Varoon Madhavan takes a look at Jose Mourinho’s latest title winning squad to see what sets them apart from other competing sides.
What sets Jose Mourinho apart is his ability to win the trust of his troops that he knows what he is doing and this is the predominant reason why his men are able to maintain the desired shape/structure as per the situation. When you are working under Mourinho, it is all about discipline, working your socks off with and without the ball and the work ethic shown by his troops is simply unmatchable. If we take a brief look at all of his teams from Chelsea back in 2004 till the Chelsea of present day, they have always constituted a blend of technique, physique and high work rate. The major reason behind having so many options is to maximize the number of ways in which a game could be won. It is a proven fact that merely having highly technical players isn’t enough to attain lasting success in football today. The game has transformed in such a way that there’s always high tempo to it and if you don’t cope with it, you are likely to be left behind.
There have always been a couple of factors around which the ‘Special One’ builds his squad from 2004 till date, in an attempt to be able to deal with any situation whatsoever:
ADAPTABILITY / VERSATILITY
This is probably the most important factor in world football today as the teams which haven’t been quite versatile, have not only lost but have been completely outplayed for the simple reason that they do not have a plan ‘B’. Barcelona on several occasions (2011/12 and 2012/13 mainly), Bayern Munich of 2013/14, Arsenal over the years are prime examples of what could happen if a team ends up being predictable. Thus, it has become really essential to have alternative ways of winning the game but the first and the foremost thing which a team would need to be able to be adaptable is undoubtedly a set of players possessing different skill sets and abilities. Jose excels in building an adaptable squad with an optimal number of choices for different positions and allowing them to be both attacking and pragmatic at the same time. Let us have a brief look at the type of players with which he won his third Premier League in the 2014/15 season:
Technical: Hazard, Fabregas, Oscar
Physical: Matic, Costa, Zouma, Ivanovic, Terry
Workhorses: Oscar, Ramires, Willian
So how has this helped his side reign supreme?
It’s simple, the more variety of players you have, higher the ways in which you can win the game. With physically strong players like Matic, Terry, Ivanovic, Zouma and Costa, Chelsea have been able to dominate aerially both in attack and defense. These players have made significant contributions in terms of scoring from set-pieces in crucial games (against opponents like Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, and Liverpool) and helped breaking the deadlock on numerous occasions. They not only serve as an option to score in set-pieces but also provide aerial defense. Given the aerial ability of these players, it becomes really difficult for the opposition to win duels in the air or to score through set-pieces. Jose’s inclusion of Zouma in midfield against Manchester United to keep Fellaini at bay was a classic example of how the Portuguese manager utilizes his resources.
Modern day football doesn’t respect the technique of a player more than to an extent simply because if the player is highly skilled but not ready to work with and without the ball, then his contribution is going to be nullified by an opponent who is ready to work twice as hard. The best example to this is the story of how Atletico Madrid triumphed amidst two giants of football (Barca, Madrid) to win the La Liga as they simply worked twice as much as their rivals to make up for their lesser technical ability. The second leg of the quarterfinal tie between Barca and Atletico in the 2013/14 UEFA Champions League is a classic example wherein Messi had covered merely 6.8 kms during the game (only ahead of goalkeeper Pinto, who had covered 5.3 kms). On the other hand, Ateltico players Koke, Gabi and Raul Garcia all had covered almost a couple of kms more than all the Barca players except for Xavi. As mentioned earlier, this was a case when work ethic was able to defeat technique (without workrate). Now it is easy to imagine why Mourinho focuses on this aspect as when high work ethic blends with sound technique, then we are likely to witness top-class football.
Therefore, Jose has his share of workhorses with the likes of Oscar, Ramires and Willian (also Matic to an extent). The Chelsea manager is very demanding and expects even his frontline to work hard off the ball through adequate pressing, positioning and tight marking. However, the number 10 role played by Oscar seems to be a whole new idea in football. Oscar presses the center backs, holding midfielder or even the full backs during the opposition’s build up play from the back. He tracks back the opposition full backs or the attacking midfielders in case one of his teammates (Hazard, Willian or Fabregas) is out of position and they are unable to do so. In short, he appears wherever the team wants him to in a particular situation to balance the side and maintain its shape. Thus with such workhorses, the team hardly loses its shape or balance and at the same time, they’d be able to initiate an attack quicker as they’d be back in time to their respective positions.
This is how the Blues are setup in general with a back four of Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry and Azpilicueta. Fabregas and Matic form a double pivot in the middle with the former getting into more of an advanced position to dictate play and the latter staying closer to the center backs to avoid being caught out on the counter attack. The attack is set up with Costa being the poacher with a real strong physique, superb aerial abilities and decent technique while Hazard is on the left, Willian on the right and Oscar as the number 10. The major difference between any other 4-2-3-1 formation and how Jose has deployed it is the way Oscar has been utilized.
Oscar’s adaptation to Jose’s system is the reason why he was able to dethrone Juan Mata from the no. 10 role in the lineup. Despite being the player of the season for two consecutive times, the Spaniard failed to adapt to Jose’s philosophy and ended up being sold to Manchester United for a hefty sum. In terms of technique/skill, there is no doubt that Mata is quite ahead of Oscar especially as the creative force in the side. But Oscar’s work ethic off the ball, positioning and pressing seems to compensate or even justify Mata’s departure as the Brazilian has evolved superbly under Jose and he has given a whole new dimension to the playmaker role. Let us look in detail about his new role as the number 10.
Here are some extracts from the Chelsea 2-0 Arsenal game which brings Oscar’s role to light:
The heatmap clearly shows the ground that the Brazilian had covered during the game. With Schurrle and Ivanovic on the right, Willian’s defensive diligence was certainly being missed as Schurrle isn’t quite known for tracking back to help the side’s defensive cause. Thus, it was Oscar who had to add defensive diligence on the right flank. It is quite evident that Oscar did a great job in providing cover on the right. He also dropped himself quite deep once Chelsea looked comfortable with a two goal cushion.
Here is a picture showing the tackles that he had attempted in that game. Clearly, a majority of them have been on the right flank, which is exactly where Chelsea needed help and the Brazilian did an amazing job with key fouls and interceptions.
So Oscar makes a hefty contribution to the side’s defensive duties and without a doubt, this is something that we would not see in any other number 10. Thus, we could even say that the Brazilian plays a ‘false 10’ role as he doesn’t just connect the deeper midfield to the attackers but he is more of a box-to-box player who dictates the pressing game when Chelsea aren’t in possession, gets into intelligent positions to cut off passing lanes and covers a lot of ground than any other number 10 player would do. Thus Jose virtually fields a 4-3-3 with Oscar being the workhorse, Cesc being the playmaker and Matic being the out and out defensive midfielder.
As mentioned earlier, Cesc pushes himself into the final third while the Blues are on the front foot and Oscar balances the side to fill in the positions left vacant by Hazard (who would make runs into the center with the ball to connect with Cesc & Costa in combination plays) or Willian (who tucks into the center for Ivanovic to overlap on the right) to maintain the structure of the side. Another alternative for Oscar has been to stay centrally to form a midfield triangle along with Cesc by his side and Matic staying behind. This gives Chelsea a lot of control in midfield and in truth, it has been pivotal for Jose’s men to dominate possession as we had seen in a lot of games in the first half of the season. Chelsea not only won games but they were able to have the lion’s share with around 60-65% of the ball and completely controlled the game from the start to the end.
This is when it becomes really difficult for sides to gain back control as they either end up being passed around when they try to press high or end up giving enough space for Cesc to dictate play when they sit back and let Chelsea come at them. This is what had happened against Aston Villa as Paul Lambert’s men chose to sit back and tighten the central area. But this in turn allowed Cesc to position himself in an advanced position without much pressure from Villa and he sprayed passes out to the flanks and broke them down gradually (Cesc had completed 144 passes at an accuracy of 92% and he had 160 touches on the ball- maximum touches by any player in that game).
Jose’s men maintain a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-4-2 shape while the opposition are attempting to build-up play from the back. Here, Oscar and Costa dictate the pressing game by applying intense pressing on the center backs or the holding midfielder. (If he drops back in between the defenders). The central midfielders are joined by the wingers to make it four in the middle, who would be ready to pounce on to any pass made into the final third and apply immediate pressure on the receiver, so as to dispossess the opposition and initiate a counter attack. In most cases, it becomes really difficult for the opposition to break into the two banks of four as the build-up play would already be under constant pressure by Costa & Oscar. Thus, in such a scenario to make a pass and hold the ball amidst the compact defensive structure becomes quite a challenge. The whole idea about the defending in such a manner is to force the opponent into mistakes or inaccurate passes to win the ball back. This is the major reason behind Jose’s excellent defensive record all through his career as he has always believed in not doing anything extraordinary to win back possession but rather forcing the opponent into making mistakes while his men do not lose shape.
They also excel in negative transition (falling back after being caught out of possession in opposition’s half) as their aim again remains only to delay the counter-attack initiated by the opposition in order to get the extra seconds to regroup and not to win back possession immediately. The priority always remains to get the desired shape/structure before winning the ball back and they do this by the nearest Chelsea player to the ball pressing the man in possession, not allowing him to move the ball higher up the field immediately. Meanwhile, the other Chelsea players get back to positions and regroup by the time a counter-attack seems really threatening.
Mourinho is undoubtedly a master tactician and having gone trophy-less for a couple of seasons, the ‘Special One’ seems to be back in business once again. The Blues have it all right from squad depth, financial resources and more importantly the best manager in the world today to even conquer Europe in the coming years. Can he be the only manager in the history of the game to win the UEFA Champions League with three different clubs? It undoubtedly would be a herculean task but ever since his days in Porto, Jose has managed to do the impossible. Be it winning the treble with Porto in 2004 or winning the first Premier League for Chelsea in fifty years; with this man around there is no room whatsoever for the term ‘impossible’.
Written by Varoon Madhavan