In January this year, Football Further examined the first few months of Manuel Pellegrini’s stint as Real Madrid coach and discovered that he fielded 16 different midfield and attack configurations in his first 16 league matches. Pellegrini’s time at Real ended in disappointment – despite phenomenal success in the goalscoring department – and a look at how his successor, José Mourinho, has approached team selection in the early weeks of his tenure reveals a very different style.
Where Pellegrini chopped and changed (unaided, it must be said, by injuries to key players), Mourinho quickly settled on a first-choice XI and has sought to deploy it at every available opportunity. Below are the midfield/attack combinations that Mourinho has used in the league this season, in the order in which they have appeared:
1. Xabi Alonso, Lassana Diarra; Ángel di María, Sergio Canales, Cristiano Ronaldo; Gonzalo Higuaín (0-0 v Mallorca, a)
2. Alonso, Sami Khedira; Karim Benzema, Mesut Özil, Ronaldo; Higuaín (1-0 v Osasuna, h)
3. Alonso, Khedira; di María, Özil, Ronaldo; Higuaín (2-1 v Real Sociedad, a)
4. Alonso, L. Diarra; di María, Özil, Ronaldo; Higuaín (3-0 v Espanyol, h)
5. Alonso, Khedira; di María, Özil, Ronaldo; Higuaín (0-0 v Levante, a)
6. Alonso, Khedira; di María, Özil, Ronaldo; Higuaín (6-1 v Deportivo, h)
7. Alonso, Khedira; di María, Özil, Ronaldo; Higuaín (4-1 v Malaga, a)
8. Alonso, Khedira; di María, Özil, Ronaldo; Higuaín (6-1 v Racing Santander, h)
9. Alonso, Khedira; di María, Özil, Ronaldo; Higuaín (3-1 v Hercules, a)
10. Alonso, Khedira; di María, Özil, Ronaldo; Higuaín (2-0 v Atlético, h)
11. Alonso, Khedira; di María, Özil, Ronaldo; Higuaín (1-0 v Sporting Gijon, a)
12. Alonso, Khedira; di María, Özil, Ronaldo; Higuaín (5-1 v Athletic Bilbao, h)
13. Alonso, Khedira; di María, Özil, Ronaldo; Benzema (0-5 v Barcelona, a)
The consistency is striking. Prior to Real’s humiliation at Barcelona on Monday night, Mourinho had aligned the same six players in midfield and attack for eight successive games, and had Higuaín not sustained a back muscle injury prior to the trip to Camp Nou, it is certain that that statistic would have been extended to nine games.
When Real lost 1-0 at Barcelona in November last year, in what was Pellegrini’s 12th league game in charge, the Chilean coach would have been entitled to cite the fact he was yet to settle on his preferred starting XI as a mitigating factor in the defeat. Mourinho, who had one more La Liga game behind him than Pellegrini when he took on Pep Guardiola’s side for the first time, has no such excuse. He knows his strongest team.
That team had been strong enough to obliterate everything in its path until it arrived in Barcelona and Mourinho is now confronted with the unpalatable truth that, while his prototype Real side are comfortably the second-best side in Spain, they are several furlongs behind Barcelona in terms of cohesion, style of play and game management. True, Higuaín’s absence on Monday was telling, as Benzema is not as mobile, nowhere near as clinical and worryingly low on confidence, but there does not appear to be much else that Mourinho can do to bolster his first-choice XI. The small-fry of the Spanish top flight may provide meek resistance, but the return fixture against Barcelona on April 17 already looks like a daunting prospect.
“Clubs like Manchester United, Chelsea and Inter are well established and just needed to bring in one or two players this summer,” said Mourinho in August. “Barca are also the finished product. They play with their eyes closed. They have been together so long that they come back from their holidays and after three days of training they are ready. That is not the case for Madrid. A team needs to adapt to a new coach, to six new players and to another way of working.”
After such an impressive start to the season, Mourinho must have expected his side to offer more resistance in their first encounter with Barcelona, but should he opt to return to the drawing board to re-shape his team, it seems he will find little else but a rough first draft and no sign of a Plan B.