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Ken Early: Mourinhoball will be real winner of the World Cup

Pace, power, and passion: José’s kind of football is on its way back to the top

José Mourinho has kept busy during the World Cup with a punditry gig on RT (formerly Russia Today). Listening to his analysis, you quickly realise that you are actually watching early Manchester United 2018-19 press conferences. He's praising Paul Pogba for humbly submitting to a water-carrying role in front of the French defence, or he's wistfully rhapsodising about the amazing qualities of Ivan Perisic, the powerful Croatian winger he's spent the last two years telling Ed Woodward to sign . . . and so on. José never really switches off.

But what’s even more notable is how happy he looks: grinning, relaxed, the soul of good cheer. Maybe the strength of this impression is due to the contrast with his normal demeanour. Mourinho is happy because he loves what he is seeing on the pitch. Last season he was often accused of being yesterday’s man. Russia 2018 suggests that, when it comes to the international game at least, José’s kind of football is on its way back to the top.

In Russia the race has generally been to the swift and the battle to the strong. The values that have emerged as decisive are the old-school ones: pace, power, and passion.

France, a team embodying all the characteristics Mourinho likes to see in his teams, are poised to win the World Cup. If they fail, it will be because they've lost to a team inspired by Luka Modric, a player Mourinho signed to run his midfield at Real Madrid, and his darling Perisic. Whether it's Modric or Hugo Lloris that lifts the World Cup tomorrow, Mourinhoball will be the winner.



It's been a tournament dominated by hulks – Romelu Lukaku, Harry Maguire, Raphael Varane, Jose Gimenez, Yerry Mina, Mario Mandzukic, Edinson Cavani, Artem Dzyuba, Pogba, Andreas Granqvist. Many of the little players who have stood out – Modric, N'Golo Kante, Aleksandr Golovin – are also long-distance runners who cover more ground than anyone on their team. Success in international football demands effort above all.

There's a lesson there for the last two world champions, Germany and Spain. They both turned up trying to play versions of the patient, passing, possession football that had won them the Cup. They both went home early in humiliation and in both countries there is now a debate over where they should go from here. Do they want to persist with the sophisticated style that has worked for them in the past but has come to seem somehow torpid and vulnerable, or do they move back towards a style that is more basic but maybe more robust?

Germany and Spain should remember that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with what they are doing. The problem is that patience and possession mean nothing without passion. The difference between this year and the years they won is that when they won they were passionate about it.

Passion is a word that has fallen a little out of fashion; these days you as often see it rendered "pashun", a meaningless word used by pundits and fans who don't really understand what they are talking about. And yet more than any other quality, it makes all the difference on the field. Germany's 2014 captain, Philipp Lahm, is nobody's idea of a football idiot – he was described by Pep Guardiola as maybe the most intelligent player he has coached. In his autobiography, Lahm talks about the fundamental importance of what the Germans call Leidenschaft: "Passion is the emotion that liberates reserves of energy you didn't realise you had. With passion, one player – one player alone – can lift the performance of the whole team . . . it's a product of character, of devotion to the team and to the game.


“It shows itself in the fact that you do things other players don’t do. The passionate player chases a ball that looks lost, and if he gets it . . . he doesn’t just win the ball, he sends a message to his whole team: we can do it, if only we go with absolute commitment. That’s felt not only by the opponents, who feel like they’re under pressure in every position. The message is just the same for every player on your own team. The passion of your team-mates is a challenge to get the same out of yourself . . . Individual players who seize the game with soul and energy bring the whole team in their wake.”

Lahm wasn't here for Germany this time, and neither was Bastian Schweinsteiger, whose determination to fight on through the pain of injury is one of the lasting memories of their victory against Argentina in the 2014 final. Likewise, Spain in 2018 did not have anyone who matched the intensity of 2010 champions like Xavi and Puyol. When Germany and Spain won those World Cups they were patient and technical, but they also ran their opponents off the field. If they can rediscover that intensity they will find their possession football still works, and since they are two of a very small number of countries who have enough skilled players to play that game, you hope they will keep trying.

For everyone else, there's the model of France. France have the talent to play a German or Spanish style, but they've chosen a simpler way, the Mourinho way, a type of game that anyone in theory can play. France are about solid defence and lightning attacks; they beat you with efficiency, discipline and ruthlessness. When a Mourinho-style team has the best players in every position they are almost impossible to stop. If Mourinho could add Varane, Kante and Mbappe to his squad at Manchester United, they would be favourites to win the league.

France have cruised to the final like an armoured train. The only way you can see them losing to Croatia is if they play a little too cautiously, forget to make anything happen, and get hit with a late goal that gives them no time to equalise. That is exactly what happened to them against Portugal in the final of Euro 2016, so you would expect them to be on guard against a repeat. And since then they have added Mbappe, who sets off seismic waves of panic that open up cracks in every defence. Against all that, Croatia have only their oceanic reserves of passion. Usually the rock breaks the wave, but some days the wave goes over the top.