“I’m spending a lot of time with the players, explaining the training sessions, the exercises, what the objective is, which way we can use this exercise in a match situation. I’m being a bit of a coacher, a bit of a teacher, because the profile of the squad is different. They have big space in their grey matter, big space. Lots of neurons free, lots of them free and ready to absorb and process information.”
Jose Mourinho, Chelsea pre-season tour, Kuala Lumpur, 19 July 2013
He was right about that, and the match against Liverpool on Sunday provided the latest evidence that the apprenticeship has been served by the members of Mourinho’s Chelsea squad who were not around to work with him the first time. Cesar Azpilicueta, Branislav Ivanovic, Nemanja Matic, André Schürrle, Mohamed Salah, Willian and even Demba Ba, ploughing his lonely but determined furrow up front.
When Mourinho arrived at Chelsea, bruised by his Real Madrid experience, but by no means humbled, his assessment of his squad, right from the off in pre-season, was that they were there to be shaped and coached by their manager. In spite of the transfer fees that were paid for the likes of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Schürrle, and later Willian and Matic, he argued from the start this was a team to be moulded by him.
It was a very different beast to the club he had joined in 2004, with unprecedented investment over the past 12 months and the obligation to win the league immediately. Last summer, he inherited a team that, as he pointed out, had finished third last season, 14 points behind the champions Manchester United.
In a short space of time, Mourinho’s players have become the archetypal Mourinho side, nothing like as free-scoring as Liverpool or Manchester City, but capable of the tightly disciplined, highly focused performances with which they have won home and away against their top-four peers apart from Arsenal, from whom they took four points.
Having left the recalcitrant superstars of Real Madrid behind, so the Dark Knight of European football rises once more, with a willing team eager to carry out his instructions to the letter. Not everyone likes the way Chelsea play but, until the likes of Liverpool and City find a way to counter it, the chances are that Mourinho will keep setting up away from home to defend heroically and punish on the counter-attack. Plenty try to do it, but none do it better.
“I’ve learnt so much from Mourinho” said Schürrle in the aftermath of Sunday’s win in which, by his own admission, he was an auxiliary left-back for much of the time that Liverpool had the ball. Yet the philosophy is that when Chelsea do seize possession, it is about getting forward quickly, as Schürrle did cutting in on his right foot on 62 minutes to test Simon Mignolet.
“I’d think I’m quite a clever player and that I realise there are times when I can be offensive,” Schürrle said. “But other times I must be more compact and work for the team, because that is what matters. Other matches I know I can be more offensive and have more space to make my runs. But you’ve got to have both elements in your game.
“You don’t know if you will need to play defensively but then when you get the ball you need to be able to do something with it. We can make both types of game. We showed against Arsenal [in the 6-0 victory at home] that, when we need to, we can make the game and score goals.”
Leaving aside his attendance at the Arsenal Christmas party in December, Schürrle is the ideal Mourinho player – adaptable to play on either flank and willing to work back as well as forwards. Most important of all, there has been none of the resistance to his methods that the Chelsea manager encountered in his last job.
The consensus at the Bernabeu last Wednesday was that if Mourinho had set up a Real Madrid team the way he did Chelsea in the first leg at Atletico, there would have been outrage. At Chelsea, he does what he likes. The statistics for the away games against Liverpool on Sunday, the 1-0 win over City in February and the goalless draw with Arsenal in December are telling.
In each case, Chelsea have had considerably less of the possession and against Liverpool they had the least, just 27 per cent. In all three games they completed far fewer passes than their opposition, 226 to Liverpool’s 624; 225 to the 480 City managed in February. Only against Arsenal did they manage more shots on goal than their opposition, the one game of the three that they drew.
Mourinho is not the only one with a similar idea. Real Madrid take their one-goal lead to Bayern Munich tonight having had much less of the possession against the German team, remade by Pep Guardiola in Barcelona’s image, yet able to get box-to-box in much fewer passes.
Once again, on Tuesday night's press conference ahead of Wednesday’s Champions League second-leg tie against Atletico, Mourinho will be asked to expand on the defensive approach that his team have adopted in the last two games. There is no doubt that his response to Rodgers’ comments will be central to the occasion unless the Liverpool manager has privately moved to defuse the situation (and probably even if he has).
Mourinho’s response to questions about defensive tactics is that the rest of the world is having the wrong debate. He does not see defensive or attacking teams, just winners and losers. “We felt it was brilliant, a perfect game,” Schürrle said of Sunday. “We did exactly what we needed to do and what we were told to do.” Which is exactly the way his manager wants it.
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