After years of difficulty Chelsea are back as title contenders thanks to the Special One
This blog was dubious about the return of Jose Mourinho back at Chelsea. A feeling that he was taking a job which was his second, third or even fourth choice option seemed to highlight where his reputation had gone since moving to Madrid and where Chelsea were at themselves. Since Ancelotti the club has won European trophies yet has struggled in the league, often a fairer reflection on the strength and quality of a side. The worry appeared to be that Mourinho was inheriting a very good group of individuals yet not a good team. Especially not a Mourinho type one. Well eight months in to his second spell the ‘Special one’ is living up to his name and reputation. What he has done with Chelsea is pure brilliance and the game against City encapsulated his work so far.
Mourinho will tell anyone that he is preparing his side for next season. He will argue that City are favourites and that Chelsea’s job this season is merely to compete with the top sides, to be competitive and develop that winning mentality. He is right to make City favourites yet he knows that has put together a squad which is capable of challenging for the title this season. This blog didn’t believe he could do it, it will admit that it underestimated the ability of Mourinho with this group.
A massive game
The game Monday night was arguably the biggest of the season so far for many reasons. The two favourites for the title (in most eyes) would be battling it out. It would be at the Etihad, a place where City were unbeaten and quite simply ruthless, averaging four goals per game.
Chelsea on the other hand had a gamplan which involved quite simply not losing to the top sides. They had approached the previous ‘big’ games away from home with caution and a sense that a draw was a good result. They left both Arsenal and United with a 0-0. At home they had defeated United, City and Liverpool. Taking four points from each of the top sides was smart logic. The question was would Mourinho approach this game in the same manner? Was 0-0 acceptable?
The opening 20 minutes pointed towards a dominant City display. Toure and Silva were picking up the ball in good areas and Kolarov was finding lots of space to exploit down the left. City would produce some good chances from the left side yet perhaps their best chance from the right when Toure broke into the box and cut it back for Silva who scuffed his shot wide from five yards away. It looked that a City goal was inevitable.
And then the game shifted. Chelsea started to look more threatening in transition and City were looking vulnerable when defending these counters. In fact City looked vulnerable defensively all evening, with Nastasic in particular looking as though lacking in confidence. Kompany appeared something of a one man defensive show and his frustrations were evident throughout. Chelsea sensed and exploited these frailties.
As the half went on Chelsea were drawing in City and exposing them with speed, precision and numbers. When in good possession Chelsea looked to exploit the City’s left side with Ramires and Ivanovic pushing high up on the flank. This helped push City’s threat of Kolarov back and also allowed for Chelsea to pick up good position of the ball. Chelsea were looking more composed, controlled and dominant and although City had more possession Chelsea looked more threatening.
The Belgian superstar
The goal came from Chelsea’ biggest threat and highlighted what Mourinho has brought to the side. Azpilecueta has become the starting left back which has surprised many, yet his pace helped to counter the threat of Navas throughout. It was his clearance come pass which created a 1v1 with Hazard and Demichelis.
Now it seemed a wasted punt down field at first yet as is the incredible progression of Hazard into what this blog does not use lightly; a world class player, he was able to use his strength to hold off the Argentinian, beat him and drive inside.
Now there is perhaps none better in the league than Hazard for this skill and explosion of pace. He is arguably the best dribbler in the league and in his inverted role is able to drive across the pitch and drag and torment defenders. It is like a mirrored Messi. Perhaps it is only goals which stops people appreciating his talents yet it is evident that Hazard is the jewel in the crown of Mourinho’s Chelsea.
The Belgian is everything you could want in a modern forward. And it was his work which led to the goal. His movement from right to left with and without the ball opened space for him and Ramires to exploit and although the blocked shot fell fortuitously to Ivanovic who took it superbly. Chelsea deserved the lead and really should have been 2 or 3 up by half time.
Ramires failed to take good advantage of a 4v1 counter attack and Willian made a terrible decision with the follow up. And then that man Hazard again set up a near open goal for Eto’o who hit the bar. City were being opened up and made to look mediocre.
City had few answers to Mourinho’s plan
In the second half it was Chelsea who looked the most threatening to score again; a Matic shot from distance hit the bar and Cahill hit the post from a header. City looked lost of ideas and solutions. The substation of Negredo was interesting as Dzeko would be most people’s choice, however Jovetic at least offered more variety to his movement and was able to pick up the ball in wide areas and between the units. A final 10 minute surge from City produced a few chances, Silva having the best chance again with a late run into the box which he hit wide, again. It was a case of City trying too hard, looking flustered and almost panicked. The lack of composure can be attributed to the tactical genius of Mourinho.
The mind games started weeks ago with Mourinho stating how great City were and how they were such huge favourites for the league. His psychological games are genius and these levels have not been seen since he left in 2008. He is so effective at setting the mood and antagonising with a subtly many lack. His well chosen attack on Allardyce was in preparation for this game, with many wondering the way he would approach this game. Well it is fair to say that after the initial 15-20 minutes his tactical masterplan fell into place superbly.
There are three aspects I wish to discuss; the formation, the midfield and the press. Let us first begin with the midfield.
The modern midfield
Mourinho has become a huge admirer and master of the 4-2-3-1. He made it work very well at Madrid at Inter used a deeper version of it. However he has changed his approach to how the system works and the important aspect is how the 10 plays. It is evident that Mata does not work in his style, and it is amazing that people still believe he had a place in Mourinho’s team. £37m for a player who does not fit with what you want is tremendous business.
Players like Sneijder are not viewed as key for the top coaches today. Even Ozil was becoming a problem for Mourinho at Madrid, hence the signing of Modric. The three players behind the forward must defend, press and track. There is no room for a player who dismisses their defensive duties. Both Mata and Ozil do this too often.
Hazard has taken to Mourinho’s wishes and tactics and incredibly almost is tracking and defending, yet he is playing every game and receiving plaudits for his performances. Like Ribery at Bayern he is playing like a modern winger has to play.
As for Willian many doubted the need for him in the summer yet he is becoming a more important player to the team and system. As good as Oscar? Not sure. Yet he does offer more dynamism and speed in transition which was evident in this game. His role defensively was to press both Demichelis and Toure in the mid third in order to stop them playing forward. He did this excellently and City struggled to build attacks centrally through their midfielders.
As for Eto’o, although not hugely effective his movement into wide areas is something Torres doesn’t do and it offers Chelsea’s forward players to exploit good areas. It was almost a selfless kind of performance from Eto’o, a trend which is emerging with this Chelsea side under their coach.
The third of the three Ramires should not be underestimated. The ‘three amigos’ of last season simply didn’t work, it lacked variety and offered little defensively. With Ramires on the right he was able to do a double job. He would help press with Willian centrally and also work against Kolarov. It is a role he does very well for Brazil. He creates a three man midfield when needed and runs into channels when in possession. This is his best role. And now with Matic he is not required in the holding role.
Oh Matic. What a player, he reminds me of the type of midfielder a decade ago in England. Strong, dynamic and a great passer. Mourinho knew what he needed and this was it. Chelsea have lacked this kind of dynamism and power since Essien was in his prime and he has fitted into the system and team so comfortably. Next to him is a player who is proving what many thought, that he is a holding midfielder and not a central defender. David Luiz was excellent. The way he breaks up attacks, his pressing, intercepting and forward runs. It was the best example of a double pivot I’ve seen this season.
City lacked a strong midfield
As for City, will they were overrun in midfield and this is where the game was decided. To lose Fernandino was a massive blow to the team. Only recently is he getting the plaudits for his contribution to the side. Many are realising that he has somewhat covered for his ‘partner’ in Toure. It is not a double pivot but a holding midfielder to allow Toure to move forward.
The thing is Toure appears to prefer the attacking role to the defensive one and City’s midfield has looked too over-dependent on Fernadinho for defensive cover. Their desire to sign Fernando from Porto was evidence of their concern that Fernadinho wasn’t enough. And so it proved.
To use Demichelis in that role in what was City’s biggest game of the season was a failed experiment. Yes he may have played the position before but he offers little speed and dynamism to his game and lacks the ability to drive forward. Toure showed a lack of wanting to cover deeper for his midfield partner and Chelsea simply exploited the spaces gifted by City midfield.
The battle of formations
Let’s talk about the formation. Those who argue that 4-4-2 has a place in the game are not wrong, yet in the way City played it last night they looked very poor. Silva is a similar mould to Mata and Ozil and thus is luxury player defensively. On the other side Navas is a classic winger and doesn’t tuck inside to overload central areas as Ramires does. Therefore City were vulnerable in the middle and had no cover from wide or forward to help.
The use of two similar type forwards works against lesser sides because they can simply overwhelm and out power the opposition, yet in this game they struggled to get on the ball and cause serious threats in attack. Defensively both Negredo and Dzeko sat on Terry and Cahill and hardly ever looked to drop in to help the midfield. This gave Luiz and Matic time and space and when they were pressed it often meant one of Chelsea’s three attacking midfielders found an abundance of space between the lines.
The formation and personnel killed City in the game and helped Chelsea grow in confidence and dominance. Against Barcelona this formation will lead them to be exploited too easily. This game proved once more that the best formation of the modern game is still 4-2-3-1.
An evolving pressing game
And with the formation and the players working hard for the team Mourinho is able to implement his ever progressive pressing game. His desire to have a higher press is becoming evident and it is working. His front four work together excellently in this respect.
Luiz and Matic played how Schweinsteiger and Martinez pressed in central areas under Heynckes last season, their reading of the game to press balls in front of them was brilliant as well as their ability to deal with high balls aimed for the forwards. Their positioning and understanding cut off the supply to City’s creative players as well as their forwards. It was as good a mid/high press as I’ve seen this season.
Mourinho has added this to his developed deep block of 9/10 players in and around the area. Like his Inter side versus Barcelona it is not just players in deep areas but near precision of positioning, roles and importantly the awareness to transition on which was seen multiple times. The role of the central 10 here is key, whether Willian or Hazard and the speed of the counter from deep areas is sublime.
Chelsea now appear to have a great understanding of their roles in a high, mid and low block. This tactical evolution will hold them in great position for the upcoming Champions League games.
Special mention must also go to John Terry and Gary Cahill who under Mourinho have become the strongest and most secure defensive pairing in England (Hodgson should take note). Their blocking, support, tackling and heading was really superb and they restricted City’s forwards to very few good chances.
Preparation and injuries
Overall Mourinho had shown that he had used the extra days preparation to great use. His meticulous planning and preparation was in evidence again and it was a masterclass of coaching and implementation from Chelsea. Perhaps City should have scored yet Chelsea should also have scored anywhere up to four goals. They deserved the win.
City missed the injured Fernandinho yet most importantly Aguero who is the special world class player which is needed in these type of games. However Pellegrini should consider his approach in these kind of games versus such a strong tactician. Defeating Wenger, Moyes and Villas-Boas is not like facing Mourinho. He experienced a similar humbling to Bayern at the Etihad. Playing in his style will overcome most sides yet it is evident that City aren’t that complete side yet and that Pellegrini needs to be smarter in the big games. Adding another central midfielder and central defender are key to help the spine also.
On a last note this blog must commend the teambuilding talents of Mourinho. His ability to develop a team, a ‘family’ is his most precious gift and attribute as a coach. He is an intelligent coach yet above all a man who understands people. Those who buy in to his methods and approach excel and Chelsea under Mourinho really do look like a great side once more. If he is able to add a player like Diego Costa or Falcao to the attack just imagine what Chelsea could be next season.
By The Whitehouse Address @The_W_Address