The year is 2009 and Inter Milan is coming off of winning the Serie A for the 17th time after the conclusion of the 2008/09 season, their first season under Jose Mourinho. They have swapped strikers with Barcelona during the summer transfer window by acquiring Samuel Eto’o for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who was their top scorer the previous season. With a serious move like that, one would wonder if a repeat of becoming champions would be attainable, and it was.
Mourinho’s Inter Milan side was a very disciplined, organized, and counter attacking side. His teams have always had some identity to that, but none more appropriate than the 2009/10 Inter Milan side. The club won the historic Treble by winning the Serie A, Coppa Italia, and the Champions League during the 2009/10 season and became the first Italian club to achieve this feat. It wasn’t just Mourinho’s tactical genius that led to the historic moment, he had the right players to accommodate the tactical genius that he brought to the club.
The formation he used that allowed his team to have defensive discipline as well as operate quick and fast counter attacks was 4-2-3-1. The 2 center backs he had were Walter Samuel and Lucio who were no nonsense defenders who had the tactical knowledge and discipline to be the perfect center back partners for Mourinho. Javier Zanetti, the club captain and legend, operated as the left full back to help maintain control of the game on the left side while Maicon operated as the right full back to help out counter attacks and marauder on the right side. Zanetti was more of a defensive full back while Maicon was the attacking full back. In the midfield, Esteban Cambiasso anchored one of the bases of the midfield to help break up attacks while also starting counter attacks and also cover the right side when Maicon is pushing up. His partner was either Dejan Stankovic or Thiago Motta who was the other pivot for the midfield two and their job was also to break up attacks and be positionally disciplined in the center of the pitch. An unusual way of using two central forwards to deploy out wide were stationed on the wings with Goran Pandev on the left while Eto’o occupied on the right. Wesley Sneijder occupied the number 10 spot to complete the attacking trio just behind the lone striker Diego Milito.
Mourinho’s teams have always been about high work rate and working for the team defensively. Once the team establishes a defensive fortitude, it will wear out the opposition and create counter-attacking opportunities to eventually get a result. Mourinho has always been about getting results whether it’s to get a draw or a win, it’s about the end result. He doesn’t care about how his team does it, and it’s not pretty, but at the end of the day he delivers results with trophies. He was able to convince his team this philosophy about defensive discipline and team-oriented play which meant making sacrifices to those who were used to padding up the stat sheet. For example, Samuel Eto’o had scored 30 goals in 36 games in his last season with Barcelona before joining Inter Milan. But Mourinho was able to convince Eto’o to play for the team and took some of the offensive responsibility from him to concentrate on the team’s defensive philosophy which led to only 12 goals in 32 games.
This led to be the best defensive team in the Serie A with 17 clean sheets in 38 games while conceding only 34 which was the league best. Depending on how the game is being played out or the type of personnel he has at his disposal, he would change his formation to be very defensive in order to not concede, but also be able to counter-attack efficiently. Sometimes switching to a 5-4-1 or even 4-4-1-1 formation in order to make it difficult for the opposition to break down the defense and eventually carve out a 1-0 win through precise counterattacks.
It wasn’t just their defensive discipline that allowed them to be so dominant in Europe. They also scored plenty of goals to complement their defensive astuteness. They scored a league high 75 goals led by Diego Milito with 22 goals in the league and 30 in all competitions. But they were able to have such great transition from defense to counterattack and score many goals thanks to two players in particular who were instrumental to Mourinho’s Inter Milan side: Cambiasso and Sneijder. While these two players had different responsibilities for the team, they were able to produce consistent performances each game to make a difference for the team.
Cambiasso was the heartbeat of the team, one could argue. As one of the double pivots at the base of the midfield, his role was to break up oncoming attacks while also being the link between the line of defense and the attack. Whenever he collected the ball, he would play long balls to start the counterattack to his forward lines. The reason for the long balls is to allow the offensive players to quickly get the ball on the opposition side of the pitch and attack the defense before the opponents could regroup defensively. And having a skillful fast forward like Eto’o to latch onto the long balls from Cambiasso was ideal for Mourinho’s system.
During the counter attacking phase, however, when Maicon is pushing up forward to create a number advantage in the attack, Cambiasso would provide cover on the right side. This created freedom for Maicon to burst forward whenever he saw an opportunity to do so without feeling being out of position. If Cambiasso wasn’t providing long balls to the forwards like Eto’o he would play the pass to Sneijder who would then provide it to the forwards to start the attack.
Sneijder was also integral to Mourinho’s side with his ability to pick out passes to the forwards to start the attacks. His main role was to collect the ball from midfield and distribute them to the forwards through his brilliant play making skills. Sneijder possessed all the skills to be the classic number 10 for the team and he proved to be the x-factor in many cases. His ability to play any position in the front became an integral part because it allowed tactical flexibility for Mourinho. Sometimes deployed as the second striker in a 4-4-2 system, Sneijder’s ability to play make and be positionally flexible was critical.
Mourinho’s tactical genius came when he was able to come through and get a result against Barcelona in the Champion’s League Semi-Final. It featured the best attacking team versus the best defensive team in all of Europe. Inter Milan was able to prevail in the first leg with a comfortable 3-1 win at Giuseppe Meazza stadium. But in the second leg, it wasn’t as comfortable as it was in the first leg. Mourinho was ultra-defensive in the second leg deploying Chivu on the left side of the midfield. With only three offensive type of players on the pitch, they had to be defensively disciplined for all of 90 minutes, but it got even tougher when Thiago Motta was sent off and had to play with 10 men. Instead of substituting one of the offensive players for a defensive one to be more compact, Mourinho opted against that and instead pulled Chivu from the left side of the midfield and placed him as one of the two pivots at the base of the midfield next to Cambiasso. He also switched Eto’o from the right side to the left wing and pulled Milito to the right side with Sneijder in central midfield. It was a very compact formation that required absolute discipline from the players, and they delivered. Even though the second leg ended with Barcelona winning 1-0, Inter Milan was able to move on to the final to face Bayern Munich with a 3-2 aggregate win.
Barcelona had completed 555 passes when compared to only 67 passes to Inter Milan. They also had 86% of the possession and even with those overwhelming stats, it wasn’t enough for Barcelona to advance. These stats showed that no matter how dominant a team can be based on possession and passes, if the other team doesn’t score enough goals to win then possession can only mean so much. And Mourinho was able to showcase that against one of the best managers in the world Pep Guardiola.
In the end, Inter Milan was able to comfortably win against Bayern Munich through their classic defensive astuteness and counter attacking ability. Bayern had no answers to stop Milito as he was able to score twice to win the game 2-0. It was a classic Inter Milan game to soak up pressure and counterattack before the opposition can set up their defensive shape.
Mourinho’s side wasn’t the prettiest or beautiful to watch. They played a very defensive style that doesn’t suit the eyes of all the football fans. Fans want to see attractive football with many goals being produced. But that wasn’t Mourinho. He was all about results. Because he knew that while offense can win you games, defense wins titles. He was able to showcase his tactical genius with providing the correct answers to the question each time his team had, what it felt like, a hurdle. There may never be another team like Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan’s side in the future with football heading towards more attractive and offensive ways, but it should be noted that all champions are champions because of their defensive prowess and Mourinho showcased that at the biggest stage.