- José Mourinho with Inter Milan (2008 – 2010)
- Serie A: 2008–09, 2009–10
- Coppa Italia: 2009–10
- Supercoppa Italiana: 2008
- UEFA Champions League: 2009–10
Few men have caught the attention of the media, fans and other managers during their time in Italian football quite like José Mourinho. Despite winning three Serie A titles in a row, Roberto Mancini was sacked at the end of the 2007/08 season, due to him claiming he would leave at the end of the season but quickly reversed his decision the following day. It was too late, the trust between Mancini and then Inter Milan president Massimo Moratti had been broken. Besides, Moratti had his sights set on one of the hottest commodities in world football, José Mourinho.
By the time Mourinho had arrived in Italy, the self proclaimed Special One had already made himself a powerful and authoritative figure, but there was one key game in Mourinho’s first season, that would shape Mourinho’s, Inter Milan’s and Italy’s footballing history. Mourinho was outwitted by Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson in the last sixteen round of the Champions League.
Goals from future Nerazzurri player Nemanja Vidic and Cristiano Ronaldo pushed Jose Mourinho to defeat on the stage that had made him famous in 2004. Mourinho had promised Moratti the Holy Grail of European football, the elusive trophy that Inter Milan hadn’t won since 1965, with Helenio Herrera’s famous Catenaccio side lifting the trophy. Their failure to lift Europe’s greatest prize had haunted Moratti since he took over the side in 1995, perhaps Moratti predicted this would be one of his last chances to make an impact in Europe. So in the summer of 2009, Moratti went big.
The key departure in the summer of 2009 was Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who left for the reigning European champions Barcelona, yet as always with Ibrahimovic, the team seemed better off in Europe without him. In return, the Nerazzurri received Cameroonian international Samuel Eto’o, the prototypical Mourinho forward. They then used the Ibrahimovic money to sign Diego Milito, who would have an historic season, Wesley Sneijder, Thiago Motta and Lucio. All these parts would be far greater than the individual talent of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
José Mourinho’s tenure at the Giuseppe Meazza can essentially be split into two different teams, there was the Zlatan Ibrahimovic team, and there was the treble winning team. And one blows the other out of the water. Guess which.
The Zlatan Ibrahimovic team
The exact XI of this side is difficult to pinpoint due to injuries suffered throughout the campaign. Walter Samuel made 17 appearances, Christian Chivu 21 and Nicolás Burdisso 21 in a revolving door of a backline.
The big Swede’s 2008-09 season is his second best season statistically, we have to pay homage to Zlatan’s 2011-12 season, in which he scored a jaw dropping 28 goals in 32 Serie A games, along with 35 goals in 44 appearances in all competitions. In 08/09, Zlatan scored 25 goals in 35 Serie A matches, 29 in 47 across all competitions.
In the attacking department, this team was rather lacklustre, so it’s no wonder the Swede contributed to 28% of Inter’s goals in the league (they scored 70, the standard rate for Scudetto winners), after Zlatan, Their next highest goal contributor came from a young, flamboyant talent named Mario Balotelli, who scored eight league goals. After that? It’s only Dejan Stanković who scored a modest five goals. As per a standard Mourinho team, he demanded goal contributions from everyone in the team.
But Zlatan was still the big cheese. In fact throughout Mourinho’s career almost all of his teams have been the epitome of ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’. His Porto team emphasised this to the greatest extent, with perhaps the greatest underdog story in European football. The only team that did arguably not follow this status quo of Mourinho was his Real Madrid side, starring Cristiano Ronaldo. But selling the then one time Balon D’or winner would be unthinkable. Much like Mourinho’s first season at Inter, everything would have to run through Zlatan, at Real Madrid everything ran through Cristiano Ronaldo. And his time at the Spanish capital was arguably a failure, because La Décima was not delivered.
Zlatan had made no secret of his love for Barcelona, so when the opportunity came for him to move, Moratti and Mourinho would have considered the footballing juggernaut they could build with riches from his sale, combined with Moratti’s own fortune.
Inter Milan’s main transfer dealings in the summer of 2009:
IN; Wesley Sneijder £10.5m, Gabriel Milito £17.5m, Samuel Eto’o (included in Zlatan deal, valued at £18m), Thiago Motta £7m, Lucio £4.9m.
OUT; Zlatan Ibrahimovic £60m (total deal value), Maxwell £3m.
The treble winning team
I really want to spend the majority of this article talking about the treble winning team, since this is the pinnacle of Italian football. After Juventus’ failure at the last hurdle in Berlin, Inter remains the only Italian team to have done that seemingly elusive treble.
What a team. Seemingly created by a watchmaker, building a side that was almost perfectly built for European football, combined with a manager who thrives in Europe’s biggest competition.
Mourinho once claimed that Serie A was “the tactical league.” and Serie A almost seemed like it was created for José Mourinho. He did not need to slow down the pace of games to suit his team, as most games were played out at a pace that would seem foreign to those in England. Tactics are discussed and implemented at a far high level than most leagues across Europe and the man who had guided Porto to a Champions League in the modern era was one of the best tacticians around.
This team really embodied Mourinho, players sacrificing goals and assists for the betterment of the team, a solid foundation at the back and a rather defensive midfield pivot.
Let’s start from the back. Júlio César is not built in the typical Mourinho goalkeeper build. He measures up at 6 ft 1 and doesn’t possess the physical presence of a Petr Čech or Thibaut Courtois, but the qualities Júlio César lacked in physical stature, he made up for with his incredible reflexes and reading of the game. The five time Scudetto winner always seemed one step ahead of the opposition, always seemingly knowing what they were going to do next. Playing behind a defense in a deep block is always going to require superb anticipation and reflexes due to a high volume of shots outside the box.
Lucio also arrived in 2009 and it’s definitely not a mystery why Mourinho identified him in his quest for the Holy Grail. The Brazilian’s ability to operate in a deep block but also operate in a high line when the team is in possession made him perfect for European football, such versatility isn’t that rare, but to do it at an elite level is. Walter Samuel underwent a renaissance under Mourinho, as it could be argued the Portuguese manager is a centre back whisperer of sorts. The Argentine spent the majority of his career at the Giuseppe Meazza, but the three seasons prior to the treble winning campaign, he had played a combined 65 games in all competitions, in 2009/10, he played 42. Mourinho understood the limitations of Samuel’s body at the age of 32, but much like John Terry last season, Mourinho’s defensive system is very easy in a medical sense on centre backs.
Maicon played a similar role to Cafu in Ancelotti’s Milan team and Dani Alves for Barcelona in recent years. He provided width in a team that desperately required it due to Eto’o moving centrally alongside Milito in most games. This left the whole of the right hand side for Maicon to dominate. It’s rare that fullbacks possess the ability to do such things but when you’ve got one, they can do the job of two, maybe even three players.
As I spoke about earlier regarding players buying into the Mourinho philosophy of sacrificing your own accolades for the good of team, Samuel Eto’o embodied this. Before being involved in the Zlatan transfer that brought him to the Giuseppe Meazza, Eto’o had just finished a historic season with Barcelona as they won their own treble in Pep Guardiola’s first season, with Eto’o scoring 30 goals in 36 games. The Cameroonian enjoyed operating in an attacking trio of himself, Lionel Messi and Thierry Henry, except Eto’o was the king of the castle, operating centrally. It’s worth noting Pep did experiment in the odd game with Messi in a false nine position, with Eto’o out wide.
So when he arrived at Inter Milan in the same summer as Diego Milito, there was going to be a little dilemma. Diego Milito was clearly the epitome of a classic number nine, whereas Eto’o had qualities which meant he could function out wide. But this isn’t FIFA Career Mode, we’re dealing with real human beings here, how was Eto’o, a player whom had been deemed surplus to requirements by Pep Guardiola because the Spaniard only liked ‘good boys with no personality’ going to take being shunned out wide? Actually, he took it fine. Mourinho exercised his famed man management and sold Eto’o on working for the good of the team.
The result? Eto’o scored 12 goals in 32 league games, 16 games in 48 games in all competitions, his lowest total since the 2006/07 season in which he only played 27 games. Before that? the 2001/02 season, when Eto’o was only 20 years old. This was unprecedented in Eto’o’s career, but Mourinho somehow sold it to him.
The aftermath looked like a 3-4-1-2. This tactical change was also made highly effective by Inter’s midfield. In Esteban Cambiasso Mourinho possessed one of the finest readers of the game in Europe, if not the finest. With Maicon pushing up, Esteban Cambiasso had to keep a sharp eye on the right side, while Lucio moved over to the right, Mourinho seemed to deem a back three too dangerous. Cambiasso essentially helped fill in for three roles, right back, centre back and central midfield.
The Argentine was a key cog in the watch of Inter’s Milan system. Whilst Maicon was playing right wing, Cambiasso was covering the defensive right hand lane and the middle of the pitch. Cambiasso’s almost other worldly reading and understanding of the game allowed him to fulfill a role that almost no midfielder in world football could fulfill. He was everywhere seemingly at once. Combined with a surreal reading of the game which allowed for Cambiasso to intercept seemingly every through ball, he was also able to build from deep. This allowed for quick counter attacks as the man who intercepted a pass wastes no time redistributing it to another player and the counter attack can be started efficiently.
Wesley Sneijder’s peak is rather simple to identify. It’s the 2009/10 season. The Dutch midfielder had been labelled yet another wonder kid from the Ajax production line, and was subsequently labelled as an underachiever during his time at Real Madrid. The boy from Utrecht found peace in his time at Inter and specifically under Mourinho. With a midfield pivot of Cambiasso and either Stankovic/Motta/Zanetti, Sneijder was given a role in which he could flourish. Sneijder always had midfielders that could initiate the first attacking phase, meaning he could focus in the most crucial part in the final third.
Sneijder truly embodied the modern number ten, which is a dying art in itself. While Sneijder could thread the needle through the smallest of holes, create space for himself and his teammates at will he could also win the ball back even though he was a number ten, a true Mourinho trait. Marcello Lippi pinned number tens winning the ball back as one of the most important traits for a modern number ten “It is important for a number ten to win the ball back in the modern game. There is such little space that you cannot allow the opponent to even initiate their attack.”
While he had a superb pivot behind him, Sneijder still worked to win the ball back, a crucial part of Mourinho’s ‘family’ philosophy. Even in defensive setups, Sneijder was aware of his role and that he would see the ball sparingly, a feature that most number tens do not possess.
The triumph of defensive over offensive
Barcelona 1 Inter Milan 0, 3-2 to Inter Milan on aggregate as they advanced to the Champions League final. This game had everything and was arguably the real Champions League final. Mourinho’s relationship with Barcelona would be intriguing to even the most qualified of psychologists. Mourinho began at Barcelona working as a translator under Bobby Robson and later as an assistant to Louis Van Gaal. In a Champions League tie in 2005, Mourinho accused then Barcelona manager Frank Rijkaard of going into referee Anders Frisk’s dressing at half time, thus implying the game had a cheating edge to it. Frisk came under a torrent of abuse and would never referee again. UEFA’s head of refereeing labelled Mourinho ‘the enemy of football’.
In 2008, Mourinho was shortlisted for the then vacant Barcelona managerial position. Mourinho presented to Joan Laporta and the Barcelona board the reasons as to why he would be the best candidate for the job. But due to past clashes and a disagreement on philosophy, Barcelona opted for former captain and idol, Pep Guardiola. Barcelona would then go on to win the treble. Mourinho went to Inter.
The semi final tie in 2010 was the epitome of the two sides of football. On one hand we had Pep Guardiola, working in Sunny Spain where the football is free flowing and goals are aplenty. On the other hand we had Jose Mourinho, working in ‘dreary’ Italy where the football is rigid and home of the quote ‘the perfect game of football is 0-0’. This was a clash of philosophies and clubs.
A two goal lead against the reigning European champions isn’t your typical two goal lead at all. Inter’s 4-2-3-1 was asymmetrical so Christian Chivu could double up on the right hand side with Javier Zanetti. This was not only to deal with reigning world player of the year Lionel Messi, but also to help deal with Dani Alves’ overlapping runs. Mourinho’s confidence in his side’s defensive capability was show cased by conceding the left hand side of the pitch. A dangerous move considering Xavi was operating there.
While Mourinho has often being accused of engaging in the dark arts of football, it was arguably Barcelona who engaged in such tactics in the tie. It was during this tie that the ‘Sergio Busquets diving’ jokes started, in case you didn’t see it, you can watch it here. Thiago Motta was robbed of competing in a Champions League final but a more worrying event was occurring right then, as Inter Milan went down to ten men and would have to play against Barcelona with ten men for over an hour.
Mourinho completely conceded any kind of attacking threat and just seemed to hold out hope that his Inter Milan side could hang on. Chivu moved into a central defensive position to once again crowd the final third and hinder any of Messi’s mazy runs. Eto’o and Milito once again embodied the ‘working for the team’ philosophy of Mourinho and acted as defensive wingers but really, were just acting as extra defensive bodies.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic faced his old club, who were probably the best equipped club in Europe to handle him. Inter’s deep block and crowded final third meant Zlatan had little room to operate. Both Lucio and Samuel were physical enough to deal with the Swede, while the absence of Andres Iniesta meant Barcelona struggled to feed Ibrahimovic in the box. Zlatan only had 25 touches before being taken off in the 62nd minute.
Lionel Messi could not find any space in the final third to even begin a run or create space for a teammate. The Argentine was kicked, knocked and took a physical beating, it’s also easy to forget that little Leo was only 22 when this game took place, while he was the best player in the world, Inter Milan appeared to get under his skin. Something he has grown out of since. Every time Messi touched the ball, Chivu was there to knock him, and he would only run into a crowded Inter box with the likes of Lucio and Zanetti ready to greet him. Pedro also suffered the same fate and was unable to make any runs from between the lines as Maicon, while known for his attacking qualities, acted in a deep block superbly and was not tempted to burst forward at any point.
Dani Alves offered very little in terms of an offensive threat, as Eto’o, although not an astute defensive winger by any stretch of the imagination, was a total nuisance towards him for the better part of an hour.
The midfield battle was dominated by one man and one man only, Esteban Cambiasso. I could sing his praises all day long but that night he was superb. He made Chivu’s uncomfortable role in midfield a lot easier by directing him but also covering him when Xavi was dictating play. Inter Milan only managed 19% possession and 290 touches of the ball, compared to Barcelona’s 917. It was a clash of philosophies. And defensive football won. Mourinho won. As he is so accustomed to doing so.
The crowning moment
Mourinho met his former mentor in the final after that famous Barcelona tie, whilst Bayern had just defeated Lyon 4-0 on aggregate as the golden era at the Stade de Gerland was coming to an end before our very eyes.
Inter Milan lined up in a flexible 4-2-3-1 as they had done predominantly in Europe all season. Due to Inter’s disciplined wingers (I’ve given special mention to Eto’o, but bravo to Goran Pandev for knowing his career limits and just aimlessly following Mourinho’s orders on the way to a treble), they could shift to a 4-4-1-1/4-4-2, with Wesley Sneijder playing the hybrid role of a number ten/supporting striker just off Diego Milito. As pointed out previously, Sneijder could also drop deep and possessed the ball winning skills of the modern number ten, thus making it a more compact 4-3-3, but did sacrifice goal scoring ability.
Wesley Sneijder’s ability to play just about any role required in the final third was illustrated in this match, particularly for the first goal, in which the Dutchman could have been mistaken for being a supporting striker rather than a number ten. In fact, Sneijder turned out to be the x-factor in this match. The age old ‘you lose the midfield battle, you lose the game’ saying rang true, while both teams lined up in what could be considered a 4-2-3-1, Inter held a numerical advantage due to Thomas Müller not acting as a midfielder, while Sneijder did drop deep. Van Bommel and Schweinsteiger were forced to deal with Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso in a two versus two battle, this of course left Sneijder free. Van Bommel had the stricter defensive duties of the pairing but if he were to drop deeper to mark Sneijder, then Cambiasso and Zanetti would completely dominate the midfield and Bayern’s attack would be left stranded.
This led to Sneijder’s supporting striker-esque role, as Demichelis or Van Buyten had to pick him up, otherwise his playmaking abilities would lead to a plethora of chances. This is shown in the first goal, as all it takes was Diego Milito to go one on one with Demichelis for the first goal. I haven’t talked about the Argentine much in this article and for that I’m sorry. He was arguably the perfect striker for Mourinho’s system, systematically clinical which is an invaluable asset in Europe (and anywhere, really), specifically when adopting a defensive approach. Milito would only get a select few chances throughout Inter’s run to final and he took them all brilliantly, specifically his goal against Barcelona in the first leg. But of course his own crowning moment, as well as Inter’s, was the final. Milito took his first goal brilliantly and his second was beautiful in its own way.
A counter attack led to Eto’o giving Milito the ball one on one with Van Buyten, the Argentine dribbles from the 35 yard mark all the way to the penalty area, before cutting inside, re-adjusting his body and finishing past Butt. In Inter’s hour of need the Argentine and been at his absolute best.
Inter’s defensive pivot was arguably the key to the game for me. Arjen Robben had yet to hit his peak in a Bayern shirt but was still one of Europe’s elite wingers under Van Gaal. The Dutchman has never needed any kind of invitation to cut inside on that left foot and Javier Zanetti had been watching the tape. While Thiago Motta being suspending was a sad occurrence, Zanetti was far better suited for this game. Christian Chivu was more than a capable defensive left back, but when the Dutchman would cut inside, Zanetti would be there to help out his teammate. This would often mean Robben would have to recycle possession back to the midfield, have a weak shot or cross to a teammate, which the Inter defenders handled with ease.
Bayern’s Ivica Olić was no Diego Milito, in that he could not occupy the attention of two centre backs and could be handled by either Samuel/Lucio while the other kept an eye on a young starlet by the name of Thomas Müller, who was busy pretty much inventing his own role of the raumdeuter, however he couldn’t convert any of his chances. Every member of Bayern’s attack was accounted for by an Inter Milan defender, whereas Inter’s was not and that was arguably the difference between the two teams.
A team as defensively drilled as Inter Milan was always going to be able to see this game out and the second goal in the seventieth minute completely killed the game off.
2009/10 Inter Milan’s impact on football
After this game, English journalist Jonathan Wilson, author of ‘Inverting The Pyramid’ wrote an article in The Guardian asking if defensive football was the future. But of course, the following year arguably the greatest ever club side won the Champions League, Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona won the hearts of many with their awe-inspiring football. But then…the following year Chelsea caused one of the biggest upsets in European football as they beat Bayern on penalties in their own stadium…whilst playing defensive football. The next two years it was won by counter attacking teams with solid defensive foundations.
This side was not a Michels Ajax or a Sacchi Milan, it didn’t revolutionise football. But for me it taught me that European football is a lot different to league football. Defensive solidarity and tactics go a lot further in Europe than they do in league play because you have a lot less chances to win. This arguably makes Mourinho one of the most perfect managers for European games.
Speaking of the self proclaimed Special One whom is currently unemployed, what next? Well, Inter Milan have only just rebuilt from Mourinho and Moratti going ‘all in’ during the summer of 2009, and as soon as Mourinho reached the peak with Inter he left. The Portuguese manager still remains a win now manager, trophies are almost a certainty, but stability and financial security are not guaranteed. The truth is this is where football is heading. No more Sir Alex Fergusons or Arsène Wengers, clubs will have four year windows with a win now manager in which to obtain silverware, like what Real Madrid are doing.
A quote to end it all
“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.”