Opinion: Martin’s Mou-lite approach is neither winning nor entertaining

Alan O’Brien 

“Whoever renounces possession reduces the possibility of making a mistake.” So states point five of José Mourinho’s big-game plan, as outlined in Diego Torres’s controversial 2014 biography of the Portuguese manager.


José Mourinho and Martin O’Neill, pictured during the latter’s 2006-2010 stint as Aston Villa manager (Credit: The Telegraph)


That seven-point doctrine concludes thusly: “Whoever has the ball has fear. Whoever does not have it is thereby stronger.” Encouraging errors in the opposition by giving them the ball is the best way to prosper, particularly away from home.

All of which worked a charm for the self-titled “special one” during successful stints at Internazionale and Real Madrid, when gung-ho possession-fetishisation — popularised by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona — was de rigeur across Europe. Not so much since his 2016 ascension to the Old Trafford throne, however.

No away win, and only one goal, in seven trips to fellow top-six sides suggests that Mourinho’s dogma is moribund these days, if not totally dead in the water. It is after all, despite appearances to the contrary, a high-risk strategy; if the opposition mitigates risk too, victory is highly improbable.

Which is why Martin O’Neill’s Saturday decision to employ a rather extreme version of this largely discredited formula was so baffling.


It is not as if Denmark were likely to take care of the football either; but then, as outlined by Shay Given in a recent interview with Second Captains, O’Neill eschews almost all of the opposition-based planning upon which Mourinho made his name.

Nor were Age Hareide’s side ever likely to open up with the ever-present away-goal Sword of Damocles hanging over their collective head. Predictably, the Danes kept it tight, using the bench only to enact straight swaps.

After drawing 0-0 with Liverpool recently, Mourinho bemoaned Jurgen Klopp’s failure to “let the game break” with his in-game replacements. Perhaps O’Neill felt equally robbed by his Norwegian counterpart’s selfish inaction.

Yet, if anything, the Kilrea native was the fortunate one — again. Far from encouraging opposition errors, O’Neill’s low-block saw his charges commit them in their own defensive-third. Poor finishing from the likes of Pione Sisto and Andreas Cornelius let Ireland off the hook, just as they were spared earlier in this campaign in both Belgrade and Vienna.


Not so in Bordeaux two summers ago, however, when Marc Wilmots’s poorly-coached Belgians steamrollered Ireland on the break, after Romelu Lukaku’s belated opener. Mourinho’s big-game doctrine is, of course, rendered worthless if the opposition score first.

O’Neill bottled it on that occasion, dropping the positively-oriented diamond that pinned Sweden back in favour of the very same cynical rubbish that stank up Parken Stadium on Saturday evening.

It is almost inconceivable that Ireland will avoid elimination if Denmark strike first on Tuesday evening. Hareide will surely commit none of the amateurish tactical flubs made by Bosnia’s Mehmed Bazdarevic two years ago. And, in O’Neill, Ireland boast a boss with precisely none of the other main feather in Mourinho’s cap — canny in-game management.

Based on the reams of evidence Irish fans have seen so far, O’Neill has no capacity to change a game for the better from the sideline. Recall how ten-men Wales and Serbia were both let off the hook in Dublin by the 65-year-old’s failure to introduce genuine width into the Irish equation.


So, presumably, Tuesday’s approach will be very much more-of-the-same; keep it tight, kick the ball away, and hope for an Ashley Williams-style error.

This should not be acceptable to any Irish football fan who wants to see his national side excel. And not because of any artistic, Wengerian, desire to see mediocre Premier League players afforded the chance to express themselves either.

Winning by any means is indeed the name of the game after all, but O’Neill’s Mourinho-lite prescription is not a winning one. Nor was the eerily similar ploy of his predecessor Giovanni Trapattoni, which came massively acropper at Euro 2012. No good risking nothing and lying in wait for the opposition to err if your own players drop clangers first.


Laughable comparisons to catenaccio, delivered by a euphoric Irish soccer Twitterati — no doubt dreaming of a per-diem-filled Russian summer — are wildly misplaced.

Helenio Herrera’s definitive version of that system, originally popularised in Switzerland, saw Internazionale rip their opponents apart on the break — attacking in numbers as soon as the ball was won. Herrera even pioneered the attacking full-back, within his now notorious 1-3-3-3 shape, decades before that innovation became the norm.

In contrast, Ireland under O’Neill — unlike, say Heimir Hallgrimsson’s brilliantly-drilled Iceland — pose a pathetic non-threat at attacking transitions. In fact, when it comes to O’Neill’s big-game playbook, you can pretty much remove that page of the classic four-part flowchart.

For Ireland, under this dinosaur, that flowchart reads: attack (if you must), defensive transition, defend, kick the ball away. It makes for grim reading, and Tuesday will undoubtedly make for grim viewing too. Just remember, when the Kool-Aid runs out, and you realise you were fooled, there are at least two more years of this to endure yet. Enjoy.

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One thought on “Opinion: Martin’s Mou-lite approach is neither winning nor entertaining

  1. Pingback: Analysis: Unapologetic O’Neill finally brought to reckoning | Tactics Truck v2.0

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