Jose Mourinho tactics at Chelsea inspire John Terry's return to defensive dominance
On Sunday, John Terry played 90 minutes against Sunderland, meaning that he joined Gary Pallister as only the second outfield player since the Premier League began to play every minute of a title-winning campaign. By the end of the season, the sense was that he – and Jose Mourinho – were making a point to Rafa Benitez who, in his interim time in charge of the club, had suggested Terry was no longer capable of playing two games in a week.
For anybody to complete the full 3420 minutes of a season would be a remarkable achievement, but for a 34-year-old it’s genuinely astonishing.
Terry himself, after the title was sealed with the home win over Crystal Palace, made reference – without naming him – to Benitez’s belief, suggesting it was some sort of unconscionable slight that he’d been burning to avenge, which played both into the Chelsea narrative of not liking Benitez and into Mourinho’s favourite way of celebrating, which is to make thinly veiled jabs at rivals.
Terry couldn’t play in a high defensive line under previous Chelsea bosses
It’s easy, though, to allow hindsight to shape the narrative. Benitez’s reservations, at the time made sense, largely because Terry had looked so ill at ease under Andre Villas-Boas. That, though, was a tactical issue. Villas-Boas favoured a high line; his game is all about pressing and squeezing the play.
That means his defenders leave space behind them and so need pace to be able to recover if the ball is knocked beyond them and the goalkeeper isn’t playing high enough out of his goal to clear. Terry again and again that season was caught out by that, most notably in the 5-3 home defeat to Arsenal.
He never really recovered under Roberto Di Matteo or Benitez, but once Jose Mourinho returned and reinstated the deep-lying back four, the confidence returned. His lack of pace and cumbersomeness on the turn didn’t matter anymore and he could get on with what he’s good at: winning the ball in the air and imposing himself upon strikers.
Terry thrives in Mourinho’s deep-lying back four
This season Terry won 2.6 aerial duels per game after averaging 3.0 last season. In the season that began under the management of Villas-Boas it was only 1.7. Tackles and interceptions have notably dropped off because he’s not stepping up into midfield looking to win the ball early. Rather he can sit back and wait for the ball to come to him, playing to his strengths rather than always risking a nippier, skilful forward taking the ball past him.
That’s reflected in the number of fouls he’s committed: 0.3 per game in the Premier League this season and 0.4 last as opposed to 0.7 in 2010-11 and 0.9 the season before that. Blocks and clearances, meanwhile, have remained roughly constant over the past five years.
And what Terry always brings is goals. In total, he’s scored 39 in 459 league games (which, astonishingly, is six more goals than Andres Iniesta has managed in his career). With five, this has been his second-best season for goals. When Chelsea were drawing 1-1 against Leicester, he maintained the momentum of the title charge by jabbing in a corner with 11 minutes remaining.
It seemed typical of his season: although there have been times when opposing players have got a run at him and exposed his decreasing mobility, for the most part Terry has been there, offering a sense of security when needed.
Whatever other faults he may have, Terry’s renaissance under Mourinho has been remarkable, from a player who had largely been written off – and not just by Benitez – to being the most commanding defensive presence in the league.