Return of the king

January 3, 2014

Assessing the start of José Mourinho’s second spell at Stamford Bridge.

Mourinho presser

Chelsea’s season has not seemed overwhelmingly impressive. The strikers are struggling; the midfield is unbalanced; few defenders have stood out. The side’s passing game has often stuttered. Of the victories Chelsea have claimed, few have been convincing. Neither has José Mourinho’s work, according to many. Some have even suggested the Portuguese has lost his touch.

But his side are in contention. After 20 games Chelsea sit in third, two points behind leaders Arsenal. A contributing factor has been Mourinho’s determination not to lose duels against his rivals. Manchester United and Arsenal were held away from home, while Manchester City and Liverpool lost at Stamford Bridge. It is against weaker opposition that points have been dropped.

This is no coincidence. For Mourinho’s many media antics, his most interesting quote came after the League Cup defeat at Sunderland in December. “We may have to take a step back in order to be more consistent at the back,” he said. “It’s something I don’t want to do, to play more counterattacking, but I’m giving it serious thought. If I want to win 1-0, I think I can, as I think it’s one of the easiest things in football. It’s not so difficult, as you don’t give players the chance to express themselves.”

Why are Chelsea more expressive?

The first question is why Mourinho doesn’t want to be more counterattacking. He suggests results would improve. Which against suggests that Chelsea’s style currently comes at a compromise. Few would be surprised if the notion of entertaining football featured in the deal between Roman Abramovich and Mourinho as his return was agreed. A more unclear question is whether Mourinho himself cares for such aesthetics.

That is difficult to know. So far, little has suggested that he does. However, one perspective that might indicate otherwise is the nature of his career. One of Mourinho’s long-term goals was always to win the league title in England, Italy and Spain. They were like boxes to tick off. Another is to lead the Portuguese national team, though that quest will be left for later. For now, the leagues have been won, and neither Spain, Italy nor Portugal appear particularly tempting to return to. What is left to do? To start a new era.

Indeed, Mourinho recently said he wanted to stay at Chelsea for 12 years. How literally that statement was mean to be interpreted is debatable, but the source of his current motivation is clear. This is a long-term project. Mourinho is more patient and less reliant on short-term solutions. Trophies are important, but less so than before. At least for this season. In that context, it might be worth asking whether the Special One’s own valuation of attractive football has increased.

Solid – if they want to be

Another interesting aspect is Mourinho’s claim that winning 1-0 is one of the easiest things in football. It sounds arrogant at first but, for him, it contains some truth. This is what the Chelsea of 2004-05 routinely did. It is also what the new Chelsea have occasionally demonstrated their capability of doing. Particularly the draws at Old Trafford and the Emirates were masterclasses in defensive football.

If the side can keep Arsenal and Manchester United at bay on the road, weaker opponents should in principle stand little chance of scoring. And in those matches, given Chelsea’s attacking talent, you’d imagine a goal or two would spring out from somewhere. There could have been more narrow 1-0 victories. And probably more points on board. But Mourinho has decided against it.

As such, in assessing why Chelsea have conceded more goals than expected, the explanation surely centres on style rather than personnel. As it appears, only the biggest games justify the abandonment of aesthetic values in favour of winning at all costs. Mourinho is allowed to play his favoured style – the one he knows best – which was so successful at Porto, Chelsea and Inter Milan. The new Chelsea are very hard to beat, but only when they allow themselves to be.

Tactical approaches

The negative aspect is that the attacking style generally fails to bring the best out of Mourinho. So far, his weakest results have occurred where boardrooms and fans insist on a specific style. He is forced to prioritise overly proactive football. This he masters, but not as well as counterattacking.

And so even if Chelsea remain in contention for the title, results could have been better. Also in the Champions League, the side’s fragility has been evident. That said, if Mourinho adopts the counterattacking approach in clashes with Europe’s strongest sides – which you’d expect him to – the club’s continental prospects suddenly turn on their head.

From a long-term perspective, the interesting question is whether Mourinho can develop Chelsea’s attacking game far enough to dominate English football year after year. It would represent a new notch in Mourinho’s belt as a coach – the ability to create a title-winning side over a period longer than three years. Not to mention one that plays attractive and proactive football.

Personal motivation

For now, the Special One will focus on the balancing act of developing Chelsea’s attacking play while staying as competitive as possible. The season is rightly described as a transitional period. Positively, if his side can be contenders while carrying such obvious flaws in midfield and attack as they do now, the potential for next season – by which such weaknesses will surely have been addressed – bodes well indeed.

The future offers plenty of intrigue. The current Chelsea squad is a different challenge in Mourinho’s career. So far the goals have centred on short-term success; victory at all costs. His personal motivation has been rooted in silverware. This project is different, because it targets what Mourinho is yet to build: a victorious dynasty.

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Photo: The Sport Review

3 comments

Nice article. But I think you’re overstating the bad results. This premier league is a lot more competitive than the one his first Chelsea were competing in. 1-0 ad infinitum is not realistic when the mid table teams have the ability to cut you apart.

by Clarke O'Gara on January 3, 2014 at 10:34 pm. #

I think Chelsea and Mourinho are perhaps closer to achieving success with this more proactive style than some might think. The only real obstacle he’s facing this term is the quality of his forwards. Arguably every single negative result Chelsea have had so far (apart from the Super Cup) could be attributed to the wasting of (sometimes simple) chances to score. And Mourinho’s reaslised it makes no sense to sacrifice the defensive solidity Chelsea have proved they’re capable of providing, all just to provide more chances for strikers that aren’t going to take them anyway.

Even if they want to, I don’t think Chelsea will sign a striker this January, and I think Mourinho will be glad about it. I think he’d rather have the excuse of having no choice but a field a striker unexpected to score, so that he can revert to his trusted defensive methods in games this season, without criticism. That will give him his best chance of winning the Premier League this year.

by Matt on January 3, 2014 at 5:25 pm. #

Great analysis. Chelsea have indeed played better than some results suggest. Progress is evident.

It’s a good excuse, though i’m not sure whether his mind works like that. My guess is that it’s a matter of prioritising other areas in January (central midfield) and to avoid the problem of having four high-profile strikers for one position. They’ll be immensely strong next season.

by Thore Haugstad on January 4, 2014 at 7:45 am. #