure and concentration over the course of 90 minutes.
In the game, Barcelona completed 555 passes when compared to a staggering 67 passes to Inter. Barca also ended the game as the most dominant display in that year’s competition in terms of possession with 86%. These stats however didn’t matter much for Mourinho as he outfoxed one of the best managers and arch-rival, Pep Guardiola.
Mourinho won the Serie A by scoring more goals and conceding lesser than other teams. One may take the credit away from Mourinho and his Inter side stating that the type of football Mourinho adopted was boring and it was ultra-defensive. But it cannot be denied that his side were well drilled and strong both physically and mentally to come out as treble winners at the end. If one goes by the famous saying, “Offense win game, defense wins titles” then Mourinho’s Inter are the best of the lot.
The speciality of the team was about how Mourinho was able to solve a defensive problem he had with the offensive players. He was able to counter any threat by the versatility of his players. From some occasions, it was evident that the Captain Zanetti, being a central midfielder, was played at left back. This goes on to show how Mourinho was able to fill the question marks with correct answers. If one should criticise Jose’s principles and Inter’s approach, then the below quote should stand as an answer.
“It’s not important how we play. If you have a Ferrari and I have a small car, to beat you in a race I have to break your wheel or put sugar in your tank.”
Producing one of the best displays ever, the team coached by Mourinho were dominant and took control of the game defensively. They are easily one of the best Italian sides after Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan. With all the boxes checked, they became the first Italian club to have won the Treble. Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan 2009/10 are Football Bloody Hell’s Dominant Champions.