On Saturday, Chelsea won well at Upton Park in a performance that was every bit as good as the 3-0 scoreline suggested, albeit against a poor, out of sorts West Ham United.
What was most notable about the performance, one of only a handful of top displays by the Blues this season, was the return to 4-3-3, the backbone of success in Jose’s first spell at the club that continued under Messrs Grant, Hiddink and Ancelotti for the most part, until Andre Villas-Boas took the formation past its absolute limit with the players at his disposal. Since then, Chelsea’s style of play and general squad management has been keyed into the 4-2-3-1 formation du jour.
Saturday’s tactical change resulted in improved performances from several players within the side, once the first 10-15 minutes of what is always a tenacious London derby gave way to a gradual turning of the screw, a piece of Oscar opportunism in the box and a classy steered finish in front of the Bobby Moore Stand.
Each of Frank Lampard, John Mikel Obi and Ramires found form that has escaped all three of them too often since Munich, 19.05.12. Mikel, flanked by the other two, kept his head up, read play and invariably found the right pass with an extra option at his disposal. Lampard and Ramires – reminding us of the surging Michael Essien of five plus years ago – complimented each other’s movement with the knowledge that their runs wouldn’t be exploited as they have been too many a time in the recent past.
The improvement in the centre of the park naturally aided Chelsea both at the back and in attack. Without the football Chelsea quickly had seven players behind the ball in front of Petr Cech – who faced one shot on target during the match, in the last minute of injury time – versus six as can be the case with 4-2-3-1. Going forward, there was a smaller gap between midfield and attack and with Lampard, Mikel and Ramires operating efficiently together the service to Oscar, Hazard and Eto’o was of a higher standard.
Of course, it bears repeating just how poor West Ham played without a striker and with a seemingly invisible five man midfield, but the Blues’ display as a team was near faultless.
There are drawbacks, however, if Mourinho finds as much joy in 4-3-3 as he does his new haircut and the signs are at this stage that the formation may only come out of the drawer as often as Fernando Torres’ clippers.
Oscar’s regular and effective central movement from the right will likely be exposed by better teams using the space he leaves behind on their left flank. The Brazilian, who put in a breathtaking display of efficient prompting and lightning fast movement in the first half, would have to be more judicious in overplaying as far away from Ivanovic as he did on Saturday.
More importantly, the Chelsea first team squad, as large as it is, is not built for 4-3-3. Michael Essien, making his first Premier League appearance since May 2012, is the only other recognised central midfielder in the squad. In attack, a switch to two players, not three behind the striker would mean one less position for the six of Oscar, Hazard, Mata, Schurrle, Willian and De Bruyne to play in. If our double player of the year was worried about his place in the Chelsea and Spain teams, this certainly won’t help.
Also, the Achilles’ heel of the 4-3-3 tends to be, ironically, in facing the 4-2-3-1; a hardworking number 10 can stifle the opposition’s deepest midfielder, disrupting play and in today’s Premier League most of the top teams play in this way. It is also worth pointing out that in a comparison between Saturday’s team and the all conquering side of the mid-2000s, the present XI does not fare so well. With the best will in the world, Cahill is not Carvalho, Mikel is not Makelele, neither Torres nor Eto’o is Drogba and Lampard is no longer the Lampard of old.
In the coming weeks and months, wherever Jose decides to go from here, he has at least found a silver lining in his old friend the 4-3-3. At Chelsea Football Club, many supporters wouldn’t have it any other way.