Last week Jose Mourinho responded to critics of his ultra-conservative style of play by jokingly labelling them as the ‘philosophers’ of football. We can assume that he includes Brendan Rodgers and Manuel Pellegrini in that bracket.
He seemingly had a case after the Liverpool game. Having shut out the most electric attacking team in the league, Mourinho had once again masterminded a result in one of the so-called ‘big games’. The result justified the method, in the mind of the Portuguese coach.
Fast-forward three days to the Champions league tie against Atletico Madrid and Mourinho was at it again. With six Chelsea defenders named on the team sheet, you couldn’t help but think that he was out to spoil the party again, and would probably succeed.
Chelsea got off to the perfect start, but Atletico came back into the game just before the break, grabbing the crucial away goal that Mourinho had so blatantly set up to avoid. In the second half, Chelsea were required to go on the attack if they were to stay in the competition. For the Chelsea team selected that night to set about this offensive task was a bit like a neutered cocker spaniel attempting to get jiggy with a muscular dog three times its size. Chelsea were a blunt instrument, and Atletico a steel-hardened defensive unit.
Here’s the flaw in Mourinho’s ‘philosophy’. To play at home with six defenders and set up only to break on the counter, whether it’s a conscious judgement or not, is an admittance of inferiority. This means that when Atletico did find a way to break down the Chelsea rearguard, the Londoners were not set up to reply with any vigour, or with any confidence for that matter.
Confidence is key here. There are some explosively talented midfield players at Chelsea who are not being given the freedom to express themselves. This is why Juan Mata no longer plays in a Chelsea shirt.
Eden Hazard’s frustration was clear when he conceded to the French press after the game that ‘Chelsea is not made to play football,’ comments for which he was dropped this weekend against Norwich.
The Chelsea-Norwich game ended in a bore 0-0 draw. Why is it that players with the technical quality of the likes of Willian and Schürrle among others, look utterly bewildered by the task of dismantling an average (albeit resilient) Norwich defence? As ridiculous as this may sound, it’s partly because they have only been trained to cope with and overcome teams who are superior to them – to keep a tight defensive line and hit teams on the break.
Mourinho believes that every match requires its own unique game plan. This is true, of course. Yet the reality is that Mourinho’s obsession with the systematic side of football is starting to translate into a lack of belief in his players, into disrespect to the potential of his football club, and into a relatively unsuccessful season for a squad far more talented than he gives it credit for.
There are positive and negative philosophies, and that’s outside of football. Chelsea are now third favourites for the league and all but out of the race. It looks now as if the title might be decided on goal difference on the final day. If City were to win the title on goal difference for the second time in three years, is that not a case in point for the value of having a positive philosophy towards the game?
When Mourinho’s Chelsea are losing, they lose. When their game plan is matched and outwitted, they forfeit (usually involving a lot of post-match sulking and sarcasm, and even the odd outburst towards the officials).
Mourinho’s record against the big teams is excellent, that can’t be argued with. Yet his side couldn’t overcome Aston Villa, Norwich, Sunderland, and others. These are the games where style comes into play. You have control of the ball, you have time and space – what will you do with it? Liverpool know what they’re doing with that space. City too.
Mourinho’s ‘philosophy’ is ironically the most deeply rooted of all the top managers in the league, and it’s a damaging philosophy based on distrust towards his players and, at times, verging on paranoia.
Setting out to score truckloads of goals is not mere philosophy. It’s mathematical. Football is mathematical. It’s not just about the most basic mathematics – the team scoring the most goals winning the match, and the team winning the most matches winning the league – it’s the law of averages. If you go out and try to win every game with energy and enthusiasm, you can expect that over the course of the season you’ll be picking up more points (and, ever more crucially, goals) than your negative opponent.
If City do what they are now being tipped to do, and win the title on goal difference for a second time, it won’t just be philosophy that counted, but regular old math.