Analysis: Jose Mourinho's frustrating Chelsea team show signs of 2004-07 vintage in 0-0 draw with Arsenal
The visitors will be far happier with their evening’s work, to judge by the exasperated chants of 'Boring, boring Chelsea' coming from the home fans
Tuesday 24 December 2013
There are more important things in football than possession alone. There is certainly more than one way to play the game. No one knows this better than Jose Mourinho, whose acutely rebalanced Chelsea side blocked and bullied Arsenal into a 0-0 draw.
Arsenal are second in the Premier League on goal difference, and Chelsea fourth, but the visitors will be far happier with their evening’s work, to judge by the exasperated chants of “Boring, boring Chelsea” coming from the home fans at the final whistle. Chelsea have not always looked like a Mourinho side this season, lacking that discipline, that physicality, that machine feel, but here they did. They might not have the power of the 2004-07 vintage yet, but this was one of their best impressions yet.
Mourinho, speaking last Friday, sensed exactly what this Chelsea side needed. Good teams, especially Mourinho ones, are built on stacks and stacks of clean sheets. His title-winning side of 2004-05 recorded a remarkable 25, the next season still 20. This time, though, they had taken just four in their first 16 league games, one measly quarter of the sample size.
So a cavalier 4-2-3-1 with four forward players is not always the right answer and, on Monday night, Mourinho changed shape. “We can improve results by having more security when we lose possession of the ball,” Mourinho said last week, and here he was true to that. Out went the 4-2-3-1 and in came a camped, disciplined 4-5-1. Ramires played as a third central midfielder, along with Jon Obi Mikel and Frank Lampard, while Willian and Eden Hazard were the stocky scurriers up and down the flanks. For the first time this season in the league, neither Oscar nor Juan Mata started.
It was the same system Chelsea used for their last truly convincing performance, the 3-0 win at West Ham United one month ago, suggesting that, for now at least, the closer this team are to the traditional Mourinho template, the better. They are not going to blow teams away and so efficiency is the priority instead.
From the start Chelsea made it clear that they were not here to be polite guests, but wanted to play with the muscle and physical edge that has so often discomfited Arsenal over the years. In the first few minutes, Cesar Azpilicueta clattered Aaron Ramsey before Frank Lampard thundered into Bacary Sagna. It was not pretty but it was effective, Arsenal barely finding their rhythm in the first half.
Excessively physical football is a risk, though, and without the festive generosity of Mike Dean Chelsea might not have reached half-time level. When Mikel flew into a tackle with Mikel Arteta and planted his studs on his opponent’s shin, it looked a very obvious dismissal and yet Dean was unmoved. Seconds later, Willian tripped Theo Walcott in the box and yet no penalty came.
In the second half Ramires, the crucial extra midfielder, shuttling up and down ahead of Mikel and Lampard, greeted Arteta with a tackle almost as bad. This time the referee did produce a card, but it was only a yellow. Branislav Ivanovic’s studs flew perilously close to Mesut Özil’s neck, prompting some second-half handbags.
Even after their recent improvements, their 2013 resilience, their new-found efficiency and discipline, there is a sense Arsenal can still be outfought, outmuscled, that they have the quality to be champions but not the nerve. This was the case last time Mourinho was here, when Didier Drogba asserted himself over Arsenal with almost remarkable routine.
Chelsea do not have Drogba any more but they still carried a threat on the break. Lampard’s shot flew off the underside of the bar and down and out, after exchanging passes with Hazard. Ramsey gave the ball to Fernando Torres, who found Hazard, who found Willian, who shot at Szczesny.
With Arsenal stifled by Chelsea’s immaculate defence – they did not produce a shot on target until the 85th minute – Mourinho could sharpen up his attacking options, introducing the nimble Oscar and the rapid André Schürrle into wide areas for the game’s final quarter. They could never break in behind, but there are worse things in football than being boring.
“If we cannot improve our efficiency in front of goal,” said Mourinho last week, “we have to improve at the other end.” This was a very satisfactory start.
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