The more things change the more they stay the same: football can be oddly cyclical. This boring narrative is irrevocably attached to José Mourinho - a stigma that no amount of goals or points can seemingly shift. A decade after Mourinho first defended his style of football this perception of Chelsea endures. The Special One is methodology over philosophy, an anachronism, stylistically at odds with this fashionable requirement of modern management. Mourinho’s ruthless footballing vision lacks any sort of romanticism that the wider public pines for. In England it is better to be a gallant loser than a baleful winner.
“We all want to play great music all the time, but if that is not possible, you have to hit as many right notes as you can.” - Jose Mourinho, 2007
After the rise of tiki-taka, tactics, and subsequently the concept of a footballing philosophy, slipped into the mainstream. Thereafter it became the de rigueur thing in football: in order to be acceptable, a young manager must have a philosophy. You only need to look at the fabled “West Ham WayTM” as a notable example of a club clinging to style over substance. After Barcelona and Spain’s incredible success a style of football characterised by short passing and the desire to dominate possession became inextricably linked to “good football”. This term is often thrown about by teams who lack success but seek comfort in a moral security blanket. Arsenal fans in particular seek solace in their “good football”, conveniently ignoring that the transition from a physically dominant team to one crammed full of miniscule technicians has coincided with their decline.
Mourinho at his very core is both a pragmatist and a winner: “if your opponents are very fast on the counter and want space behind your defensive line, if you give them that space you are stupid”. It seems entirely logical. Nevertheless, you will see teams still religiously playing a high defensive line because that is their credo. This dogmatic inability to formulate tactics based on available personnel and the opponent was ultimately André Villas-Boas’ undoing. Largely, this is where Mourinho’s disdain for the footballing philosopher arises. Malleability is key. There is no right way of playing. The result is all that matters.
Undoubtedly the title has justified the Mourinho approach; our eight point lead is a chasm in the modern era. However, the detail will suggest that this was less of a procession and more of a drudge towards the finishing line. Mourinho’s reversion to a defensive approach post-Spurs laid his tactical cards on the table. After that result Chelsea only truly sparkled once, against Swansea. Emphathic results became difficult to come by as we seemingly lost the ability to win games by more than a single goal. Our initial expansive approach was usurped by a siege mentality: locking down games was the end goal.
Understandably, the absence of Diego Costa was difficult to overcome. Likewise the considerable dips in form of Oscar and Cesc Fàbregas significantly disrupted the flow of the team. It was therefore quite apparent that the depth within the squad was not where it needed to be to compensate. Beyond Hazard, Willian and Oscar there was little in terms of quality to rotate. That was even more true with the Fàbregas and Matić pivot; the drop in class to their understudies was alarming. Persisting with a small group of players through a lack of trust in his wider squad and genuine concerns over their ability clearly left Mourinho with few options. The same team played every week with few changes despite some underwhelming performances.
When we had the capacity to play we did and when that capacity abated we looked to manage games appropriately. The object of football remains to win, as Mourinho’s end of season speech highlighted. This is why our transfer activity over the course of the summer must be perfect. Juan Cuadrado, who currently resembles a competition winner, seems a particularly poor piece of business. Have the club got it that drastically wrong? He may eventually settle, but it would be a surprising turn of events given his lack of physicality. Fingers are firmly crossed, but at £26m his signing could prove to be a costly mistake. The squad needs quality additions if we are going to seriously compete in the Champions League next season. In need of a centre half, central midfielder, attacking midfielder and striker, Chelsea are currently a step below their European rivals.
“I think everybody has to be ready to sacrifice for the team, to give everything for the team, to think about the team, not be selfish.” - Jose Mourinho, 2014/15
Mourinho’s philosophy can be simplified into two distinct approaches. One that looks at dealing with “big” teams and one where his team are superior. His biography sets out his seven principles for managing a side in a big game.
- The game is won by the team who commits fewer errors;
- Football favours whoever provokes more errors in the opposition;
- Away from home, instead of trying to be superior to the opposition, it’s better to encourage their mistakes;
- Whoever has the ball is more likely to make a mistake;
- Whoever renounces possession reduces the possibility of making a mistake;
- Whoever has the ball has fear;
- Whoever does not have it is therefore stronger.
Chelsea’s performances against the top four this season produced four draws and two victories. A healthy return of points that fulfils the need to simply not lose against direct rivals. There was, however, a palpable hesitancy in the team when leading against Manchester City (twice) and Manchester United at Old Trafford that saw those matches result in draws. At the Etihad and Old Trafford I strongly believe Chelsea should have won. A point is still a great result, nevertheless we were in control until after we scored. This is really my only “thing” with Mourinho. I adore the tactically disciplined performances, but at times the handbrake is too firmly applied. There is a hesitancy to go for the kill and whether is personnel related is unclear.
The victory against Manchester United at Stamford Bridge came from ceding possession. It was a purposeful ploy to take advantage of a side renowned for sterile use of the ball. United spent the game passing back to Chris Smalling, David De Gea and moving laterally. There are risks in adopting this style; Rooney missed a fantastic opportunity in the first half and Falcao smashed against the post late on. When you do not try and impose yourself on your opponent elements like luck and the quality of the opponents exponentially rise in importance. Yet, these are the fine margins that Mourinho plays with and this season he has been dealt a champion hand.
To not lose would seemingly be Mourinho’s key objective in these big matches and he rarely does. It is an indictment of his phenomenal coaching that his players rarely make anything akin to a mistake during these games. This may certainly be the way to win a league title in England, but to become an elite European team will require something different. The Paris Saint-Germain game still lingers given our attitude during that contest. José’s attempts to spoil the match only seemed to invigorate the French side as their ten men outplayed us in every facet. Mourinho was bewildered at the end of the game, unable to explain the lethargy in his side. His players seemed entirely unsure of themselves after the Zlatan Ibrahimović sending off, particularly during the second half. It was a game of blackjack where Mourinho opted to stick with his hand only to see his opponent hit twenty-one on their fifth card.
José paid the price for being far too tentative against 10 men. Similarly, when PSG were on the back foot in the first leg Mourinho opted to retreat and allowed the Parisians to move into the ascendancy. This raises the question of whether or not his defensive approach does more harm than good at the very top level? We saw equivalent tactics last season against Atlético Madrid and we were again dumped out of Europe. Chelsea, with their noses in front, retreated and were beaten by a team more willing to win the game than kill it. Atlético Madrid, famed for their “anti-football” approach under Diego Simeone, produced a superb counterattacking display that rendered us obsolete. Our lack of intent from the first leg came back to haunt us.
Undeniably Mourinho’s approach, domestically, is incredibly successful. Although this probably says more about the state of the Premier League than anything else, you cannot argue with our achievements. Nonetheless, there are distinct problems with the setup when we play at that next level in Europe; those odds which Mourinho gambles on decrease dramatically. Two mistakes against PSG and we are out. Hazard does not track someone against Atlético Madrid and it is game over. The margins are tighter and I do not feel Mourinho currently has players at his disposal to simply kill games in Europe.
Are we therefore stuck in tactical purgatory? Unable to kill games but equally incapable of dominating teams in Europe? It is an interesting problem and something that strikes at the very heart of Mourinho’s methodology. If Mourinho cannot render his own team to be a mistake free unit, how does José approach big games in the future without “fresh blood” as he recently put it? How far away are we from having a complete squad? Should Mourinho attempt to extract more from his myriad of attacking talent, rather than revert to type in every big game? Would we suffer domestically if we actively looked to win in big domestic matches? Would we improve in Europe?
This is not a matter of pursuing attacking football for aesthetics sake. The further Chelsea retracted into their shell the more other teams grew in belief against us. Playing against early season Chelsea was a psychological sledgehammer - teams turned up expecting us to be on fire and to be dominated. Invariably they met a side in form and playing well, but on the off chance we were below capacity that mental edge still represented an advantage. Contrast that with the second half of the season and the difficulties we faced in overcoming teams. The Premier League is tough enough to win without giving opponents hope before they play against us. We went from beating teams by more than two clear goals, to holding on to a single goal lead.
I am in awe at the tactical flexibility that Mourinho exhibits so frequently. I cannot see another Premier League manager with his variety of tactical permutations in their locker. Early in this season we displayed fluid counterattacking football; intricate, incisive build up and direct purposeful possession. In truth it was some of the best football I have seen a Chelsea side produce. That came from Mourinho and his use of newly acquired players. Finding players who make an equally immediate impact should enable us to ruthlessly attack while remaining defensively sound.
“The only thing I would like is to have more control of the game in terms of possession.” - José Mourinho on controlling the pace of a game through possession.
Think back to the draw against Southampton. The first half was one of the more dour games of football that I can recall. It was slow, tepid, lacking any sort of intensity or excitement. Cue the second half and we played probably our best forty-five minutes of 2015. The pressure was relentless, wave after wave of attack and the ball zipped around Stamford Bridge with real drive. This was a side with the best defensive record in the country at the time and they were being torn to shreds. It took a miracle for us to be denied three points on the day. Mourinho can deliver attacking football in a way that means we defend appropriately: he just needs a few more pieces.
Arguably the key to a distinct change of approach comes in the form of John Terry, and to a lesser extent, Gary Cahill. The captain has rightfully been the first name on the team sheet this season. However, Mourinho will never be able to implement a high pressing game with Terry (or Cahill) in the side. Pairing Raphaël Varane (unlikely) with Kurt Zouma provides the perfect amount of physicality and pace to press high. In the unlikely event a team do get in behind there is ample recovery speed in both your centre halves. While Terry remains Mourinho must opt for a medium or low block, that is to say the back four sit deeper restricting space in behind. With Terry playing as well as he ever has done there is absolutely no way I would be making the change. It is merely an interesting aside in potentially introducing a more consistently progressive style that would almost certainly include playing a higher line.
I sense that Mourinho will eventually look to implement a high defensive block. Winning the ball as high up the pitch as possible, allows for more scoring opportunities. Chelsea are a team with the potential to be the best counterattacking side in world football. High pressing leading to turnovers closer to the opponent’s goal plays entirely into the makeup of this team. It allows us to dictate play without having the ball. Importantly it fulfills a significant requirement of Mourinho’s philosophy, forcing the opposition to make hurried decisions that leads to mistakes being made. Given that the Premier League is characterised by its frenetic tempo it decreases both time and space for opponents to pass or dribble. These are all qualities that seem to align themselves to Mourinho’s ultimate vision at Chelsea.
Finding a physically imposing midfielder who can pass is also going to be something Mourinho needs to add to this side. In big games where John Obi Mikel or Kurt Zouma slide in alongside Nemanja Matić we lose so much passing quality in midfield. Transitions are slow, counterattacks stutter and those opportunities that require a perfectly timed pass never materialise. Ruben Loftus-Cheek may eventually become that player, but currently he is not the solution in an immediate area of need. To try and threaten more or control the game in big matches we need to take advantage of these small opportunities to counter. At present it is nearly impossible to do so.
“Michael (Essien) knows when he needs to press on a player, when he needs to calm the game down or to raise the tempo he knows when he needs to screen a player rather than tackle and when he needs to play one or two touches” - José Mourinho outlines why Michael Essien was his perfect midfield destroyer. A similar player is required this summer.
Of Mourinho’s attacking talent Oscar is perhaps the most polarising player. When at his peak he is a wonderful footballer and intrinsic to the fluidity that Chelsea displayed earlier in the season. Nevertheless, he appears incapable of sustaining any semblance of form over the course of a season. Is this due to tiredness? The amount of football that Oscar has played since joining Chelsea is well documented; this will be his first clear summer since joining. Mourinho feels Oscar can have a sustained renaissance in 2015/16, but the jury remains hung at this point. What is clear is that when he tailed off so did the performances of the entire side.
If Oscar can rise to a consistent level then it is the right hand side where Mourinho must make substantial improvements. Willian has certainly taken his performances to another level in 2015; however this has often come from a more central role. It could well be Willian and not Oscar who occupies Mourinho’s coveted number ten spot going forward. The Brazilian is effective as a wide forward, but he offers so much more centrally. For Chelsea to move onto that next level a wide player capable of scoring goals must be acquired.
My main concern about the frequent links to Antoine Griezmann are the same I had with André Schürrle. Namely he is another player who likes to cut in from the left hand side and has not shown a consistent ability to play from the right. Mohamed Salah was meant to offer a left footed option on the right and Juan Cuadrado a natural fit, but neither presently look the required level. Raheem Sterling is a fascinating prospect, but he could either become a world beater or Shaun Wright-Phillips Mark II.
Areas of improvement are clear, but the link between having a complete squad and Mourinho’s methodology going forward are more esoteric. Will having better options allow Mourinho to adopt a more attacking approach in big games? Trying to impose our own pattern of play on opponents lessens the attenuated margins that the current kill-the-game mentality naturally invokes. Maybe Mourinho’s philosophy of minimising/maximising mistakes works at the very top level with a better quality of player. I just remain sceptical that tactically killing-the-game is proving increasingly difficult to execute.
Mourinho is a tactical genius. The level of planning and detail that goes into his training sessions is raved about by his players. Every potential direction a game can take is accounted for, each phase excruciatingly calculated and ultimately Mourinho gets results. The Mourinho Model will continue to yield trophies domestically. However, the Portuguese coach is now looking to achieve something he has not managed at any other club. Mourinho wants to achieve sustained success over an extended period of time. I imagine that he now is targeting the Champions League with a vengeance. This would therefore intimate that his management style would accordingly evolve.
The Special One now has an opportunity to enhance his enviable resume by creating a dynasty at Chelsea. Since his return Mourinho has imbued the squad with his methodology (year one), created a culture of success (year two) and this sets him perfectly up for the future. If Mourinho is given the tools to change, he will; the beginning of this season is testament to that commitment. Are we likely to see a more proactive approach in big games? Do we need to? It is something for the future, but for now we simply need better players so the squad is immeasurably deeper.
Mourinho is a champion, a serial winner with an unparalleled level of tactical sophistication. A manager whose philosophy is simply to win football matches. As this team continues to evolve and more quality is added, expect Mourinho to continue to push the boundaries. The future looks incredibly bright under him and with the right additions next season could see a serious push in Europe as well as domestically. A bit more intent in big games and the league could be even more comfortable. We do need to find another way to play in Europe and hopefully with the right signings that becomes a reality. I do, however, have the utmost faith in Mourinho to deliver our second European Cup in his tenure at the club. A wonderful season and worryingly for our rivals there is so much more to come. Give José the squad and he will do the rest.
“From here each practice, each game, each minute of your social life must centre on the aim of being champions” - José Mourinho when he first joined Chelsea in 2004. As relevant now as it was then.