It appears those four years taking in the Iberian flair at the Bernabeu have had little impact on the Special One’s philosophical views. Within months of taking the Stamford Bridge helm, he sold the first team’s most expansive and defensively ill-disciplined playmaker, Juan Mata, to Manchester United and replaced him with a 6 foot 5 midfield monolith in Nemanja Matic.
Indeed, at some points of the season, Chelsea’s lust for ugly football encroached upon bizarre. Against Atletico Madrid at home in the Champions League, the Blues’ starting XI contained no less than six defenders. Against Liverpool the weekend previous, they recorded just 27% possession despite walking away from Anfield with a 2-0 win. These were hardly the only bus-parking displays we witnessed from the west Londoners throughout the campaign.
Thus, in contrast to the current Chelsea chord, which would probably resemble an incredibly dissonant minor (possibly in D), news that the club have all-but-sealed a deal for Barcelona’s Cesc Fabgreas strikes a rather diatonic tone.
The 27 year-old is no weakling or defensive liability; rather, during eight years at Arsenal he often showed an aggressive tenacity, especially on Champions League nights, and eventually became one of the more defensive elements in the Gunners’ midfield. But to suggest the Spaniard – a product of Barca’s La Masia academy which champions a philosophy that the Chelsea gaffer’s own is very much a reaction to – is a typical Mourinho player would be an equal fallacy.
Rather, the impending signing of the former Emirates star suggests Mourinho is prepared to evolve his side’s style into something more commendable and aesthetically pleasing next season. Perhaps not to the same degree we’ve witnessed from Everton or Liverpool this year – regardless of the expansive qualities of Chelsea’s playing personnel, spirited, organised resilance will still remain at the heart of their ideology – but the unexpected inclusion of Cesc Fabregas bodes the Blues moving more centrally along the philosophical spectrum.
It’s not a measure simply to please the fans, the pundits or the Chelsea naysayers – the Portuguese is a pragmatic master of the win-at-all-costs mentality and certainly holds no personal allegiance to the promotion of aesthetic, tica-taca inspired philosophies.
But Mourinho will be well aware that his Blues side are in danger of becoming dangerously one-dimensional. Although it saw them claim 16 points out of a possible 18 against title rivals Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal last season, Chelsea’s counter-attacking, traditional brand failed to have the desired effect against the Premier League’s more rank-and-file sides.
This became most prevalent during defeats to Aston Villa, Crystal Palace, Newcastle, Stoke City and Sunderland throughout the season. Chelsea critics will point to a lack of adequate goal threat, considering the Blues’ aggregate score from these five matches was 9-3. Poor performances on the road are also a recurring theme, with the Black Cats the only side to defeat the west Londoners at Stamford Bridge this year.
A bigger and more intrinsic issue amid these defeats however, in my opinion at least, came in the form of Chelsea’s inability to effectively break down well-organised, robust defences. The Mourinho-charged Blues come with all the hustle-and-bustle a title-contending side could ever want, but their physically confrontational, counter-attacking football played directly into the hands of Villa, Palace et al. By no coincidence, the west Londoners also endured a scoreless draw to West Ham in January.
That is what Fabregas offers Chelsea – a much-needed new string to their bow. Whilst the likes of David Luiz, Nemanja Matic, Ramires and even Frank Lampard lacked the quality and craft to unlock well-prepared opposition defences with the ball, the Spaniard is a player who can provide that telling pass, that slight-yet-intrinsic movement off the ball, that moment of individual magic which goes on to decide the result.
Not that he’ll be able to do it all on his own – if the Blues are to make lighter work of mediocre opposition next term, they must do it via the ball – Eden Hazard, Oscar and Willian will have to contribute too, whilst Chelsea’s ethos going forward has to accommodate more for their obvious attacking quality.
But the sheer fact that Jose Mourinho will use, predominantly in a holding role, a player that boasts technical skill over physical assertion suggests that the Portuguese is prepared to loosen the shackles slightly on what has been otherwise an uncompromising attrition ideology.
Perhaps it should come as no great surprise – after all, the 51 year-old has quipped more than once this term that his Blues side are caught in transition and his defensive tactics are compensating for that rebuilding process. But now armed with two of La Liga’s finest talents in Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa, Mourinho will undoubtedly feel more confident in letting Chelsea play a more natural, progressive game.