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Forget artist v mechanic: Mourinho and Conte’s midfield duel holds key

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Forget artist v mechanic: Mourinho and Conte’s midfield duel holds key” was written by Jonathan Wilson, for The Guardian on Friday 18th May 2018 08.59 UTC

“I’m not,” José Mourinho said after Manchester United’s home win over Liverpool in March, “the kind of mechanic coach that says player A pass to player B, player B pass to player C and player C to player D. I’m much more a supporter of preparing the players to decide well and feel the game.”

As so often with Mourinho, there was perhaps a coded jibe; this may have been (it’s very hard to know for sure with a man whose every utterance is subjected to intense scrutiny) another sortie in his protracted war of words with Antonio Conte. For the Italian is a manager who has his side practise “automations”, as Eden Hazard calls them. Conte does see the value in practising set moves, to be deployed during games when the disposition of players on the pitch is right.

The notion of planned moves is common in modern football and has a history stretching back at least as far as Valeriy Lobanovskyi. His great collaborator Anatoliy Zelentsov compared them to gambits in chess, pre-formed strategies to be adapted and applied in game situations. In football, the advantage is obvious: if players know where they should be moving, who is likely to be in space and where the ball should be played, everything is speeded up. The devastating counterattacks of Joachim Löw’s Germany, particularly at the 2010 World Cup, are a more recent example.

Mourinho thinks those preset moves are overly prescriptive and that, in a game as random as football, they can be counterproductive. He prefers to inculcate in his players the mindset to make the best decisions in any situation. There is no right or wrong answer. Those sides who prefer automations are perhaps a little quicker, those who have been imbued with the appropriate mindset more plastic, more versatile.

The dig was in the use of the word “mechanic”. Conte had described Mourinho as “making cinema”, in the way he used press conferences to deflect and shape the story around games; this was Mourinho’s reply. Perhaps he was a director, an artist but rather that than being bluntly functional, than being mechanistic.

There is an irony there in that Conte, whose footballing method involves practising set moves was attacking Mourinho for taking the same approach into his dealings with the media, for “preparing to have a cinema in the press conference”, whereas he was more spontaneous, more willing to react to circumstance.

Beyond the rabbit hole of mind games and abstract arguments about how best to condition players, the key to Saturday’s FA Cup final looks likely to be how the midfields match up. Conte’s experiment with a 3‑5‑1‑1, which placed undue pressure on Hazard as the creative hub, looks to have been abandoned, and he will probably set up in the 3-4-2-1 with which they won the title last season.

The danger of that approach was seen in the sides’ meeting at Old Trafford in February when Chelsea, having taken the lead, were overrun and could have lost by far more than 2-1. Although Hazard and – probably – Willian operating in those inside-forward positions can drift into areas that are extremely difficult for opponents to pick up, if they become detached from the play, it can lead to the two deeper-lying midfielders – most likely N’Golo Kanté and Cesc Fàbregas – being overwhelmed by the three central midfielders in United’s 4-3-3.

That is a particular issue if the wing-backs who could otherwise have helped out in midfield are forced back by United’s wide forwards, probably Alexis Sánchez and Jesse Lingard, making runs into the space behind them. That would also free up United’s full-backs, allowing them to get forward or, more likely, offer support in negating Willian and Hazard.

It’s mark of Chelsea’s decline this season that it seems natural to view the game from a perspective of how United are likely to unsettle them. Last season, there would have been confidence that their press, plus the defensive screen offered by Kanté and Nemanja Matic, would have meant it was United’s wide forwards being driven back by the wing-backs Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso. There would have been concerns as to whether United’s flanking midfielders could offer sufficient support to their holding player to handle Hazard and Willian.

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Although United beat Chelsea in April 2017 at Old Trafford, they lost at Stamford Bridge earlier in the campaign, in the league and FA Cup. An attacking capacity reduced by the sale of Diego Costa and a midfield diminished by the sale of Matic, Chelsea are a much lesser force than they were a year ago. The squad have been weakened by the club’s transfer business, confidence has dropped and, with Conte seemingly certain to leave, there is not the intensity of last season.

And that is the difficulty of assessing methodologies, tactical schema and theoretical approaches: there is always something else going on.

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