Real Madrid vs Tottenham: Why Caution Should Win the Day for Mourinho
Before reading this article, forget the stereotypes imposed on the respective sides. Forget about ‘Spirited Spurs’ and what the English press relentlessly dub the ‘Mourinho factor’. Tonight, two reasonably well-matched teams, one of whom happens to have enormous Champions’ League pedigree, will take part in a game which will be decided by a question of tactics rather than specific prevailing technical characteristics.
In spite of what has been so frequently (and patronisingly) claimed about them, Tottenham possess a lot more than fighting spirit. Who would deny that players of the calibre of William Gallas, Luka Modric, Rafael van der Vaart or Gareth Bale would not stroll into many of Europe’s top sides? Jose Mourinho’s challenge is not so much to overcome a battling, carefree underdog – Spurs’ performances against AC Milan were far too calculated to be bracketed that way – rather, it is how to use his team’s unique characteristics to overcome those of an opponent which really is not that far behind on a technical level.
With Wilson Palacios, who cemented Tottenham’s defensive midfield in Milan alongside Sandro, out injured, manager Harry Redknapp is likely to use Sandro with Modric and van der Vaart in the centre, with Lennon and Bale out wide in a 4-5-1/4-3-3. Certainly, he would rather have had Palacios alongside Sandro to help overwhelm the midfield as he did at the San Siro, but with Jermaine Jenas the only realistic alternative with defensive skills comparable to those of Palacios, he is likely to favour an approach halfway between the swashbuckling demolition of Inter Milan and the studied caution against AC.
The result for Mourinho is an opportunity to exploit Tottenham’s weaknesses as well as his own biggest asset – Cristiano Ronaldo. Over the course of the season, Madrid have been criticised for their reliance on the Portuguese but, should he be fit in time, this is one tie in which Ronaldo’s ability should be fully supported.
Rather than opting for the classic 4-5-1 he prefers to use at home, Mourinho should instead adopt a more cautious approach which will ultimately yield more goalscoring opportunities and carry fewer risks than his usual strategy: a lopsided 4-5-1 which he has used sporadically this season – most notably in Real’s 2-1 win at Atletico Madrid last month.
The conservative method involves using Lassana Diarra alongside Xabi Alonso, with the German international Khedira playing nominally on the right flank but actually making his (few) forward runs inside the full-back. Ozil or Kaka play as the classic playmaker, with Ronaldo as a wing-forward on the left. This way, Madrid can have an extra man in midfield, stopping the balls out to Bale and Lennon at source; Diarra can pick up van der Vaart with the remainder of the midfield hounding Modric. Further, Khedira’s presence on the right serves the important function of neutralising Gareth Bale, who would relish any chance of running one-on-one at Sergio Ramos.
Further forward, this means that Ronaldo will have chances to take Corluka on one-on-one; Aaron Lennon is unlikely to offer his full-back too much in the way of support and, with Sandro needing to look out for Ozil or Kaka in the centre, William Gallas will likely get pulled out to support Corluka. In turn, this gives whoever Mourinho selects up front the chance to exploit space among Tottenham’s back four.
Indeed, when Madrid have tried to take on defensive sides head-on, the result has often been a frustrating draw or, as happened last week against Gijon, defeat. Madrid are naturally built for counter-attacking football – their technical skills are far more suited to breaking at pace than dominating possession.
This approach may not please Madridistas at kick-off, but Mourinho’s greatest triumphs have come when he has opted for absolute pragmatism. The important thing, which Mourinho will know most of all, will be not to underestimate Tottenham.