MAXIMUS TACTICUS: Chelsea
It is homecoming for the Special One. He might have become the Happy One but José Mourinho’s tongue-in-cheek attitude has not deserted him. Back in Chelsea with a much younger squad, Mourinho has started to put his stamp on the team. These might be early days, but signs are promising and silverware does not look to be a very far-fetched target. Debojyoti Chakraborty dissects Chelsea under José Mourinho – (happily) re-loaded
Chelsea, under José Mourinho, created history as they won the domestic league after more than half a century. But Mourinho departed after failing to win the continental glory for Roman Abramovich. He returns after six years at Stamford Bridge to complete some unfinished business. Is his squad good enough? Has he evolved enough in these years to rectify his earlier mistakes? Let us have a look.
Last season, Chelsea looked awesome going forward with their array of attacking midfielders. Even with a misfiring front man Fernando Torres, Chelsea were able to create havoc with their three attacking midfielders – Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar. But they looked quite vulnerable in the back. This was largely due to the indecisiveness in the centre-back pairing. John Terry looked clueless at times, Gary Cahill simply not able to handle the pressure of playing in a club like Chelsea where every minute mistake is magnified, and with David Luiz – you are just a whisker away from disaster. Nothing much has changed this season, except the captain looking more assured of him. Petr Čech is not the same goalkeeper following his head injury – especially his outing remains questionable – but is still one of the better shot-stoppers in business. Two side-backs have been exceptional – Branislav Ivanović has played in all the games for Chelsea this season while Ashley Cole seems to run the clock behind with every performance. Their effectiveness is not a mere coincidence; it owes a lot to Mourinho’s midfield shape, but more on that later.
Mourinho has always thrived for a midfield supremo to dictate the terms in the middle of the park. He started his Chelsea days with Claude Makélélé who was soon replaced by an incredible Michael Essien. Not sure if he has managed to get a similar sort of player in this Chelsea team. Ramires offers great stamina up and down the pitch. But Ramires is more of a ball player, a box-to-box midfielder than an engine room, and is rightfully playing a bit higher in the double pivot system to utilize his driving runs from deep to greater effect. Frank Lampard is deployed in regista role, but he is yet to make the place his own. John Obi Mikel has been used sparingly in the holding midfielder role, but he certainly lacks the quality.
Mourinho wants his teams to be compact even at the cost of sacrificing his attacking edge. In his previous reign in London, he masterminded numerous 1-0 wins. While people criticized his team’s lack of goals, his defensive stubbornness cannot be neglected. In Inter (Italy) and Real Madrid (playing against Barcelona) Mourinho cherished his counter-attacking style and he looks to implement the same in Chelsea. After tinkering with 4-3-3, Chelsea looks settled in a 4-2-1-3 formation. Oscar is given the pivotal role playing as Number 10. Hazard is tucked in the right while André Schürrle is preferred over Mata in the other flank. Part of the reason might be José wants his wingers to provide width and track back giving cover to his fullbacks. Mata is not exactly proficient at either – even if deployed at the flanks, he tends to cut inside. This makes his side-backs vulnerable against the opposition where they can create a 2-vs-1 situation with a winger and overlapping fullback. One might argue, Mata would have been perfectly suited to play behind the striker, but there is a saying – Boss is always right!
Up front, it has been a strange season so far for Mourinho. He feels, and he might be right, Demba Ba is not able to carry a team to championship on his own shoulders. Fernando Torres has shown glimpses of form but he is far from his own devastating best. So the most likely starter should have been the young and raring-to-go Romelu Lukaku. But he gets loaned out and in comes an ageing Samuel Eto’o. Maybe Mourinho was certain of adding a top striker to his squad before the transfer window closes but now he has to make the best of what he has got.
And it seems, Mourinho is starting to get things right. He started a few games with Demba Ba – especially where his physical presence would be essential (against Norwich). But he has zeroed in on Torres to be his main front man and has tweaked Chelsea’s play to suit the Spaniard’s play. More through balls are being played from the deep so that Torres can run onto them like his Liverpool days and take on defenders on the run. And more often than not, he will find young wingers from both flanks racing with enthusiasm in his support. So much emphasis has been given, quick passing and playing through balls that Oscar, most advanced among the central midfielders, often drops back to control the pace of the match.
A few things have been quite eminent in Mourinho’s tactics so far. His fullbacks are not serving as an attacking option; they are merely the supporting cast. Both Ivanović and Cole are hardly overlapping their respective flank men, rather staying back to keep the shape intact. This adds stability to a shaky centre-half pairing. This in turn frees up Ramires as he has to bother little about spaces vacated by one of his defensive teammates and hence we are seeing a much improved and effective play from the Brazilian. Only thing, he needs to be a bit more consistent with his passing in the final third as shown below.
Another aspect of Chelsea’s play has been their discipline. Even though Mourinho has awesome attacking midfielders at his disposal – it would be interesting to see if he jampacks his starting XI with them sacrificing an out-and-out striker somewhere down the line in the season – he has restrained himself from floating them around. Look at Hazard’s movement in the following graphic. He started on the left flank, hogged the touchline and seldom floated elsewhere in the pitch. It was against a weak opposition (Cardiff) – but José’s instructions paid dividends as Hazard scored a brace.
There are still a few problems. Defence is not oozing with confidence and any team – like Newcastle – looking to take the game to Chelsea could trouble them. But it cannot be denied that Chelsea is a great team, especially in the attacking sense. Such has been their squad depth that players like Juan Mata, Willian and Samuel Eto’o are warming the benches. José Mourinho is a seasoned campaigner and he knows how to win a trophy. It is no coincidence that Chelsea have started strongly both in the league and in Europe – they mean business this time.