Did Mourinho Fail at Real Madrid?

pensive_joseIn case you missed it, yesterday Richard Whittall had a mindblowing conversation with Raphael Honigstein, Gabriel Marcotti, and Miguel Delaney about Mourinho’s Real Madrid legacy, the bulk of which can be found here. This prompted me to spend some time considering what we should have expected from Jose’s Madrid reign from a statistical perspective. Given Jose’s past performance and/or the recent performance of the best managers in the world, what sort of expectations would have been “fair”?

Let me start by saying that those guys are all outstanding journalists. They are part of a very small group of writers whose work I read every week because it is both valuable and because I enjoy the experience. That said, some of their tweets show such a dramatic lack of perspective that I was shocked. If you can’t count on great journalists to have realistic football expectations, what hope can we possibly have for normal, everyday fans?

First let’s take a look at Mourinho’s past performance, starting since he left Porto. How does Mourinho typically perform in isolation when he takes over a new team?

Team League Cup CL
Year 1 Chelsea Win 5R SF
Year 2 Chelsea Win SF R16
Year 3 Chelsea RU Win SF
Year 1 Inter Win SF R16
Year 2 Inter Win Win Win
Year 1 Real Madrid RU Win SF
Year 2 Real Madrid Win QF SF
Year 3 Real Madrid RU Win? SF

So historically you can expect Jose’s teams to always make it out of the Champions’ League group stage, and usually to the semifinal. Before Madrid, he was winning the league nearly every season, and taking home domestic cups about every other year.

Madrid’s league performance under Jose is a win below his personal standards. If they win the Copa del Rey this year, two wins in three years would be slightly above expectations, and three CL semifinals in a row is basically exactly as expected.

Honigstein: What were they up against? One team, that’s all.

I’m pretty sure Raph was talking about La Liga here, so let’s run with that. Assuming we buy his logic, it kind of helps to know that the “one team” in this case is the one that was widely dubbed as the greatest team of the modern era – Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. This is part of that key perspective thing I mentioned above. It’s not just one team, it’s the team. Either Barcelona were absolutely amazing like everyone generally agrees, or Honigstein is out on a limb here saying they weren’t. If they were amazing, then give Jose credit for beating them in year 2? This year, Real let off the gas early and haven’t been as good as they were the first two years, and Barcelona ran away with things. It happens, even to the best managers.

The first year where Mourinho and Madrid finished second? They did it with 92 points. A points total that would have demolished the league every single year for a decade before Guardiola started managing Barcelona. So yes, not winning La Liga in two of the three years is slightly below Mourinho’s historic performance, but what they were up against does matter.

[Note: Mourinho deserves credit for finally solving Barcelona. His teams haven’t lost to Barce in a competitive match in 18 months and likely provided the blueprint for Bayern’s domination as well.]

Now take a look at the three teams Madrid lost to in the Champions League (all semifinals).

Year 1: Barcelona
Year 2: Bayern Munich on penalties
Year 3: Borussia Dortmund

Miguel Delaney: Real define themselves by the European Cup. Simple as that. He’s had three awful semis.

So they lost to eventual champions Barcelona year 1, when Barce were at their peak, losing 2-0 at home and then drawing at the Camp Nou. The second year, Madrid lost to Bayern on penalties. Honestly, that doesn’t seem awful. Talk all you want about bottle and mental toughness and whatever, penalties are a crap shoot every single time. Well, except maybe when England are involved.

In this year’s Champions’ League, it’s fair to say Klopp totally dominated him from a coaching perspective. And yet if Madrid manage to convert one more of the many, many great chances they created at home, they would go through to the Final almost despite themselves. Dortmund deserved to win that matchup, but they very nearly didn’t.

So maybe we can nod toward Miguel and call it two awful semis, plus one pretty good one against the team everyone is already calling “the next Barcelona.” During that time, the best club team ever had the same number of semifinals appearances(3) and won the CL trophy once. They also lost to Bayern Munich 7-0 on aggregate. When it comes to perception, however, a win changes everything.

Honigstein: Is this year’s Barca the best team ever and thus untouchable in the league for RM? Were Dortmund & Bayern impossible to beat as well? But at least he failed playing great football. Oh, hold on…

Marcotti: But he also finished way behind, failed to beat other teams in La Liga as often as Barca did and, most of all, generally played pretty uninspired football (with some exceptions). Fair to expect more, no?

Here’s the thing I really don’t get about that whole conversation… how can you possibly think Real failed to play great football? In what world is that the case? Jose didn’t rock up to Madrid and make them play hoof ball when I wasn’t looking, did he? Well, no. Maybe they are thinking historical Mourinho teams and judging by that. Chelsea and Inter both had a habit of getting the lead, then holding the ball and simply squeezing the life out of the game. Effective stuff, but not very pretty. That’s not what Mourinho’s Madrid did. I watch a lot of Real Madrid matches due to my work, and they were scintillating. It’s not tiki-taka – Madrid played a more traditional style than Barcelona – but it was beautiful nonetheless.

Under Mourinho, Real Madrid destroyed opponents. They scored tons of goals! Fine, they didn’t have possession of the ball more than 60% of the time like Barcelona, but who cares? Seriously, look at the numbers!


Team GF GA GD Pts








Real Madrid







Real Madrid



















Real Madrid









Real Madrid




310 goals in the league vs. 308 over three seasons!

Maybe at this point you are sick of numbers, so let’s look beyond them for a moment…

Ignore Ronaldo’s Michael-Flatley-Meets-Football magic – if you don’t find what Ozil and Alonso do on a weekly basis aesthetically pleasing football, the problem is with your definition, not with how they play.

The Greatest Managers In the World…

Who are they? Who can you compare Jose to and see if he is failing? Alex Ferguson. Guardiola. Klopp? Heynckes? Wenger? Absolutely no one in Italy any more? (Okay, maybe Conte, but the suspension throws off any potential analysis.)

Pep is hard to compare because he’s only had the four years, but his four years were probably the greatest run of all time. It amuses me that he could match that when he takes over Bayern next year, but the truth of the matter is that they didn’t really need him – they’ve already been in three finals over the last five years. At that point will Bayern be winning because of Pep or will Pep be winning because of what he took over at Bayern? [It doesn’t matter, because everyone will be super happy if they just win all the trophies.]

Klopp is tough too but he’s undeniably great, having won the Bundesliga two of the last three years, and now hitting the Finals of the CL. That said, Dortmund finished last in their CL group last season, coming behind Arsenal, Marseille, and Olympiakos. I am a huge fan, but it’s too early in his career to really compare.

Heynckes. Three total Bundesliga trophies in a long managerial career. A CL win with Real Madrid of all places, but he was fired for not succeeding there in the league. A CL final with Bayern last year and possibly another CL trophy with Bayern coming up. You’d gladly take him as a manager, but his career has had a ton of peaks and valleys.

Wenger has been mired in the Arsenal financial morass for eight years now. Eight years ago, he would have compared very favourably. Now? Does 4th count as a trophy?

Fergie might be the greatest manager I have ever seen. In the last twenty years, Fergie has made the semifinals of the Champions League seven times, winning twice and finishing runner up twice. In the last eight years (the same period as Mourinho above), he’s won the league five times.

And what of Jose? Europa League and Champions League titles with Porto (which may forever boggle the mind). In the eight years since, he has five league titles across England, Italy, and Spain. His Spanish title came at the expense of Pep’s Barcelona. Six more Champions League semifinals in those eight years, and one win. He basically has the same Champions League resume as Fergie in half the time. Paisley is the only manager ever to have more European titles, and Jose still has a chance to tie and surpass him.

At the end of the day, no one is doing better than Jose, except maybe Guardiola, while Fergie is at the same level. You can’t even make the vaguest argument that anyone else is close.  Even in the three years at Madrid, with only one league win, two (probable) cup wins, and three straight CL semifinals, he’s performing as well as any of his compatriots, all of whom are regarded as the greatest football managers in the world.

Maybe it’s not Jose’s performance that’s the problem, it’s the superhuman expectations that everyone – even some of the brightest journalists in the world – seem to place on him.

He’s not Superman.

He’s only the Special One.

Corrections: This blog originally stated it was Shankly that had the most wins in Europe, it was Paisley. It also had the locations of the scores for the semifinal against Barcelona switched.


5 responses to “Did Mourinho Fail at Real Madrid?

  1. I greatly enjoyed reading your analysis. I too find the perception of Madrid under Mourinho to be boring as flawed. There are few teams more devastating than them on the counter. Ozil, Alonso and Ronaldo are amazing to watch (in that order IMO).

  2. I think failure has strong negative connotations. It would be more appropriate to say that he didn’t succeed; it’s not either-or. You’re generous to include national cup wins, but any discussion on elite club management cannot include national cup wins unless it completes a treble. No manager would be talked of as ‘elite’ if all they won were national cups.

    So, relative to this discussion, he has won one trophy out of a possible six. As you said, you have to contextualize his tenure as that during Guardiola’s era but also during Madrid’s outrageous spending before he took over. I think Guardiola’s Barcelona peaked year one; Messi papered over a lot of cracks in their attack when Eto and Henry left in subsequent years. Mourinho had one of the best strikers (Ronaldo), central midfielders (Xabi Alonso), and goalkeepers (Casillas) of this generation in his team plus potentially one of the best playmakers (Ozil) at his disposal along with a lot of good players. Did Guardiola have a better set of players? I think it’s clear that a manager with either set of players cannot complain about the quality and attribute it to the team’s failures and not the manager’s.

    In three of the competitions, Mourinho was directly competing against Guardiola (obviously two league campaigns and the one Champions League where they met in the semi-final). He won one out of the three; it’s difficult to criticize him. He ran Guardiola close in the one losing league campaign. However, I would sharply criticize his two losses to Bayern and Dortmund in this and last year’s semi-finals and losing the league to Tito. If the penalty shoot-out is a crap shoot, then the game itself is a crap shoot. Executing a kick under pressure is the game of football. Dortmund barely got through against Malaga who are twenty points behind Madrid in the league. And he pissed off one of the great goalkeepers of the current generation: that won’t help you win and therefore, it’s bad management.

    As I said, I don’t think it was a failure but it wasn’t a success.

  3. I like this and adds perspective to things. Sometimes context matters and this is another such example of that. Its too simplistic to call his time a success or a failure but rather better to put the achievements in one column and where they came short in the next. I think he’d be considered a success (relatively) but not a complete success the way he left Inter or Porto.

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