Nicolo Zaniolo’s 32nd-minute goal earned Roma an advantage and an hour of relentless defense from Chris Smalling and Rui Patricio kept it.

Roma didn’t play exciting football in the inaugural Europa Conference League final. But they played winning football.

Jose Mourinho’s men tried to kill time with the corner flag in the 80th minute, and a late foul on Tammy Abraham saw the striker writhing in pain for only a few moments to wink at his canoe, happy to have stopped a nascent Feyenoord. offensive.

In the end, Roma won the European third-tier club competition because they realized they were better in the cup final than their opponents. “Football is about winning and Mourinho is winning,” said Owen Hargreaves on BT Sport.

Victory over Feyenoord means Mourinho is the first manager to win all three major active European competitions. On top of that, the Portuguese has won all five European finals his teams have participated in. Oh, and his sides haven’t conceded since Mourinho’s first meeting, Porto’s 3-2 win over Celtic in the 2003 UEFA Cup final.

Mourinho’s first European triumph was the 2003 UEFA Cup final against Celtic with Porto (Photo by Tony Marshall/EMPICS via Getty Images)

Here is the list of his European finals:

2002-03 UEFA Cup — Porto 3-2 Celtic
Champions League 2003-04 — Porto 3-0 Monaco
Champions League 2009-10 — Inter Milan 2-0 Bayern Munich
Europa League 2016-17 — Manchester United 2-0 Ajax
Europa Conference League 2021-22 — Roma 1-0 Feyenoord

“He still has it” was the refrain of Mourinho’s biggest fans after the win. But what is it this and why is it so effective in the final cut?

The Europa Conference League is the 26th trophy in Mourinho’s managerial career and his cup final strip story reads: 30 games played, 16 wins, 10 losses. Goals for? 47. Goals against? 36.

That’s not bad, especially if you keep in mind that Opta consider a cup final that ends in a penalty shoot-out a draw. Mourinho won one of those four draws after a penalty shootout, the 2008 Supercoppa Italiana between his side Inter Milan against Roma.

The most likely reason for Mourinho’s expertise in the final lies in what Diego Torres called his “winning principles” in his manager biography, The Special One: The Dark Side of Jose Mourinho.

According to Torres, Mourinho comes into the big games with a seven-point plan:

  1. The game is won by the team that makes the fewest errors.
  2. Football favors whoever causes the most errors in the opposition.
  3. Outside, instead of trying to be superior to the opponent, it is better to encourage their mistakes.
  4. Whoever has the ball is more likely to make a mistake.
  5. One who renounces possession reduces the possibility of being wrong.
  6. Whoever has the ball is scared.
  7. He who does not have it is thus stronger.

When competing in a league over the course of a season, Mourinho’s seven points arguably reached the point of diminishing returns.

If you look at Europe’s top five leagues (in England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France), there are too many rival teams of comparative strength for Mourinho’s methods to work every time. The Premier League has simply had too many big games for Mourinho’s Manchester United or Tottenham Hotspur sides to successfully navigate using this methodology.

For all the Wednesday night celebrations, Roma started 2021-22 with Champions League qualification aspirations and finished in sixth place, one position higher than their previous campaign. It’s hard to win a league title or even compete at the highest level for nine months while you wait to capitalize on mistakes made by your strongest opponents.

In a unique final, however, Mourinho’s methods will almost always come to some use.

As former Chelsea player Joe Cole observed at half-time on Wednesday, the knockout format of a final changes the approach to the game for many coaches (and even one player). Feyenoord entered the Conference League final wanting to win it. The Roma traveled to Tirana, Albania knowing that they must first do everything in their power to avoid anything that could lead to defeat.

Roma’s stubborn defense kept Feyenoord at bay in Tirana (Photo: Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

An easy illustration of Mourinho’s approach to the final comes from the possession stats.

In that 2003 UEFA Cup final, Porto had 56% possession and conceded two goals. In the Champions League final against Monaco a year later, it was 45%. In 2010, Mourinho’s Inter Milan side had just 32% possession against Bayern Munich. It was a similar story for his wins with Manchester United and Roma; in both cases, his teams only had the ball 33% of the time.

Roma triumphed on Wednesday partly because they were happy to let Feyenoord have the ball in less dangerous areas of the pitch, then defended vigorously whenever the Dutch side entered the final third. Roma played in a way not too different from Manchester United in the 2017 Europa League final.

In both games, Mourinho faced opponents from the Netherlands. In both games, Mourinho’s side had a physical advantage. In both games, Smalling was happy to defend with the majority of the game ahead of him and was more than able to handle the few crosses that were delivered as his opponents began to panic.

It is a style of play often seen in modern international football. The French team of Didier Deschamps offers little entertainment to its talent pool and yet won the 2018 World Cup. The Portuguese team of Fernando Santos beat the Deschamps team in the final of the Championship Europe 2016 using a similar method. Before England reached the final of Euro 2020, manager Gareth Southgate carried out a study on how international teams win tournaments and modeled England’s game on that of Deschamps’ and of Santos.

To bring it back to club play, there has been a slow increase in finals ranging from extra time and penalty shootouts, as managers choose to reduce the cavalier element of their team’s play for more control.

Finals are a different beast from ‘normal football’. They are a strange confluence of what happens on the pitch, in the minds of players and managers and of great physical fatigue. Mourinho is effective in the final as he chooses to manage all three narratives by keeping things as simple as possible.

You could see him telling his Roma players to stay calm after Zaniolo’s first goal, only to burst into tears full time after the win. He knew when was the right time to focus on technical skills in a final and when he could give in to his emotions.

His post-match interview also showed his continued knack for imbuing an underdog spirit in his side, while also finding time to land a covert jab at a former employer.

“The great thing about my career is that apart from the Europa League with Manchester United, doing it with Porto, Inter and Roma is very, very, very special,” Mourinho said. “It’s one thing to win when everyone expects it, when you’ve invested to win, but it’s another thing to win when something seems immortal. It’s really special.

“It remains in the history of Roma, but also in mine. I was told that only me, Sir Alex (Ferguson) and Giovanni Trapattoni had won trophies in three different decades. It makes me feel a bit old, but it’s good for my career.

Mourinho’s career in 2022 is very different from what it was in 2012 – but what remains is a talent for winning finals.

(Top photo: Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images)

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