Amid an era in which any manager to oversee a contained performance is labelled a pragmatist, often accusatively, we sometimes forget what that word actually means.
The Oxford Dictionary definition is simple; “Dealing with things sensibly and realistically in a way that is based on practical rather than theoretical considerations.” In Premier League managerial terms, that translates as strategising in accordance to the opposition and situation at hand rather than allowing yourself to be dictated by sometimes irrational ideals.
Last month, that was the apparent justification for Manchester United’s laborious scoreless draw at Anfield and scrappy win over Tottenham Hotspur, the pragmatic perspective assumed from Jose Mourinho being that the Red Devils couldn’t afford to drop three points to a divisional rival and thus took the must-not-concede rather than must-score approach.
But if Mourinho is the Premier League’s chief pragmatist as often declared, then he will surely sense Chelsea’s vulnerability and the unignorable opportunity to exploit it when his side travel to Stamford Bridge on Sunday. It can’t be another case of United eking out another acceptable result against another member of the big six with another defensive performance.
Through worrying form, Chelsea represent a realistic chance to earn three points off a divisional rival, knock a team out of the title race and make a statement to Manchester City. A more cautious approach, and Mourinho is no less an idealist than the many ideological managers he’s often billed as the champion of defying.
The notion of Chelsea’s inconsistent results stemming from an unsettled camp has been over-pronounced. It’s rare the west London club are ever completely settled and even on route to the title last term, there was constant in-fighting between Diego Costa and Antonio Conte. Crises are nothing new for the reigning champions – in fact, it’s usually when they tend thrive.
But there is no question the Blues are on the ropes after a 3-0 romping at the hands of Roma last night, knowing another huge blow domestically will send them spiralling away from title contention. They’re already nine points behind Manchester City, haven’t produced a truly convincing performance since beating Atletico Madrid in September and showed how drastically confidence has diminished amongst the squad in the second-half at the Stadio Olimpico.
And the biggest problems are in defence. Compared to how untouchable their three centre-backs and two wing-backs were last season, we’ve already seen Conte start five different players at centre-half and three different players on the right in the Premier League – let alone the in-game changes he’s made like throwing Willian or Pedro out wide for extra creativity.
That inconsistency in personnel, combined with the absence of the imperious N’Golo Kante in midfield and an abundant lack of organisation, has seen the Blues concede 13 goals in their last six games and keep just a single clean sheet. The performance against Roma, in which Chelsea allowed a particularly sloppy second goal, was their worst defensive display yet this season and probably since Conte took the job in 2016.
Manchester United’s potency has waned since their decimating form at the start of the campaign – they too appear short of form. But in Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford particularly, Mourinho has more than enough attacking quality at his disposal to cause Chelsea’s defence similar problems and capitalise on what is proving to be Conte’s most troubled stretch as the now-United gaffer’s successor.
A true pragmatist in the purest sense of the word, if that’s what Mourinho is, will surely recognise that. Of course, Chelsea still have fantastic quality going forward – it’s what has seen them manage three wins from that run of six games – and as previously mentioned, the west Londoners are arguably at their best when their backs are to the wall.
But for a team with United’s robustness defensively and sheer dynamism going forward, Chelsea are clearly there for the taking. Playing for the draw in the manner we saw at Anfield would be an invaluable opportunity missed – and one that could prove incredibly costly come the end of May.
Indeed, there are clear mathematical reasons why United should be playing for the win too. They’re also playing catch-up with Manchester City who will surely make relatively light work of Arsenal at the Eithad Stadium on Sunday and Pep Guardiola’s side have already claimed a win at Stamford Bridge this term. If Mourinho intends to draw on the road with all the big six this season, City need just one more away victory to surpass their total against the same opposition.
In other words, the title race will boil down to how City fare at home against the big six compared to United at Old Trafford and against the rest of the Premier League. Evidence thus far suggests Guardiola’s boys will be nothing short of perfectly imperious on both fronts. United, though, have already dropped points to Huddersfield and Stoke.
No doubt, there will be other occasions this season in which setting up not to concede is the logical approach against high-quality opposition away from home, as we saw from United at Anfield, but Chelsea’s poor form means Sunday isn’t one of them. Sticking to that strategy regardless of circumstance and form is surely as idealist as Jurgen Klopp’s unwavering faith in gegenpressing, Guardiola’s insistence upon dominating the ball and Arsene Wenger’s belief in Arsenal’s free-flowing game.
It’s defensiveness for the sake of defensiveness, a draw against divisional rivals for the sake of a draw. It’s still a philosophy, in terms of both playing style and the mathematical theory behind winning a title, just not in the expansive, entertaining manner we usually associate with that phrase.
Out of form, off the boil and porous at the back, the pragmatic approach to Sunday’s game is playing for all three points. In fact, it’s more than that; it’s aiming to humiliate the Blues on their own patch, to knock them out of the title race and to make a statement to the rest of the contenders. Mourinho might not get a better opportunity to do that away from home this season – a true pragmatist will surely take it.