Tactician’s Corner: José Mourinho masterminds another CL comeback for Chelsea
Tuesday did not mark the first time in the last couple seasons that Chelsea overcame a two-goal deficit to advance in the Champions League. Between José Mourinho eras at Stamford Bridge, the Blues defeated Napoli in extra time in the 2012 round of 16 to turn the tables.
The similarities abound between that Napoli team and the Paris Saint-Germain team that Chelsea knocked off this week. Both relied on their outside backs for width. Both featured Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani up top.
Both fell away after starting so promisingly at home.
The progression of both of the latest games was fairly similar, with PSG preferring to hit on the counter and Chelsea trying to hold strong at the back. The teams traded opportunistic set-piece goals and largely canceled one another out from the run of play, but Mourinho found a way through.
It was the manager’s decision-making and preparation that put Chelsea into the semifinals, the magical Portuguese 51-year-old showing his experience and analytical expertise with a couple key substitutions late in the game.
Zlatan Ibrahimović: The missing link
PSG felt the absence of its own magic man, Zlatan Ibrahimović, in the second leg. In his free role from a center-forward position, he provided the link between midfield and attack in the first leg. Lavezzi and Cavani are also center forwards, so when Ibrahimović dropped deep, he still had two partners to fill in the gaps above him.
That left the outside backs to provide much of the width for PSG in attack. Brazilian left back Maxwell was particularly efficient moving forward, and central midfielder Blaise Matuidi also pulled to the left. That gave PSG a nice combination of a central overload and wide 2-on-2 isolation, while allowing Ibrahimović’s free role without losing attacking presence.
PSG took advantage of those aspects very early in the first leg, scoring before Chelsea could settle into the tie defensively and figure out how to cope with PSG’s attacking shape. As the game progressed, and especially in the second leg, Mourinho’s men looked far more comfortable.
To allow the back four to stay compact, wingers Willian and Eden Hazard dropped deeper when Chelsea was out of possession. They connected with the outside backs on their side to neutralize the overlapping PSG fullbacks.
That follows the common-sense custom in a four-back system. However, Chelsea failed to do so in the first three minutes, and PSG scored. From then on, the Blues stayed much more disciplined.
Chelsea stays patient, plays for clean sheet
Even at the start of the second leg, down by two goals, Chelsea adopted a patient, defensive approach. The same principles as the first leg applied, with the back four trying to stay compact to mark two center forwards (without Ibrahimović, Lavezzi and Cavani stayed central while Lucas Moura played closer to a true right-wing spot) and the wingers retreating when out of possession.
Chelsea’s defensive shape was a 4-4-1-1 when PSG possessed in its own half. Frank Lampard and David Luiz held a low block in front of the back line, and Eto’o and Oscar worked together to make life difficult for PSG’s midfielders.
As the ball got closer to Chelsea’s goal, its defensive shape also retreated. The wingers again connected themselves with their strong-side outside backs, at times giving the appearance of five or even six in the back, depending how high the PSG fullbacks overlapped.
Maxwell stayed dangerous in the second leg after his perfect 61-for-61 passing game in Paris. David Luiz was a constant presence in front of Chelsea’s center backs, even after Lampard left the game and Chelsea threw more numbers forward; the back five stayed solid to prevent the PSG counterattack.
It was clear that Chelsea’s primary concern was not conceding a fourth goal. With an away goal in the bag, 90 minutes was plenty of time to score two goals. Even though Chelsea needed nearly every second, that meant there was no need to go crazy at the start of the game and risk being stretched out of position.
Chelsea didn’t score until around the half-hour mark of both its win against PSG and triumph over Napoli two years ago. The Blues were patient with and without the ball, content to keep the opposition in front of them and not allow counterattacks, at the same time maintaining control and dictating the tempo while in possession.
José Mourinho wins the tie
After Hazard’s early injury, André Schürrle came on. He looked more comfortable in his natural midfield position than out of position as the center forward in the first leg, and he impacted the match positively from his first minute. Chelsea attacked more frequently with him on than Hazard, and the game had its first shift.
Once the match became stagnant again, Mourinho brought on Demba Ba. Chelsea became a bit more direct in its play, looking for the second goal that it needed with 20 minutes to go. Ba’s primary role after coming on was to win the knockdowns from long balls and goalkeeper Petr Čech’s distribution.
Schürrle cut in from the right to support Eto’o up top as Ba went up to win the ball. Soon after, PSG became comfortable once again, and Mourinho brought on Fernando Torres to run the right channel.
Usually, Mourinho pulls a defender in favor of a third forward when Chelsea needs a goal. In this case, it was a central midfielder coming off, and Torres played slightly withdrawn underneath the top line of Ba and Eto’o. David Luiz stayed in his solitary holding spot, and Willian ran alongside him but with more freedom to get forward. This was likely due to PSG's continued threat on the counterattack.
At about the same time, PSG coach Laurent Blanc took off Lucas Moura and inserted Marquinhos, who had a free role to defend (like a libero in a three-back system) from a spot between the center backs. Of course, it was to no avail, as Ba scored.
The goal prompted Mourinho to charge down the touchline, but unlike his famous celebration as Porto manager against Manchester United, this trip to the corner was all business.
He dug through the pile of players for Torres, giving him some quick instruction. He then spoke with Eto’o, finally grabbing Schürrle and lecturing him briefly. The assistant referee kept a watchful eye as Mourinho literally stepped onto the field, but he saw no reason to prevent the Chelsea manager from speaking to his players.
Mourinho told ITV in his post-game interview that his goal was “not to celebrate — to tell Fernando and Demba the changes we had to do.”
Those changes, Mourinho said, were putting Ba in David Luiz’s spot in front of the back line and telling Torres to stay with Maxwell. PSG center back Alex advanced to win desperate aerial balls in the box, and Maxwell remained the team's most dangerous wide attacker.
Chelsea moved to a 4-1-4-1 for the dying moments. Ba performed his task well, winning a couple duels with Alex and generally sweeping up in front of the back line. Torres didn’t do quite as well, still foraying forward and failing to stay disciplined. In the instance above, where Ba had to win a ball in the air over Alex, Torres didn’t close down Maxwell fast enough to prevent his service into the box.
Still, Chelsea held on for the 2-0 win, and Mourinho’s fingerprints were all over the second leg in particular. His impactful substitutions, compared to Blanc’s lifeless insertions, were the difference.
Playing the way you train
The biggest lesson for coaches of all levels from Mourinho’s latest triumph is if you want a certain outcome, you have to train for that outcome. You can’t just roll the ball out at training and “let them play,” which is a frequent mantra of a staggering number of American youth coaches. The game has to be choreographed and dictated for the players to achieved a desired result.
The exact mode of instruction varies by the age and skill level of the players, but at the highest levels, much of training becomes tactical and instructional — particularly the day before a game.
“We trained yesterday the three different systems we used: the one that we start, the one without Lampard and finally, the one with Demba and Nando in,” Mourinho told ITV. “They knew what to do.”
The word “trained” can mean any manner of things, but in this case, it’s likely most of the instruction was based on low-pressure play and talking through it with the players. The likely substitutions were explained beforehand and planned thoroughly so every player, No. 1 through No. 18 on the bench, knew what the plan was.
Mourinho choreographed the game from start to finish. In a brilliant moment of improvisation, he turned what looked like a celebratory run down the sideline into another coaching moment. From planning to execution, Chelsea wiped PSG off the Stamford Bridge field on Tuesday.
Mourinho, so often criticized as a madman who spouts nonsense to the press, achieved his desired result yet again.