Jose Mourinho's tenure at Real Madrid has, overall, been a failure

Posted by Gabriele Marcotti

Jose Mourinho's time at Real Madrid hasn't come to an end. He has five Liga matches to go, plus the Copa del Rey final this season. And, while right now it looks about as likely as Roman Abramovich mooring his yacht in the Grand Canyon, there is still a chance -- however tiny -- that the four-year contract he signed on May 22 of last year will be honored.

But let's put that to one side right now. Real Madrid's comeback attempt against Borussia Dortmund fell short Tuesday night, and the club's hunt for La Decima will need to be postponed. It's a natural point in time to take stock of Mourinho's three seasons at the Bernabeu.

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If your main metric in judging success is results, the ultimate judgment has to be negative.

Three straight Champions League semifinals represents Real Madrid's best run of performances in the game's premier club competition since 2000 to 2003, when they twice reached the semis and once won it all.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesJose Mourinho is no stranger to courting conflict. Just ask Iker Casillas.

Barring a sudden domestic collapse in La Liga by Barcelona (or one by Real Madrid themselves, which would see them slip to third) Mourinho's side will finish second for the second time in three seasons. Sandwiched between those two runner-up places was his Liga masterpiece: the 2011-12 campaign, when Real set a whole gaggle of records, from points gained to games won to goals scored to highest goal difference.

Mourinho won one Copa del Rey, was knocked out of another in the quarterfinals, and the third, well, we'll know in two-and-a-half weeks.

Then again, raw results tell you only so much.

On his way to those Champions League semifinals, his Real Madrid side eliminated Lyon, Tottenham Hotspur, CSKA Moscow, APOEL Nicosia, Manchester United and Galatasaray. Except for United (and that was in a game marked by controversy), it's hardly the cream of the European crop. When faced with quality semifinal opponents -- Barcelona, Bayern and now Borussia Dortmund -- his team fell. It was close -- very close last year -- but they still fell.

Even the Liga achievements can be read several ways. In his first year, Mourinho and Real Madrid won 92 points, which was actually four fewer than the guy he replaced, Manuel Pellegrini, who had to make do without Cristiano Ronaldo for nearly two months of the season. And this year they're on pace to finish with 85 points, which is 13 fewer than Barcelona's projected total.

For an average manager, those aren't horrible results. But Mourinho isn't Joe tracksuit-and-clipboard (or, these days, sponsored fleece-and-iPad). He is the highest-paid coach in a major European league. Real Madrid paid more than $16 million in compensation just to free him from his Inter Milan contract. They expected him to be a difference-maker.

And he hasn't been.

You can't argue that he hasn't had the tools. Since 2009 -- a year before his arrival, but that's when the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Xabi Alonso came aboard -- Real Madrid has spent some $578 million on transfer fees. Compare it to Europe's other big spenders. Manchester City clocks in at $639.2 million, the others are all behind: Chelsea ($492 million), Barcelona ($366 million) and Manchester United ($250 million).

Maybe you think net spending is a more accurate gauge. City are, again, tops with $445 million, followed by Real Madrid ($395 million), Chelsea ($390 million), Barcelona ($201 million) and United ($47.8 million). Note also that once former Real general manager Jorge Valdano was forced out in the summer of 2011, Mourinho had virtually complete control of the club and their transfers.

Elisa Estrada/Real Madrid/Getty ImagesWhen Mourinho arrived at the Bernabeu, the expectations were nothing short of winning the Champions League.

Sure, he was up against Barcelona, one of the finest teams in history. And, yes, if Bayern and Real Madrid traded places and he got to play in the Bundesliga the past three seasons, maybe he would have won more. But that doesn't change the fact that the club invested all this money -- both in him and in resources -- precisely because they thought he could bring his results.

If you're going to judge him on somewhat more subjective parameters -- Did his team play well? Did he add to the Real Madrid brand? -- the verdict isn't going to be much better.

Mourinho is not some kind of esoteric master tactician. That's not a criticism. Some great managers are, some equally great ones are not.

There are two sides to tactics: having ideas and getting your guys to execute them well. He has never been a revolutionary when it comes to tactics, which is fine, as long as you get your team to perform whatever game plan you lay out. The problem is that for most of his tenure Real Madrid never really went beyond being, fundamentally, a counterattacking team that reacted to what the opposition did, rather than one capable of imposing its strategy on a game.

When Real went behind, coming back into the game often became a real struggle. You often felt the front four were isolated from the back six; Luka Modric was signed, in part, to solve this problem, but Mourinho evidently did not buy into the notion or figured he wasn't ready to sacrifice Sami Khedira or Xabi Alonso or go 4-3-3. Apart from certain spells over the three-year tenure -- like spring of last year -- he failed to give the team a coherent way of playing when in possession, one that went beyond the counterattack or leaving it to the individuals. Again, the bulk of Mourinho's starters have been in place since he arrived. If, after nearly three years, your players still look disjointed when you have the ball, you've come up short as a coach.

Whether he added to the Real Madrid brand sounds like one of those horrible questions that marketing types might discuss. But it's relevant. Club president Florentino Perez's original Galacticos were all predicated upon playing a certain way, acting a certain way, being the global equivalent of -- his comparison, not mine -- the Harlem Globetrotters: better than everyone, yet loved by everyone.

Under Mourinho, things went from bad to worse very quickly. And he paid a price for a massive early miscalculation. He thought that ratcheting up the tension between Real and Barcelona would unify his team and yield results. He believed that the siege mentality would see him through, just as it had in the past.

Rarely has such a choice boomeranged so badly. The rant about UNICEF and UEFA after his first season got him nowhere. The ill-tempered Spanish Super Cup in his second year -- the one where he decided to go and poke Tito Vilanova in the eye and then walk away as if nothing had happened -- made him appear unhinged. (Quick detour: Luis Suarez got a 10-game ban for biting an opponent. Mourinho got nothing for the poke.) Ultimately, far from coalescing the squad into a unit, it precipitated a split in his team, with several of his own influential veterans openly wondering: Why wasn't it enough to merely try to beat Barcelona? Why did they have to hate them, as well?

The siege mentality works when you can think of yourself as a victim or an underdog. It's a staple for coaches everywhere, right down to Little League. “Gentlemen, it's us against the world ... how bad do you want it?” That approach may have worked at Inter, where the club saw themselves as outsiders to the Milan-Juventus hegemony, and at Chelsea, where they were the nouveau riche upstarts upsetting the social order. But this was Spain, and Real Madrid -- more than any other club -- represent the Establishment. Trying to recast Real as some kind of persecuted underdog simply didn't play. Many Real fans saw it as humiliating. Supporters of other clubs, particularly those that did have legitimate gripes, saw it as a joke.

(It's not a coincidence that Mourinho enjoys his strongest support among Real's “Ultras Sur.” They're a subset of the fan base who legitimately do consider themselves outsiders battling “the system.” Mourinho naturally resonates with them.)

Mourinho realized this during his second season, which is why his behavior changed. Less aggression, less picking fights, less moaning. But by that point, the horse had bolted. The damage had been done.

Too often we think of managers as fixed in time. Sir Alex is like THIS. Pep Guardiola is like THAT. The fact is that they're human too and they grow and evolve over time. They make mistakes, they learn from them, they realize what worked before might no longer work, and they change.

Mourinho is no different. The fact that he hasn't been able to impose a coherent tactical identity and playing style on Real Madrid doesn't mean he can't do it. He did it at Inter Milan in his second season. He did at Chelsea in his first two campaigns, before he became over-reliant on Didier Drogba. And his Porto teams -- especially his 2002-03 side -- were a joy to watch, flexibly switching between 4-3-3 and 4-4-2, with a tactical sophistication and an ability to create that some of his more recent sides lacked.

He may not admit it, and he may wheel out the long list of excuses to explain what, ultimately, was a failed three seasons at Real Madrid.

And if he doesn't do it, no doubt some of his acolytes will: The media hated him, Valdano's supporters hated him, Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos disrupted the team, everyone favored Barcelona, he didn't have enough control, he got stuck with Kaka (whom he had no use for), UNICEF, UEFA, the Scandinavian referees' syndicate, etc.

But deep down, having had the opportunity to spend a bit of time with him a few years ago, I'm pretty sure he'll be examining exactly what went wrong. Great managers are often their own harshest critics, at least in private. If he can learn from his experience, if he can rediscover the tactical acumen he showed in years past as well as the ability to get his players to buy into it, he'll be back stronger than before.

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