A tactical preview of Chelsea's new era under Mourinho

Stanley Chou

How will the Portuguese maestro approach things the second time around at the Bridge?

Chelsea fans have grown accustomed to learning about a new manager's methods and philosophies, and debate endlessly about what sort of approach the new man will bring, so the re-appointment of Jose Mourinho thankfully means that for once there is little doubt about the path the team will take.

Mourinho is widely painted as a ‘defensive' manager, but rather, he's a pragmatic manager - constantly adapting his approach to suit his players and focusing primarily on results, not style. That's not to say Real Madrid, Inter Milan or the ‘original' Chelsea weren't entertaining: to the contrary, all three played thrilling counter-attacking football, but that, in itself, is a testament to Mourinho: his most attractive football comes within a system predicated on sitting deep and soaking up pressure.

This will be in all likelihood Mourinho's strategy in games against stronger opponents but against the majority of the Premier League, Chelsea are favourites and will face sides who will sit deep in an attempt to try and neuter Chelsea's sheer strength in resources. Therefore, the vast majority of Mourinho's tactical decisions will be predicated on breaking down deep defences - as we saw in practically all the pre-season friendlies, bar the Real Madrid ‘final' - something the current excess of attacking midfielders at the club are well geared to achieve.

What is refreshing is that all offer something different: Eden Hazard is a sublime dribbler and tremendously direct; Juan Mata a clever playmaker, Oscar an incredibly all-rounded player and Kevin De Bruyne, who is sort of a mix of all three (but not quite as talented), and particularly good at raking, long-range passes. Then there is also Victor Moses, the most natural ‘wide' option in the squad and Andre Schurrle, who is an ideal wide forward.

Given this glut of attacking talent the only formation that seems best suited to squeezing them all in is a 4-2-3-1, and although this has been described as Mourinho's "favourite" and has featured most prominently in pre-season, there has also been experimentation with 4-3-3. This came in the final fixture of the Asian tour, against the Indonesian All-Stars, with Nathaniel Chalobah the deepest of the midfield trio.

This in turn allowed the two advanced midfielders, Ramires and new signing Marco Van Ginkel, to break forward more into the final third and support the attacking players. This was in contrast to the previous two friendlies where the ‘double pivot' seemed to be under instructions to keep a deep, conservative position in front of the back four.

Their role evolved more as the tour progressed into America, where games against Inter and AC Milan saw one of the two central midfielders play more reservedly, and thus allowing the other to get forward more. The latter role was fulfilled by either Ramires or Van Ginkel, which suited the box-to-box tendencies of both players.

Furthermore, Mourinho also seemed keen to stress to his central midfielders the importance of covering out wide when Chelsea turn the ball over. One of the major problems last season was that the counter-effect of allowing Hazard to drift across the pitch as he pleased meant Ashley Cole was often woefully exposed as opponents immediately attacked down his side. Bereft of protection higher up, Cole was all too frequently overloaded.

Therefore, having Van Ginkel shift across to the left hand side when the left attacking player moved high up the pitch meant the pivot was accounting somewhat for Cole's lack of protection. Although the positioning of the attacking players was the major issue leading to Chelsea's weakness defending in wide areas, the complete lack of cover from the midfield zone in wide areas cannot also be understated, and it is refreshing to see Mourinho work to iron out these problems.

it is refreshing to see Mourinho work to iron out these problems

What has also been refreshing was the increasing focus towards the end of the USA leg of the pre-season tour on changing formations and approaches. Chelsea flitted between 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 as well as counter-attacking and possession approaches, as well as an ‘all-out attack' 3-something-2, as featured at the end of the Roma match with Ramires playing right-back and Romelu Lukaku and Demba Ba searching for the winning goal.

There is the increasing temptation to suggest football clubs need to have an "identity" - a theory largely propagated by Pep Guardiola's Barcelona - but Mourinho has never really been the sort of manager to dump a philosophy upon a group of players and ask them to fit themselves into the system. Instead, he tweaks his approach to suit the players - let's remember, and this does not always work - but it seems a far more viable way to do things when every opponent has varying strengths and weaknesses, and in an era where a team plays in upwards of 60 matches a season.

Some of those matches will require pressing high up the pitch, and some will require Chelsea to sit deep. To see both of those strategies in action in pre-season is a telling sign that Mourinho will tinker his approach according to opponents, but importantly, also play to the strengths of his squad and therefore maximise their potential to achieve great things.

Want More?: I go into these issues in greater detail in the excellent Plains of Almeria Season Preview. And it's only 99p!
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