The Return of the Special One?

May 20 • Guest Contributor, Opinion, Tim Palmer • 18180 Views • 10 Comments

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Jose Mourinho seems destined to return to Chelsea a different man to the one that first arrived in London in 2004. Some things will be different, and some things will be the same – such as the fact that Mourinho will yet again come into conflict with his predecessor. He has never enjoyed a good relationship with Benitez, the acrimonious relationship between the pair stemming back to the time they spent in confrontation as managers of Chelsea and Liverpool. It will come as no surprise if Mourinho aims no barbs at the departing interim manager.

It’s a constant theme across many of his managerial postings. When he first joined Chelsea, he was critical of his precursor, Claudio Ranieri. “They [Chelsea] wanted to win and it was never going to happen with him,” he said. “It is really not my fault if he was considered a loser.” His comments upon joining Madrid echoed the same sentiments about finishing second. “Second place? It’s just the first loser.”

Mourinho preferred 4-3-3 first time round at Chelsea, but has increasingly shown a preference towards 4-2-3-1 during his time in Italy and Spain – the formation, of course, Chelsea have used ever since Roberto Di Matteo took over in February 2011. It is unclear whether he will stick with that or revert to the former when he returns. On paper, Chelsea’s squad seems better suited to 4-3-3 – it suits the current stock of midfielders, allowing Frank Lampard and Ramires to make their natural forward runs from midfield, as well as allowing John Obi Mikel and Oriol Romeu to anchor the midfield in their preferred holding roles.

The key player is Oscar, and where Mourinho wishes to deploy him. The Brazilian No.10 has generally been used in an advanced position since moving to London, but the general thinking is that Chelsea see him playing a deeper role in future years. Therefore, 4-3-3 would suit him – it would give him the cover of a midfield trio, but the by-effect is that Juan Mata would be shifted back to the flank. While the Spaniard receives less touches of the ball in a wide position, it does not limit his impact in a creative sense. The major issue is defensively, where Oscar is a more solid option on the flank than the small, physically ineffective Mata.

The alternative is, of course, that Mourinho makes no changes to the side’s shape, uses Mata as a no.10 and continues to use Oscar in a wide role. Nevertheless, Mourinho always coaches two primary formations, giving him the flexibility to switch shape in-game. His regular alternative is a diamond, as used so effectively in Serie A with Inter, but with Real Madrid his formation switches have simply consisted of flipping the midfield triangle, which sees Modric deeper in a 4-3-3, dovetailing with Sami Khedira. That approach seems highly feasible at Chelsea.

Regardless of shape, Mourinho’s system is fairly obvious – out of possession, his players will drop behind the ball, before breaking forward at rapid pace. There have been caveats to these tactics in Portugal, Italy and Spain, but broadly speaking that is his system.

Style and system
It is often hypothesized that Roman Abramovich wants to ‘build Barcelona’ at Chelsea, with Andre Villas-Boas’s appointment in the summer of 2011 supposedly a sign of intent for a radical change in philosophy. The reality is that firstly, there is a lack of discernible evidence to actually support this claim, and secondly, while Chelsea’s transfer policy has indeed shifted towards a focus on small, technical players, many of these players might almost be better suited to a counter-attacking system.

The prolonged pursuit of Andre Schürrle exaggerates this trend – the German is the best player at a club that plays one of the most pure counter-attacking systems in Europe, while Victor Moses’ best moments for Wigan came when they played largely on the break. Fernando Torres was at his best when Liverpool played a reactionary counter-attacking game under Benitez, while the seeming reluctance to sign a passing midfielder in the previous two transfer windows is hardly an indication that you want to copy a style that relies heavily on the midfield guile of Xavi and Iniesta.

Abramovich probably does want Chelsea to play a more progressive, modern attacking style, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the hoarding of possession as Barcelona do. Instead, he wants his side to become more attractive with the ball – and that is certainly possible under Mourinho. Counter-attacking is not automatically defensive – as Real Madrid have shown, it can be a brutally effective yet aesthetically mesmerizing style of play.

Besides, one of Mourinho’s greatest traits is his ability to vary his systems according to his players. Compare that with the regimented, dogmatic approach of Benitez, who is wedded to his 4-2-3-1 structure – the Spaniard’s successor at Chelsea will certainly tweak his game-plan to suit Chelsea’s new crop of creative talents.

Whatever happens, Mourinho’s template at Chelsea will not mirror the one that was so successful in his first tenure at the club. Back then, his side was all about strength and force – Didier Drogba was the obvious figurehead, doubling as both a target man and goal-scorer, with support from midfield in the form of Frank Lampard and Michael Essien, two physical players all about powerful running rather than incisive passing. This a more technical Chelsea squad – but Ramires and Essien will still have important roles, with the latter returning with Mourinho from Madrid after a season-long loan. Mourinho prizes versatility, and the two are capable of fulfilling a number of different roles.

Meanwhile, Mourinho’s impact at the club will run deeper than the tactical system. He plans coaching sessions meticulously, his methodology directed by principles of guided discovery, best described by the man himself.

“The objective,” he says, “is that the players understand the playing system and trust it, that they take some initiative because they’re convinced that it’s the best thing to do and not because someone else says: ‘Do it that way. I know where it is I want us to get to, but instead of telling them: ‘Go that way,’ I want them to find their own way there.”

Mourinho is also particularly keen on intensive opposition scouting, and gears his match preparation around targeting the opposition’s weaknesses and negating their strengths. Andre Villas-Boas, of course, was in charge of this when Mourinho was first at Chelsea, but now Jose Morais is responsible for providing remarkably detailed reports on upcoming opponents. He breaks teams down into two separate components – offensively and defensively – focusing on style of play, individual analysis, defensive shape and marking patterns.

Some managers, like Arsene Wenger, place too much faith in their own team’s ability, while others, like Alex Ferguson’s successor, David Moyes, are too reactive, but Mourinho has a remarkable knack of finding the balance between tinkering his side and playing to his strengths. His work in preparing for opponents is remarkably detailed, as this small anecdote from his time at Porto illustrates (taken from the biography, Mourinho: Made in Portugal).

“In preparing for the Final vs Monaco, we started by watching many of the opponent’s games. I already knew everything about Monaco, but I wanted my players to know everything too. Above all, I wanted them to see the individual qualities of the key players and then I gave each player an individual DVD of his immediate opponent. Afterwards, we had a group discussion on the information delivered.”

Physical preparation?
Another change – or rather, return – will be in the form of physical preparation, which is overseen by Mourinho’s right hand man, Rui Faria (although there are rumours linking him with the full-time job at FC Porto). He’s followed his compatriot across the continent, including to Chelsea, where he played an important role in ensuring the conditioning of players was optimal. Mourinho has always been particularly keen to credit Faria – he refuses to call him a fitness coach, believing it to be a demeaning title, and speaks gushingly of him in the official Chelsea biography that celebrated the club’s 100 year anniversary.

A key concern of Mourinho’s fitness program will be rotation – Rafa Benitez has experienced first-hand during his short tenure how strenuous Chelsea’s schedule can be, and although this has been an extraordinary season by those standards, Mourinho will be keen to introduce more depth into one of the Premier League’s smallest squads.

David Luiz?
It has been suggested that David Luiz’s maverick style will not be suited to Mourinho’s style, but that ignores the fact that the Portuguese has often encouraged his central defenders to step out from the back and create attacks as is the Brazilian’s wont. Ricardo Carvalho’s goal against Manchester United to clinch the title in 2005/06 is one of the highlights of Mourinho’s first reign and is an exaggerated example of the central defenders ability to prompt and participate in attacking moves.

“Carvalho is an excellent reader of the game and is prepared to come out with the ball,” says David Pleat. “English centre-backs tend not to do that but it is a great way to take advantage of space. When a defender steps up, it allows you to create two-on-one or three-on-two situations – what we call overload.”

It is not isolated to the Portuguese either – at Inter, both Lucio and Walter Samuel often bombed forward from the back, while Sergio Ramos is given a certain degree of freedom to attack from central defence at Real Madrid.

It is this – the unexpected threat from deep – that makes Luiz so threatening from centre-back, and it is certainly no stretch of the imagination to imagine Mourinho encouraging him to continue playing in this vein.

However, Mourinho’s never had a defender as positionally aggressive as Luiz, so keen to come out from the back and defend so proactively. The Brazilian is firmly first choice, but it will be interesting to see how his ‘first choice’ partner will be, especially since John Terry seems on the decline. Gary Cahill is too reactive, and backs off attackers alarmingly (which helps explain why he records such a high proportion of spectacular blocks), while Branislav Ivanovic has enjoyed a good run at centre-back under Benitez – but Mourinho might favor moving him back to the right, to provide more physicality and rotate with Cesar Azpilicueta. Where a consistent partnership of Terry and Carvalho was one of the key factors in his 2004-06 success, rotation might be the order of the day this time round.

David Luiz is also central to another concern – leadership. It is completely unfathomable that Mourinho would strip John Terry of the captaincy, having struck up such an alliance with him when he was first at the club, but there are whispers Abramovich envisages a new direction when Mourinho returns – and wants David Luiz to be captain. Again, it seems unfathomable that Mourinho would accept such dictatorship, and besides, Chelsea have shown that they are a team of leaders.

Instead, the identity of Mourinho’s ‘other’ captaincy, the on-pitch leader, is a more intriguing matter. Mourinho always has a player whom he has long discussions with on the touchline, to discuss tactical changes and pass on instructions. Michael Cox identifies them neatly as “cricket captains, in the way they instruct the side,” while suggesting that at Inter, “Cambiasso, in particular, used to become involved in long conversations with Mourinho on the sidelines during games.”

Cox suggested early last year that Juan Mata was Chelsea’s on-pitch leader under Andre Villas-Boas, and the Spaniard is clearly highly intelligent – he might go on to play on an even bigger role under Mourinho.

For all his various strengths on the training ground and tactical nous, there’s one overriding feature to Mourinho’s teams – their desire to play for him. This reputation has suffered in the aftermath of his acrimonious departure from Madrid, but there are countless examples of Mourinho’s remarkable connection with his players. The obvious one is the club he is presumably re-joining – Chelsea players have repeatedly revealed that their former coach remains in touch via text, while Lampard pays tribute to his ability to bring a team together. “What he does is he gets the best out of players and gets this togetherness that I’d never known until he came to the club and I haven’t seen it again since then.” Michael Essien still refers to the Portuguese as ‘Daddy’.

Meanwhile, there are examples at Inter, where Marco Materazzi broke down upon hearing of Mourinho’s exit, while Wesley Sneijder refers to him as a second father, and has hailed him as the single greatest influence on his career. “He is not like the other coaches, he is special,” says the Dutchman. “The difference lies in how he persuades you, how he helps you if you’re not on form. He pays attention to everything and always knows how to come to the assistance of the players.”

There are countless examples. Mourinho is a supreme man-manager and establishes incredible bonds with his players. When he first arrived at Chelsea in 2004, he sat the players down in a team meeting and drilled home one definitive statement. “From here each practice, each game, each minute of your social life must centre on the aim of being champions,” was his mantra.

He wants to produce a team of hungry, motivated players, and mould them into an aggressive, passionate unit in his image. By developing both the physical, technical, and what he claims as the most important, the mental aspects of individuals, he creates his team. You cannot analyze the potential impacts of Mourinho’s return without considering this psychological aspect.


By Tim Palmer, who writes about Chelsea for the exceptional WAGNH and football for various sites. You can follow Tim on @timhpal and we highly recommend doing so.

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10 Responses to The Return of the Special One?

  1. George Thomas says:

    Exceptional article, thank you

  2. Thomas says:

    Di Matteo took over in February 2012. Apart from that, good read mate.

    • Douglas jardine says:

      Mate RDM’s first match was a Cup replay away at Birmingham on 5 March 2012.
      Weirdly that is still less than 15 months ago…

  3. Thomas says:

    Brilliant segment on Luiz by the way. Refreshing to see someone who agrees with me that Luiz’s future is at CB and not in CM like the main consensus is. He adds tons of unpredictability – will be really interesting to see how he develops under Jose.

  4. Tim Delaney says:

    Very good article.

    On the leadership issue, I would not be surprised to see Terry relieved of the captaincy as it seems unlikely he will be an automatic first choice next season. He only played 14 league games this season, a combination of injury and selection policy being the cause. Mourinho would be wise to leave matters as they are for the first year.

    Though Luiz is hugely popular I wonder if he is redy yet to be captain. Terry led by example over the years and his errors were few and far between. Luiz is still error prone, as he showed yet again in giving away the the ball for the equalizing goal on Sunday.

    Our defensive unit is not good enough at present- the concession of 39 league goals in a season, as we have just done, will not be acceptable to Mourinho. Nor will it be acceptable to give up eighteen points from winning positions, as we managed to do this season. I expect him to strengthen our central defence with a new acquisition.

    • Tim Palmer says:

      I don’t buy into the whole issue of captaincy as much as others – I don’t really think a strip of cloth should change any player’s leadership skills. They should be good enough to be captain with or without the armband – and so I don’t think it really matters whether or not Terry will play regularly. The captains in his absence should be as good leaders when he’s not playing as they are when he is.

      And thanks for all the kind comments – much appreciated.

      • Tim Delaney says:

        I agree up to a point. But why are there captains in every team sport if captaincy is not important? Our worst performance of the year for me was the embarrassing defeat to Atletico Madrid in Monaco. That night, there was a glaring lack of leadership without Terry in the side. We failed to learn from our mistakes and got hammered. There was a lack of leadership from Di Matteo in the dugout, compounded by the ansence of Terry on the field. Cahill can be excellent at times but I do not see in him the leadership qualities of Terry. There is a need for leadership in each of the lines, but the psychological importance of an overall captain is also required. Every herd has an alpha male.

  5. Subhash Davda says:

    I really do believe Luiz is ultra-overrated by the Blue faithful for his goals. I for one am never at ease seeing most of our CBs out there. We need a set who bring confidence and boss the 18 yard.

  6. Prakash says:

    Excellent read. Shame I can’t follow more of your posts on WAGNH as I was banned there because I branded Rafa a non-failure. Bookmarked this site instead.

    • JoeTweeds says:

      Generally as long as the comments don’t dwell into anything too silly I am happy for anything to be discussed here. Inane slagging, and the like, less likely to be kept up.


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