Jose Mourinho is playing this game expertly. For those of us looking objectively at Manchester City and Chelsea’s squads, there isn’t really a gulf in class. Sure, one has strengths in certain areas where the other is lacking, but it’s made up elsewhere on the pitch.
Mourinho, though, is covering his own back by talking down Chelsea’s chances of winning the Premier League this season, even if in secret he doesn’t really believe that. He’s taken the pressure off his own squad and thrown it at Arsenal and City, with the aim, obviously, of weighing down the other two title contenders into ultimate submission.
For all Chelsea’s strength under Mourinho and the Portuguese’s tactical proficiency in high-stakes games, everyone had written off their chances of a win at the Etihad on Monday night. Mourinho’s formation looked to be one which would absorb City’s pressure and hit them on the counter. It did that, well half of it.
Rather than negative connotations being latched onto the idea of a Mourinho team absorbing another side’s pressure, Chelsea put to use their greatest asset and defended supremely well. They frustrated City throughout the ninety. They were sharper at the other end of the pitch too, hitting a gear that City failed to find in the absence of Sergio Aguero.
It was Chelsea’s most entertaining performance this season. It was a master class of defend-first at a ground where the home side had put 19 past Manchester United, Arsenal, Spurs, and Everton combined.
And yet the focus remains on City. If Chelsea don’t end up winning the Premier League title, Mourinho will have plenty to fall back on. He’s insisted, even after the win, that this Chelsea team are still in transition and their chance will come next season.
It’s another part of his backs-to-the-wall strategy. It’s not so much that he doesn’t have faith in his squad to negotiate their way past the two teams in front of them, it’s simply a case of isolating his players from the pressures that come from outside. He’s already done so in the recent past when talking about the issue of diving in such a way that it was brought up, but deflated almost immediately.
Even more so, there are no guarantees for Chelsea this season. Mourinho has been here before, in Italy where Roma initially made a strong attempt at scuppering the Portuguese’s record of winning domestic titles in each of the countries he’s coached in. But also during his time in Spain, where there was always another team who were perceived to be stronger and better, no matter how good his Real Madrid were. It would have been foolish then to promise league and European titles. It’s no different now.
What we’re bound to get from Mourinho and Chelsea from now until the end of the season is a few more surprises, most likely in the aesthetics of their performances. Nemanja Matic has rounded out this team in a way that hugely compensates for the sale of Juan Mata. Mourinho’s sides play best when there are three in the centre of midfield. With the right type of player, it can offer the perfect balance of defending and attacking.
He will continue to play this underdog card because it suits him, it suits his preferred style of play of sitting deep, allowing for little opportunities for the opponent and then breaking at speed. He has the players to do so.