We journos have spilled a fair amount of ink this week debating whether or not Chelsea are a boring team.
They’ve pretty much done what they have had to do over the past few weeks without setting the world alight, and this has rubbed a few up the wrong way. Perhaps people forget the scintillating start to the season that Chelsea had, powered by the eagle-eyed vision of Cesc Fabregas, the razor-sharp precision of Diego Costa in front of goal, and the impenetrable Berlin Wall-like structure John Terry and co have erected in front of the Chelsea goal.
Simply rehashing the ethics and merits of Chelsea’s season would almost certainly be more boring than a 1-0 Chelsea win, so I’d rather talk about the one thing that stands out for me from Chelsea’s stride to the title. And that is how Jose Mourinho is the pragmatic king of the Premier League, and probably even of football in general.
There are attack minded managers. Manuel Pellegrini and Brendan Rodgers probably stand out in the Premier League as attacking managers, but obviously they are everywhere. When Kevin Keegan managed Newcastle in the 90s or Man City in the early noughties we always wondered how many the other team would score – and then it was up to Keegan’s men to score more. It almost seemed like a Cricketing run-chase than a football match, ‘however many you score, we’ll score more’.
And then there are the defensive managers, and they’ve always existed too. Let’s be careful though, ‘defensive’ doesn’t mean ‘boring’. I mean it more in the sense that these managers focus on their team’s defence. Tony Pulis is a little like this. When he walks into a club he knows that goals win games, but he also knows you don’t need too many of them if you don’t concede many either. So he focuses on getting the defence right and trusts his attackers to score the one or two goals they need to win the game.
Mourinho is the king of the latter category. He’s the undisputed master.
Except, at the start of this season, Chelsea were scoring goals! They had Matic in front of the back four and John Terry marshalled his troops with guts and valour just as well as he has done for years – but they also had Hazard, Oscar, Fabregas and Willian pulling the strings that allowed Costa to blaze away as the league’s top scorer before being pegged back by Harry Kane and Sergio Aguero.
But pegged back he has been, and this is important. The first half of the season was brilliant from Chelsea, the second half has been functional.
And there’s nothing wrong with functional of course. Football is a results business, at least for managers. But it doesn’t set the world on fire – it doesn’t need to.
Chelsea’s season is Chelsea in microcosm. In fact, it’s Mourinho in microcosm. Get a lead and hold on to it.
In any game where you’re the favourites, the other team will try and be organised and they’ll be prepared to defend. So Chelsea, like any other big team, still need to be creative in order to win games. If you play against a team who just want to draw, then you can’t hit them on the counter. They’re more than happy to let you defend – they’re over the moon.
But once they have the lead, they can throw on Kurt Zouma and the Chelsea Wall becomes absolutely impenetrable.
And this is what Chelsea have done to the league this year. They’ve managed to get a lead – and they’ve been impressive doing it. Now they are defending it.
This is quite simply a display of pragmatism.
The early football teams played with only two players at the back at most. And these were often the creative heartbeats of the team. They’d literally pass the ball to the big, strong, athletic players and get them to run at the goal. It’s as attacking as you like, and games would be high scoring.
Even years later, games would still be high scoring. In 1960, 1961 and 1962, there were, obviously, three European Cup finals. But over these three years, 23 goals were scored in the final. Just let that sink in for a moment – in three games. And not just any old games, these were European Cup finals. The final is the cagiest game of them all and we’re talking about the final of the most important competition in club football.
But along came Helenio Herrera and Inter Milan in the mid 60s. The best team in the world at the time, and still known as ‘Grande Inter‘, they played an ultra-defensive system and conceded very few goals.
Their 1967 European Cup final against Celtic pitted Helenio Herrera against Jock Stein, attack against defence: Good versus Evil.
Celtic would win with their entire team hailing from within just a few miles of Glasgow, as ‘Good’ prevailed. But that was only one battle of a war that is still being waged.
Mourinho is Herrera’s true heir. Herrera himself had a stint in Spain – at Barcelona and Atletico – but his true success came at Inter. Though even he couldn’t manage a treble like Mourinho did. Jose likes to get a lead and defend it, much like Herrera and his catenaccio system. And sometimes a team will come along who can break that down – but that team will have to have the flair of the Lisbon Lions, and not many do. Very few teams have the sheer love of attacking, the joy of scoring that the Bhoys of ’67 did.
And that’s because pragmatism works. Even attacking teams these days are too scared to simply attack for fear that they’ll be humiliated on the counter à la Bayern in last season’s Champions League semi against a rampant Real Madrid.
Pragmatism is winning this war, and the king is Mourinho. It’s not about boring or entertaining, it’s about winning games and winning titles. And in this regard, Mourinho’s Chelsea are the best team in the league.