Sunday, September 17, 2017

the Champions League’s Secret Weapon

José Mourinho has Manchester United atop the Premier League standings as it begins its Champions League campaign this week. The Premier League has five teams in the Champions League group stages, but it has not sent a team to the final since Chelsea in 2012. CreditPeter Powell/Reuters
MANCHESTER, England — José Mourinho has never sought points for style. Throughout his career, he has positioned himself at every turn as the standard-bearer for substance, a man at war with soccer’s legion of self-appointed, self-identifying aesthetes.
At Chelsea, he railed against soccer’s “philosophers,” those who cast themselves and their teams as apostles of beauty in an ugly world. After Manchester United’s victory in the Europa League last season, he pointed out that “there are a lot of poets in football, but poets do not win titles.”
He once described Arsène Wenger, not just his longstanding nemesis but in many ways his polar opposite, as a “specialist in failure.” As Real Madrid manager, according to the author Diego Torres, Mourinho laid down his seven golden rules: Among them were the credo that “whoever has the ball, has fear,” and the dogma that “football favors whoever provokes more errors in the opposition.”
In that curious, idiosyncratic blend of arrogance and insecurity of his, he has, of course, barely tried to hide his disdain for those who dare to criticize the way he asks his teams to play. His weapon of choice, though, has long been the only thing in his purview that matters: results.
And then, last week, in a wide-ranging interview with The Times of London, Mourinho asked which, of the last three Premier League champions — his Chelsea team in 2015, Leicester City the following season, and Antonio Conte’s Chelsea this spring — “played more quality football.” The answer, of course, was “mine.”
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For all his protestations, all his disavowals, the perception that Mourinho is inherently cautious, that his teams are not the most beautiful in the world, has long irked him. His style does not, he contends, get the credit it warrants (and, just as important, he feels his rivals’ styles are given credit he does not believe they deserve).
This longstanding Mourinho grievance manifested, in particular, at Real Madrid, where he was fond of quoting the number 121: the record haul of goals his team scored on its way to the Spanish championship in 2012. That was conclusive proof, in his eyes, that he was more than just his defensive, reactive stereotype. If his team could outscore Barcelona, that bastion of style and panache, then how could it possibly be unappealing?
Arsenal’s Danny Welbeck after his second goal against Bournemouth on Saturday. The Gunners have a 4-0 loss and a 3-0 victory in their past two Premier League games but won’t get to test themselves in the Champions League this season: Arsenal failed to qualify. CreditAlan Walter/Reuters..
Even then, however, he was pointing not at some intangible notion of beauty, an overarching philosophy, but at an outcome, a result: This is the number of goals that my team has scored. Even then, he left the debates over how they were scored, and how much aesthetic pleasure they brought, to the poets and the philosophers he scorns.
At first glance, then, it is curious that a man who has always dealt in certainties should now enter subjective territory. His viewpoint is hardly outrageous — until a 5-3 defeat at Tottenham midway through the season startled Mourinho back into his shell, that 2014-15 Chelsea team was, indeed, free-flowing and adventurous — but it is, most certainly, uncharacteristic.
Mourinho, though, is nothing if not a creature of his context. He is an expert at reading his environment, discerning its priorities, adapting his public persona to fit its priorities. And he knows that, in the modern Premier League, what matters more than anything else is entertainment.
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The clue is in the branding. The Premier League casts itself, remorselessly, as not the best domestic soccer league in the world, but as the “most entertaining.” It has traded to enormous success on the perception that every single one of its teams fights to their very last breath (and, by extension, that this is not true elsewhere), that upsets and shocks and eye-catching score-lines could only ever happen here.
The Premier League reveres those who win, of course, which is why England has always seemed willing to indulge Mourinho’s brash self-assurance: He is a winner, and a relentless one at that. What it treasures most of all, though, are those who contribute to the spectacle. The issue is that, increasingly, there are signs that a commitment to entertainment comes at a cost of excellence.
Two weeks after sweeping past Arsenal at Anfield, Liverpool was humiliated by Manchester City on Saturday. Much of the postmatch discourse centered on Sadio Mané’s red card, but much more significant was Liverpool’s inability to adapt to its new circumstance. It was a goal down, a player down, away from home, against a team packed with creativity and guile.
Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool crumbled after a red card at Manchester City on Saturday, losing 5-0. CreditLee Smith/Reuters
Yet asked to stand firm, to stanch the bleeding and limit the damage, Liverpool crumbled. City cut through Jürgen Klopp’s team with almost embarrassing ease; much the same way, in fact, as Liverpool toyed with a disconsolate, demoralized Arsenal a couple of weeks before. Like Arsenal, Liverpool did not know any other way than to entertain. Stifling an opponent was entirely beyond Klopp’s team.
That same accusation was thrown at City last season, of course — Pep Guardiola has spent a king’s ransom, again, to try to rectify it — and a slightly amended version of it has been directed at Tottenham, too. Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs team is not nearly so fragile as Liverpool or Arsenal, but there are those inside the club who fear that its front-foot, full-throttle approach leaves it exposed against the very best opponents.
In the context of the Premier League, none of this matters: The league as a whole — even Mourinho, it seems — has bought into the same doctrine. It is in the Champions League that it becomes a problem.
When the world’s most exclusive club competition resumes this week, England’s representatives should be full of hope. There are five of them, for a start: Chelsea, City, Liverpool, Tottenham and, thanks to that Europa League victory, United. They have enjoyed a summer, once again, of almost unlimited financial power.
And, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain aside, there are slight, but visible, signs of weakness among some of their continental rivals: Juventus and Bayern Munich have both lost key players, either to sales or retirement, and Barcelona is still reeling from Neymar’s departure.
But few would claim to be sure a team from England, from the richest, most entertaining league in the world, will reach the final for the first time since 2012. Recent years have been too fallow; the gap between the very best of Spain, in particular, and England seems to have grown too wide.
The fetishization of entertainment does not explain that phenomenon completely, but it seems foolhardy to dismiss it out of hand. The Champions League — particularly in its knockout stages, where one mistake can prove fatal — rewards the patient, the thoughtful, the astute and the obdurate.
Those are traits too few of England’s teams possess to thrive, so deep-rooted is the emphasis on entertainment. Perhaps, in fact, only one of their cadre seems to fit the bill: the Manchester United of José Mourinho, the manager who knows — however he projects himself — that there are no points on offer for style.

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