For Chelsea‘s players this season, football has not been so much a game as a punishment. A group of players that were until very recently famed for their artistic expression have become mere cogs in a greater a machine.
Smiling is not something you do on the pitch any more. On the pitch you work. There are brief celebrations following goals, but the jubilation is always hollow. Like Sisyphus, the players know what follows achievement, and that is only more work.
The benefits of the greater work rate at Chelsea have been clear for all to see. The team is unrecognisable to the one that Roberto Di Matteo started the Premier League season with 18 months ago. But the players remain the same.
Without the ball, the front four tirelessly harry and press, allowing the back six to hold a strong defensive shape. With the ball, these same four counter with speed and strength. Everything about the team is clinical. Everything is controlled.
While the virtues of hard work are evident, such an emphasis on even this puritanical trait is not without vice. When work alone fails to beat the opposition into submission, the team responds only by working harder. This is because failure is not an option. Failure is for others.
Actions that were once carried out at pace begin to feel rushed. Frustration abound, petulance starts to creep in. Actions that were once carried out at pace are now just rushed. Where hard work fails, anxiety rules.
This anxiety was again evident in Chelsea’s 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa. Willian received a red card for his fits of anxiety. The Brazilian’s work rate has been heralded above all others, and it is perhaps because of this fact that he feels the ‘creep’ more than anyone when his best efforts are not enough.
Mata’s early season anxiety was even more apparent. Mourinho saw fit to make an example out of the Spaniard. Every revolution has its casualties, unfortunately for Mata he was accused of not fighting hard enough for the cause.
The suggestion was that his casual style was a sign of laziness, of arrogance, that needed to be eradicated from the side lest it spread. The results of this special treatment was a loss of form. What once was natural now appeared forced.
In criticising the psychology of the player so much, Mourinho broke the man. But sometimes individuals need to be sacrificed for the good of the collective.
However, Mata is not the only one to have suffer a prolonged loss of form this season. scar has also experienced a markable decrease in the quality of his performances. And it certainly seems plausible that such a heavy emphasis on work rate would be to greatest detriment of those who’s games are about the less structured side of football.
While this Chelsea side are undoubtedly stronger than they were under Di Matteo or Benitez, this strength has come with a cost in terms of creativity. The problem for Mourinho is that this illusive trait is incredibly valuable when you are in a league in which most teams will look to defend deep against you.
It’s predictable that a team who’s style of play is so heavily centred on hard work and counter-attacking will regularly meet frustration in such a league. If Mourinho is unwilling to relent in his insistence on hard work, then he needs to find a way to deal with this anxiety.
Everyone accepts that a strong work ethic is a positive trait for a team. However, over emphasizing even positive traits can have negative results. Like Willian’s overeagerness in the tackle against Aston Villa, Mourinho has been guilty of being over zealous in his insistence on work over flair.