Jose Mourinho is often painted as a pragmatist; a man with only one goal – to win – and a man that is willing to whatever necessary in order to achieve it. However, it increasingly seems like Mourinho only wants to win one way: his way. The manager has become so closely married to his counter-attacking ‘4-2-3-1’ that it’s difficult to see him as a pragmatist anymore.
The reasons for Mourinho’s use of this system are clearly pragmatic. Following the Capital One Cup defeat to Sunderland – the now clearly defined Rubicon in Chelsea’s season – the manager claimed: “If I want to win 1-0, I think I can, as I think it’s one of the easiest things in football.” Up to this point, Mourinho had been attempting to play a more expansive game in order to satisfy owner Roman Abramovich. Post-Sunderland defeat, the Chelsea manager reverted to his favoured counter-attacking system.
The problem for Mourinho is that most teams don’t want to attack Chelsea. This isn’t idiosyncratic to the West London club, but an increasing problem for the ‘big teams’ in modern football. As the gap between Europe’s elite few and the rest grows, the willingness of the smaller teams to openly engage this elite decreases. The consequence is league football that is rarely competitive for the top teams barring a select number of fixtures.
What this means for Chelsea is that they are faced with a packed defence in the majority of their matches. The onus is on Mourinho’s team to break the opposition down, and their opponent’s defence rarely gets near the halfway line aside from when they have an attacking corner.
It’s very difficult to counter-attack such teams simply because they don’t attack very often. The result has been a lot of dull affairs involving Chelsea and supposed ‘lesser’ opposition, with Mourinho’s team often struggling to score or not scoring at all. The manager has attempted to blame others for this – his accusation that West Ham play 19th century football stands out – but it’s hard to see how he could have expected much different given how his team is set up.
For the majority of Chelsea’s games last season they deployed a ‘4-2-3-1’ and then looked to counter. The back four sit deep and the full-backs are rarely allowed to get forward. The midfield two’s most important job is to screen the back four, and these players seldom get in front of the play. This leaves the majority of creative responsibility to the front four players.
This hasn’t been a problem when Chelsea have been able to counter. Against a similar number of defenders, or on any sort of overlap, Chelsea’s front four have looked formidable. However, when faced with an opposition that are defending with 11 men, the forwards haven’t had the space or numbers to break their opponents down.
In spite of this quickly emerging as a trend, Mourinho has stuck with his counter-attacking system. There are of course advantages to stubbornly playing ‘your’ way – familiarity of system etc. – but in light of this way proving to be consistently inadequate, deciding to continue on regardless can only be viewed as a folly.
Jose Mourinho not only wants to play a certain kind of way but is apparently only willing to work with a certain kind of player – one that loves working. Mata was quickly marginalized for laziness and then sold, Luiz deemed too ill disciplined and Hazard publicly reprimanded for not concentrating enough on the defensive side of the game. While all these arguments can be understood to a varying extents, Mourinho’s obsession with work rate seemingly has distorted his ability to appreciate the creative advantages that these players bring.
Juan Mata created more chances (95) and provided more assists (17) than any other Chelsea player last season. His deftness of touch and ability to thread the ball between defenders is invaluable when faced with a deep defence. Given that Chelsea were going to be faced with such defences in the majority of their games, Mata surely must be seen as a key player.
Almost any other manager would have recognised Mata’s brilliance and sought to take advantage of it. Mourinho preferred to try and change the player and ending selling the man best-equipped to solve the team’s creative issues that developed in the second half of the season.
Mourinho’s inability to fully appreciate the advantages of creativity must throw serious doubt on his label as a pragmatist. But more worrying for Chelsea, his insistence on playing only one type of way with one type of player leaves the team predictable.