Amid a Premier League summit awash with managers obsessed by idealistic philosophies, Jose Mourinho has stuck two fingers up at his learned colleagues by winning the title with a pragmatic style of football that simply gets the job done.
And let me explain what I mean by pragmatic, because I don’t mean boring, attritional or defensive by any stretch of the imagination. Chelsea have won this year’s title because they are, by far, the Premier League’s most versatile and complete side.
They can outplay you, outmuscle you, beat you in the air or grind you into the ground. They can make a game all about set pieces and half-chances, or let their diminutive attackers pick you apart. They can keep the ball until opponents run out of steam, or wait for their opportunities on the counter-attack. In a nutshell, they’re capable of winning different kinds of football matches in a variety of ways – the indisputable hallmark of a title-worthy side.
So it wasn’t always pretty, it wasn’t always entertaining – especially context of the last few months. But whilst Arsenal were preoccupied with walking the ball into the net and Manchester City were hell-bent on beating Barcelona with two up front, Chelsea strolled their way virtually uncontested to the English crown, celebrating every bitter-fought one-nil indiscriminately from five-goal thumpings to let others enviously concern themselves with the semantics of performance.
It’s the second coming of Chelsea’s great pragmatist. The first saw him dismantle Arsenal’s fabled Invincibles, perhaps the most aesthetic side the Premier League has ever witnessed, and the second, this season, follows a 2013/14 campaign in which two Premier League sides scored over 100 league goals for the first time in the competition’s history.
It’s no coincidence both short-lived attacking eras were ended by the same manager. The history of football is filled with philosophical swings, but they have to be driven by a great tactical innovator and Mourinho is certainly one of them.
Strip away the WWE-inspired press conference rhetoric, the blame-it-on-anybody-else responses to defeat and the controversial eye pokes, both literal and metaphorical, and you’re left with a fantastic tactician, an incredible motivator and a manager who sees no shame in reducing any fixture, be it against Barcelona or Burnley, to a one-goal game if that’s the only assured route to victory.
Not that Chelsea’s title bid was all about grinding out points. They started the campaign with an emphatic 3-1 win at Turf Moor and soon followed it up with a 6-3 thriller at Everton. And despite all the accusations of boring football, the most exciting player in the Premier League, PFA Player of the Year Eden Hazard, has become only more scintillating to watch as the season’s dragged on.
But the overriding theme, both on and off the pitch, has been efficiency. Mourinho never lets training games exceed more than three goals, and indeed, only seven Chelsea matches this season have seen more than that amount. Why? Because chasing five or six goal leads is dangerously idealistic, arrogant and an unnecessary waste of energy.
Chelsea never expend more energy than they need to, they won’t attack when they don’t need to. They’re pinpoint and shrewd. Meanwhile, the Blues are now the first Premier League champions in over a decade to record a profit in the transfer market, despite spending £113million over the last two windows – a hugely symbolic testament of how the entire club has become more efficient and streamlined since Mourinho’s re-arrival.
Not that ‘The Special One’ has done it all on his own. We’re looking at a vintage Chelsea squad, a rare crossover cohort that bridges young and old, prodigious and iconic, masters and apprentices. This will probably the only season Petr Cech and Didier Drogba are in the same squad as their rightful successors, Thibaut Courtois and Diego Costa, and although the likes of Kurt Zouma, Cesar Azpilicueta and Oscar have made important contributions this season, you feel their best is yet to come.
The rare mix of Chelsea’s squad has allowed the old guard to pass down their most important characteristic to the new generation, initially learned during Mourinho’s first spell at Stamford Bridge – how to win titles playing ugly football, champagne football and everything in between. For some of the aforementioned names, this season is their swansong. But for the others, for Hazard, Oscar, et. al, this Premier League title is just the beginning.
Their next challenge is to become the first club to retain the Premier League title since 2009.