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Sunday 10 December 2017

Mourinho: A man with a very special plan

How the master tactician out-witted his former team - before and during Inter's stunning victory

Jose Mourinho was able to negate whatever Chelsea manager Carlo
Ancelotti could throw at him during Inter Milan's victory in the Champions League at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday
Jose Mourinho was able to negate whatever Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti could throw at him during Inter Milan's victory in the Champions League at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday

ALTHOUGH HE paid lip-service to sharing the glory with his players, Jose Mourinho could not resist ensuring that everyone knew who was the architect of Internazionale’s victory at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday.

The players were praised for following the plan, the plan drawn up by … Mourinho. So what was it?

1. The set-up

Mourinho could not have been better prepared. He knows most of the Chelsea players’ games intimately (seven of the 10 starting outfielders were at the club under him) and said he had studied the video of the first match, three weeks ago, “seven or eight times”.

Mourinho knew his team had a one goal advantage, but Salomon Kalou’s away goal in Milan meant that lead was very slender. If Chelsea scored without reply Inter were out. Mourinho is aware better than most that Chelsea usually score at home, and recognised Inter were unlikely to keep them out if they just defended.

His solution was to take the game to Chelsea, surprising everybody, including Carlo Ancelotti. Abandoning his customary 4-3-1-2 formation, Mourinho brought in Macedonian striker Goran Pandev for Dejan Stankovic, the versatile Serb who usually plays in midfield for Inter.

Pandev played wide left, and Samuel Eto’o wide right, with Diego Milito down the centre in a three-man front line. Behind them Wesley Sneijder was given a free role. Esteban Cambiasso and Thiago Motta made up a pair of defensive midfielders protecting a back four in which the experienced Javier Zanetti played a more restrained full-back role on the left to complement the attacking Maicon on the right.

2. The enforcement

What was Mourinho’s thinking? To suffocate Chelsea. Ancelotti’s Chelsea are a narrow team with much of the width provided by the full-backs. Playing Pandev and Eto’o on the wings meant Branislav Ivanovic and Yuri Zhirkov, both converted full-backs in any case, were wary about pushing forward too far. The front three were also under strict orders to press Chelsea’s defenders, preventing them from bringing the ball out or having time to pick a pass. Milan’s front three had failed to do this at Old Trafford last week and Manchester United took full advantage of the time and pace they had, thrashing Leonardo’s team 4-0. Mourinho will not tolerate such dilettantism.

With the flanks neutered, Chelsea would look to progress though the middle but John Obi Mikel, normally the player who receives the ball from the back and starts attacking moves, had his hands full with Sneijder. Mikel is still developing as a player; he lacks the dynamism of the injured Michael Essien and the awareness of his predecessor, Claude Makelele. Meanwhile Cambiasso and Motta tracked Frank Lampard and Michael Ballack. The only times in the first half when Mourinho became animated was while telling the pair not to cross the halfway line.

With Nicolas Anelka anonymous on one side of him, and Florent Malouda threatening individually but rarely linking on the other, Didier Drogba was isolated. There was no service from the flanks, what supply there was from midfield was rushed. And he always had Walter Samuel and Lucio, two defenders who could match Drogba for strength, marking him. The pair were fortunate: some of their manhandling at set-pieces should have been punished by penalties, but Mourinho knows in European football teams tend to get away with this.

3. The sting

It took 40 minutes for Chelsea to muster a period of sustained pressure, but even then they failed to trouble the keeper before half-time. Mourinho used the break to drum into his team the need to retain possession: they dominated the ball in the second period. As the clock ticked on Chelsea were forced to take risks. Gaps appeared in the home defence and, in Sneijder, Inter had the passer to open them up. Eto’o delayed with one glorious chance but when Sneijder served up a second opportunity he tucked it in. The sub-plot reached the same Nerazzurri-tinted conclusion when Drogba finally snapped, reacting to the relentless penalty-box wrestling by stamping on Motta. It was all over.

4. The (lack of) response

Could Ancelotti have changed the course of the match? He tried, but the substitutions lacked conviction. Introducing Joe Cole was a decent idea, but the England midfielder’s match-sharpness is low and his confidence on the floor. Ballack came off. It might have been better to remove Mikel, and play Ballack in the holding role, or additionally replace Mikel with Juliano Belletti and ask him to man-mark Sneijder.

Next to arrive was Kalou to make a left-flank partnership with Malouda. This backfired as Mourinho responded by bringing on Stankovic to protect Maicon, and moving to 4-3-1-2 with Eto’o more central.

Which is where he was four minutes later when Sneijder released him for the winner.

Ancelotti’s last throw was the old stand-by, send the big man up, Alex in this case. Mourinho reacted by introducing Marco Materazzi as a third centre-half. Football the Italian way can be like a chess match; although the only Italian involved was Ancelotti, this was checkmate to Mourinho.

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