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Mourinho and the Chelsea formation debate - Part 1

Editor's Pick 19 Jul 2013, 15:49 IST

This has been a question that has intrigued many ever since Jose Mourinho took charge.

Chelsea had settled comfortably into a 4-2-3-1 formation after Di Matteo entered the fray and have continued the same, albeit with slightly lesser flexibility, under Rafa Benitez. Naturally, they would not want to disturb this set pattern.

But with Jose coming in, a change of formation may not be out of the question.

In his first spell (2004-07), Mourinho used a 4-3-3 system which surprised opponents. The midfield had the industry of Claude Makelele, the powerhouse Michael Essien, and the ever-prolific Frank Lampard. Since 4-4-2 was a widely used shape in England during that time, this tended to dominate opponents in central midfield.

Apart from the formation, Mourinho built his team with physique as the primary attribute, with the aim of intimidating the opponents. This, combined with a stingy defence, ensured Chelsea achieved victories in a somewhat workman-like manner. The style used was described as boring and dull, a ‘win at all costs’ mentality, but effective nonetheless.

Mourinho was successful in instilling an ‘us against the world’ mentality in his first Chelsea spell.

Six years have passed since Jose’s departure. During the time, the club and Jose have evolved, while 4-4-2 has reached its death in England.

The experience abroad has shown the world that Mourinho can change his tactics. He built his Inter Milan side in a similar way to his Chelsea team, but placed more emphasis on the playmaker, with Wesley Sneijder being the architect. Inter also showed the utility of sitting deep and playing on the break on their way to Champions League success.

Moving on to Real Madrid, Mourinho mostly used 4-2-3-1. The two layers of midfield had Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira in the double pivot, and Di Maria, Ozil and Ronaldo as the attacking trio supporting the lone striker.

This team was a mix of everything good in Jose’s past – the defensive resolve and tactical discipline of Chelsea, and the pace to play on the counter like Inter. Mourinho combined these and simultaneously changed the formation at Real. The first season required getting used to, but the implementation of the system was vindicated by the La Liga success the following season.

Now, he faces another riddle to solve. His supposed preference for 4-3-3 has been well documented, and the voices supporting Chelsea moving to 4-3-3 have picked up pace with his reappointment. But opponents no longer use the flat 4-4-2 against which he was so successful last time, so what might be on his mind?

Should he continue with 4-2-3-1 from his previous club and Chelsea’s previous season, or should he revert to 4-3-3? Sadly, there are cons to both sides.

In some cases last season, Chelsea’s 4-2-3-1 was countered by defenders playing deep and squeezing out spaces which made the midfield trio scamper for options. In short, a way had been found to defend against the trio.

While a continuation of 4-2-3-1 would make Chelsea predictable, a change to 4-3-3, even though it will be played against more modern shapes than the 4-4-2, may prove to be more successful. In either formation, the shape of the defence remains the same. Hence, this shall not be discussed henceforth.

The analysis starts with the double pivot in 4-2-3-1, which has been Chelsea’s Achilles’ heel for a while. What are their current options?

Coming back from his loan spell, Michael Essien is a contender. The spell helped Essien as he found his feet again and had an almost injury-free season. He should be refreshed now and ready to stamp his authority in his preferred position.

On the flip side though, age is catching up to him and the league has got more physical. An injury-free season is still too much to expect. Besides, Mourinho used Essien more at right back at Real Madrid. Considering Ivanovic’s reluctance to play there and Wallace not being eligible due to work permit issues, Essien may find himself pushing Azpilicueta at right back more often than featuring in midfield.

Michael Essien provides another option at right back, in addition to his natural position (Essien featured more prominently in defense for Real Madrid).

Frank Lampard and Marco van Ginkel are next in line. Neither truly comes across as a true holding presence in the middle of the park, given their preference to creep forward unnoticed.

Lampard took a long time to adapt to his new position where he is required to keep the play ticking and distribute, and maintain his position simultaneously. But given his natural tendency to go forward, the central midfield was left wide open.

Van Ginkel is tipped to be Lampard’s successor, and we can expect similar traits in his case. The same goes for the forgotten boy, Josh McEachran (remember, he was tipped to be Lampard’s successor as well).

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