Jose Mourinho told the Daily Mail how he beat Ajax to win the Europa League. “Jose Mourinho has shared the tactical secrets which helped Manchester United cruise to victory in the Europa League final against Ajax, revealing he watched his opponents eight times.
Mourinho told his United players to target young Ajax defender Matthijs de Ligt while instructing his own centre-back, Chris Smalling, not to play out from the back.
Portuguese Mourinho was speaking as a guest lecturer at Lisbon’s Faculdade de Motricidade Humana University, and was happy to disclose parts of his tactical approach as United won 2-0 at the Friends Arena in Stockholm.
The 54-year-old was criticised for opting to discard United’s Premier League campaign by picking his fringe players during the run-in, but the victory over the Eredivisie club secured Champions League football next season.
In quotes attributed to Portuguese publication Tribuna Expresso, the two-time Champions League winner revealed how he turned to his assistant Rui Faria and shook his hand after 80 minutes against the Dutch side, knowing the game was won.
Mourinho told MA students on a day dedicated to high performance football coaching: ‘I watched eight Ajax matches. In England, I tend to watch two to three matches because I already know the opponent, but not in Europe. To me, analysing the opponent is key because the way I practice and play is influenced by it.
‘We wanted to create instability. We would let them play out from the back while blocking De Ligt, their right centre-back, making them play through Davinson Sanchez who had more trouble.’
Mourinho had made it known in his press conferences that his side went into the Europa League final after a gruelling 67-game season with just 15 fully fit players, and the manager has now revealed how his training sessions were fixed on Ajax during the run-in.
In the morning, he would carry out a 20-minute video analysis session of his side’s next opponents (on the first day leading up to the game, he composed a dossier of his rival’s offensive qualities, turning to their defensive organisation on the second day and tactics on day three).
After breakfast, he would conduct a 75-minute training session and tell his players precisely what he wants to see in the upcoming game. After lunch, Mourinho would return to his office for another 20-minute session with statistical analysis of his opponents and the strategies they would adopt.
Ajax duly struggled to create clear-cut goalscoring opportunities with their more influential attacking players Davy Klaassen and Kasper Dolberg kept quiet in Sweden, and Mourinho opted to play Marouane Fellaini, Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera in midfield.
The former Chelsea boss wanted his players to allow Sanchez to have the ball at the back, feeling that his defence would be able to handle long balls because ‘we’re taller and dominant in that area’.
Pogba broke the deadlock with a fortuitous strike which deflected off Sanchez, and the France international was asked to track danger man Klaassen’s movements between the lines.
Mourinho added: ‘We’d make our full-back close down well that central space and if the ball entered a wide area for their winger, the full-back would close him down and Herrera would be the one covering that space in midfield.
‘But what matters is that my players understand we cannot have doubts there – defensive creativity only in emergency situations.
‘We prepare a game better when we’re aware of our own weaknesses. Everyone said Ajax played beautiful football and that the beauty of the game matters and bla, bla, bla. I told my players that, for me, beautiful is not giving our opponents what they want.
‘I even joked with Smalling – “With your feet, we’re for sure not playing out from the back!”
‘That’s where we won the game. During the initial stage of the build-up we never played from our centre-backs to our midfielders, because they are great at recovering possession pressing high. In our midfield they didn’t recover the ball once. If the ball isn’t there, what are they going to press?’