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José Mourinho and Mike Tyson are the Heavyweights of Counter-punching

Mourinho

London – Mike Tyson has an interesting new book out called Iron Ambition. In it he talks about his violent childhood, explores his relationship with his late coach, the great Cus D’Amato, and kicks the whole thing off with a passage about wandering around his old Brooklyn neighborhood, marveling at the gentrification, tourists and, above all, the sight of people taking selfies all over the place.

Like many other grouchy middle-aged men Mike hasn’t, you sense, fully engaged with the selfie craze. “Imagine trying to do that with the people I was hanging out with in Times Square,” he writes. “‘Hey man, let’s take a selfie!’ Thugs would start beating on you and leave you in a coma in the street.” We can never go back, of course. But in many ways, happier, wiser times.

This is not, yet, the most famous Tyson quote. That comes instead from his time rampaging around the heavyweight division when he was asked by a room of journalists about an opponent’s plans to dance inside, hit and run and generally pick him off. “Everyone has a plan,” came the reply. “Until they get punched in the mouth.”

It is a cool quote, albeit perhaps a little misunderstood, with an assumption among those who perhaps didn’t see Tyson in his prime that saying this marks him out as a force of untutored aggression, all front-foot brutality. Read the book and you realize the phrase has strong echoes of D’Amato, a brilliant strategist who talked first of all about not getting hit, and whose triumph was to turn Tyson into a counter-punching technician, saving his most ferocious attacks for when he’d just slipped your best shot.

What Mike and Cus were saying was: you may have a plan but ours is better. Just as all trainers and indeed football managers work relentlessly on defense, the flaws in their opponents’ attack and disrupting first of all what’s coming back at them.

Can you feel it yet? Can you feel José Mourinho’s hard, flat, insolent gaze glaring out between these words? This week another fascinating set of quotes has been doing the rounds, this time from Mourinho, extracted from remarks he made at a Lisbon university about his preparations for the Europa League final against Ajax. These were picked up by the newspaper Tribuna Expresso and translated by the football analyst Tiago Estêvão. Again the talk was about strategy and, above all, about getting your retaliation in first.

The first striking thing is the level of detail in Mourinho’s prep for Ajax, the way he really does visualize the game in advance.

The second striking thing was the response on social media to this insight, reflecting a certain acerbic reaction to Mourinho’s first season at Manchester United, the tendency to hold a perfumed handkerchief to the nose, to splutter about “anti-football”, to suggest that setting out a team defensively is in some way cynical or disrespectful. And beyond this, the idea a club like United should instead be imposing its own freewheeling, tousle-haired will, leaving the washing-up, romping about like cosseted puppies and all the rest.

This still feels a bit baffling to the neutral. Looking at Mourinho’s notes it is hard to see anything but complete respect for his opponent and indeed for his sport. He’s not mucking about here. Mourinho watched eight Ajax matches before Stockholm. He had a clear plan, a set of counter measures that worked so well that with 10 minutes gone he was already telling Rui Faria “we have them in our pockets”.

The first stage of this was to “create instability” by hustling Matthijs de Ligt, Ajax’s usual conduit from the back, forcing Davinson Sánchez to take the ball forward instead. Sánchez is hugely talented and shut Marcus Rashford down on the night but he’s not as good on the ball as his partner. So in one move a strength became a weakness.

Carrying the ball forward, Sánchez looked up and found stage two: United matched Ajax’s midfield man for man, leaving no real option but to pass long. Which he did. By the end Sánchez had made 35 more passes than De Ligt, including nine long balls, and every part of the Ajax machine had been very slightly jiggered out of place. Everybody has a plan – until they get hustled into a series of unplanned movements by a master of the preemptive smothering tweak.

Mourinho also had his defense under strict orders. Chris Smalling, who can – let’s face it – at times look like he’s playing in a pair of oversized square-toed cow-poke boots, was told to pass long every time, to make no attempt to link with his midfield, thereby negating Ajax’s powerful high press.

They followed the drill. United’s back four played 25 long balls. Smalling and Daley Blind didn’t pass once to Paul Pogba. A team of stars man-marked a 17-year-old novice defender. And United won a European final at a guarded canter by the horribly subversive pragmatism of not giving the ball to their £90m record signing. “For me beautiful is not giving our opponents what they want,” Mourinho sneered in Lisbon. I wasn’t there but, let’s face it, he sneered it, maybe even cackled it. And he’s right. This is in its own way deeply beautiful.

So why the snorts of unhappiness? Clearly defensive football isn’t everyone’s idea of fun. It doesn’t look good on the telly. Pogba’s willingness to fit the plan is admirable but his own extreme talents may get more of an airing elsewhere. Similarly Mourinho’s love of the system, his ability to wrench out an opponent’s circuit boards, have seen his greatest triumphs arrive at clubs just below the top tier, turning a B-list European power into a snarling, spitting, brilliantly obstructive champion.

Beyond this it is hard to avoid the idea that people make the mistake of conflating Mourinho’s tactics with his toxic and infuriating public persona: the sneakiness, the tedious jibes, the sight of him stalking the touchline haggardly in baggy grey shell suit trousers with the look of a man dragged from his static caravan in the wee hours and forced to walk four miles down the hard shoulder in search of a canister of butane gas, only to find he’s forgotten his wallet, lost one of his flip-flops in a gorse bush and is being taunted by a busload of primary school children.

For all that, the notion this is somehow beneath Manchester United seems a bit odd. The later Sir Alex Ferguson teams were hardly buccaneering free spirits swinging from the hip. Chewing through a third manager in three years, United have now won two Cups. This feels like progress, an ice pick lodged in the cliff face.

Mourinho may be a counter-puncher. He may be Floyd Mayweather rather than Roberto Durán. But even in a nation where an academic, systems-based approach has so often been jeeringly dismissed, the obsession with team, with winning by first of all preventing defeat, has its own kind of refined mathematics, even its own kind of poetry.

The Guardian Sport

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