Jose Mourinho's tactical adaptability, nuance make Chelsea a contender
Chelsea’s pragmatism personifies manager José Mourinho’s ability as a master of preparation. He sees style of play situationally and according to the opponent. He developed this adaptability at the start of his professional coaching career as Bobby Robson’s translator and scout at Sporting Club before going with him to Porto and Barcelona.
Eventually, Mourinho made his own career, the most symbolic moment of which is still the English-speaking world’s first memory of him, charging down the touchline in celebration after knocking Manchester United out of the Champions League at Old Trafford in 2004.
His teams play according to their reality, and Chelsea’s has shifted over the past two seasons. It couldn’t play a freewheeling, attacking style last year because of tactical and individual limitations, so Mourinho instilled a disciplined, defensive identity.
Fast forward to 2014-15, and Chelsea is stacked with talent and could win the league and European double. Upgrades in the offseason included Thibault Courtois and Nemanja Matić to reinforce that stellar defense. Filipe Luís, arguably the best left back in Europe, also joined from Atlético Madrid. Cesc Fàbregas and Diego Costa (and on the last day of the winter window, Juan Cuadrado) added dynamic pieces to an attack missing a little venom last year.
It adds up to a systemically similar team that has scored the third-most goals in Europe’s big five leagues, behind Real Madrid and Barcelona. In 2013-14, Chelsea took the Premier League race down to the last two weeks despite a clearly inferior team, and it has evolved with a more proactive, attacking style in 2014-15.
It all starts with defensive discipline, on full display when protecting a late lead or playing for a point.
Chelsea is comfortable absorbing pressure in a low block from teams that like to keep the ball. Two (sometimes three) midfielders clog the middle, and the wingers drop to prevent wide isolation with the fullbacks. They frustrate opponents by slowing the match tempo and breaking any rhythm in the strategy commonly called “parking the bus,” popularized as a descriptor of Mourinho’s resilient style.
Opponents — and often neutrals — hate it, but it’s effective.
Matić holds in front of the center backs, usually alongside Fàbregas. Oscar drops in to create a 4-1-4-1 shape or steps up to pressure with the target striker in a 4-4-1-1. Eden Hazard stays higher on the left to provide a quick outlet for the counterattack, but he doesn’t neglect his defensive duties under pressure.
Chelsea is still prone to odd lapses in concentration, such as when trying to close out a 1-0 win in the last 20 minutes against Manchester United and conceding a late equalizer on a set piece. In Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Manchester City, Mourinho yanked Loïc Rémy because he drifted too far from his area of defensive responsibility.
At the same time, while Chelsea isn’t necessarily a counterattacking side, Mourinho stresses the importance of transition moments between attacking and defensive phases. Chelsea is in position to connect passes immediately upon regaining possession or to regain the correct shape after losing it.
As such, the Blues control a match’s progression, with the ball as well as without. Technical, creative players such as Fàbregas, Oscar and Hazard allow the Blues to carry to majority of possession, as they have in 18 of 29 Premier League and Champions League matches this season, or they can absorb pressure.
A 2-1 loss away to Newcastle in December was Chelsea’s first league loss since April. It has since lost 5-3 away to Tottenham on New Year’s Day and shockingly fell to Bradford City in the FA Cup but remains undefeated in the Champions League heading into the round of 16 and still has a five-point lead (and plus-nine edge in goal differential) over Manchester City in the league table.
Dynamic players with backgrounds in explosive attacking systems allow the team to transition at lightning speed. Alongside former Barcelona man Fàbregas, Matić (from Benfica) and Belgian firecracker Hazard, Brazilian-born Oscar, Willian and Diego Costa drive an attack devoid of English players.
The central focus of the top six players in the 4-2-3-1 attack allows Chelsea to overload the central channel and fullbacks Branslav Ivanović on the right and Filipe Luís or César Azpilicueta on the left to overlap freely. Hazard roams as he pleases, at times changing flanks with Willian or joining him on the same side to create opportunities for combination play.
Oscar has developed into a facilitating No. 10, drifting to fill gaps as other players move rather than creating the majority of opportunities himself.
He balances Hazard and Willian’s inside cuts, steps up to pressure with Diego Costa after Chelsea loses the ball and comprises the opposite side of the midfield triangle as Fàbregas advances.
The Fàbregas-Matić pairing has been one of the most dangerous in Europe. Matić stays closer to center backs John Terry and Gary Cahill, protecting them as the fullbacks advance and dropping between to receive the ball and distribute.
While his positioning is usually more central, Fàbregas has freedom as his box-to-box partner to probe opposition midfields on either side. Fàbregas creates the majority of Chelsea’s attacks from a deep position, his vision and ability to pick passes more effective from a late-advancing spot.
The current Chelsea team is the culmination of Mourinho’s vision through bleaker times last season. The Blues look like the best Premier League team by a long shot, with tactical nuance and well-roundedness not commonly found in the league.
Despite that, Mourinho is perhaps still best known as a master of mind games, in England more than anywhere else he has coached because of reporters’ tendency to focus on storylines off the field rather than on. He’s outspoken and unashamed.
He called on Hazard in the press to increase his performance level after last season, and Hazard turned the challenge into some of the best form of his career.
Mourinho has instigated spats with Arsène Wenger and Manuel Pellegrini, as well as the legendary back-and-forth with Pep Guardiola that led the Catalan to say, “In [the press conference] room, Mourinho is the f------ chief, the f------ boss. He knows all about this, and I don’t want to compete with him in here.”
Despite getting under his competitors’ skin, Mourinho’s own players love him. He even tamed the free spirit of Zlatan Ibrahimović at Inter Milan, and in his first stint at Chelsea, he laid the groundwork for the club’s success between his stints as manager (of course, aided by the deep pockets of then-new owner Roman Abramovich).
He remains the bellwether of Chelsea’s mood on any particular day, whether he foreshadows a workmanlike performance in his club tracksuit with beard stubble or a classy showing in a designer suit. Mourinho patrols the touchline, drinking from the same water bottles as his players.
In spirit, he’s one of them, relating to his charges much as Brian Clough did with his most successful Derby County and Nottingham Forest teams. The two men’s mentalities and perceived arrogance offer a quick comparison — as do their superb man-management abilities.
Mourinho, the self-proclaimed Special One, is as real as it gets: a manager who lets the passion he feels for football carry him through his work. When it comes to both tactical preparation and the less glamorous games within the game, few are as apt.
He won the first trophies for Chelsea in five years as he took home the League Cup and Premier League in 2004-05. The only major trophy that has eluded him in England is the Champions League, and the Blues have hardly looked likelier to change that than they do now.