Circumstances force Guardiola and Mourinho into unfamiliar systems

Blog by: Karthikeya

This combo picture made on April 19, 201

Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola

As proven and successful managers, Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho will both probably coach at the highest levels in Europe for many years to come, which holds out the promise of many more slugfests and ego clashes. But in an interesting turn of events, both men find themselves on the same side of a problem – and neither is as yet comfortable dealing with it.

In previous spells at Chelsea and Barcelona respectively, both managers built sides with distinct identities. Chelsea used speed and power to effect transitions from defence to attack, while Barcelona emphasized the importance of possession football. The mutually contrasting styles were reflective of the managers’ footballing personalities. Guardiola’s teams are proactive, while Mourinho’s are reactive. Both were wildly successful; Chelsea counter-attacked with devastating ruthlessness, while Barcelona suffocated their opponents to death.

In their new assignments, circumstances have forced both men into a compromise. They have inherited teams that cannot be rebuilt according to their wishes. Bayern are too good to change, and Chelsea’s owner Roman Abramovich has made it clear how he wants his side to play. So the opening matches have seen both managers coming to grips with their predecessor’s legacy.

Bayern under Jupp Heynckes attacked the goal from every conceivable direction last season, in a manner not dissimilar to Guardiola’s Barcelona. But their greater balance (physically and defensively) made them a tough nut to crack. Despite that, Guardiola has tried to reshape Bayern tactically, using right-back Phillippe Lahm as a midfielder alongside Bastian Schweinsteiger while benching Javi Martinez. He also relies heavily on wingers Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben to score the goals.

The problem is, this team is geared to play a certain way; and redrawing one player’s position shuts off someone else. Mario Mandzukic still plays upfront as the lone striker, but he serves merely as a target man. Bayern do most of their scoring from midfield. With Lahm no longer motoring down the right, the crosses have decreased, so Mandzukic is increasingly coming deeper to collect the ball.

Shuffling his players around has arguably decreased the team’s attacking potency, and more than one German newspaper columnist has voiced scepticism over Guardiola’s new-look Bayern.

At Chelsea, the midfield boasts of Juan Mata, Oscar, Eden Hazard and Frank Lampard. Each of them are arguably better goal scoring options than those in front – Fernando Torres is inconsistent, Andre Schurrle is still settling in and Demba Ba is competent, but not of the desired level. A 4-3-3 looks like the way to go. But against Manchester United two weeks ago, Chelsea attempted a striker-less 4-6-0. Packing the midfield killed off the match. We might have been forgiven for wondering if it was a Benitez-Mancini bore-fest all over again.

Unlike last time, Chelsea have no strong target man upfront to hold up the ball, no strikers to lead the line, as Mourinho has preferred since his Porto days. His 4-5-1 is therefore a lot less effective than the 4-3-3 he used to devastating effect during 2004-06.

When Chelsea and Bayern clashed in the UEFA Super Cup, it was interesting to note a series of ‘1 vs 1’ stalemates across the field as the two formations cancelled each other out. This will be a contentious point, but neither was superior to the other although Bayern seem to have dropped a few notches from May.

Both teams have made lukewarm starts to their leagues, and both managers seem strangely subdued in their press conferences. For the first time, both are starting under self-imposed pressure, struggling with their new teams and the new playing style.

These are teething troubles and the sides will improve as they get used to an unfamiliar playing style. It does mean though that, for possibly the first time ever, both Mourinho and Guardiola are finding their feet (pun intended) with a style that isn’t their first choice, and with players bought to make that style work. There is an inherent irony in these ideological foes coming together on shaky terrain. And given how formidable they can be when settled in, this is good news for the rest of the field.

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