It’s something that has been gently and quietly whispered amongst some fans of Chelsea FC, mooted by those who are interested in a wider debate, and pondered amongst the few that question but do not dare to appear publicly treacherous or mutinous. Can Jose Mourinho coach a team to be beautiful?
This six part series will examine Jose Mourinho’s history as one of the most successful coaches of the modern era; intertwine, analyse and chart the Chelsea revolution under owner Roman Abramovich; and explore the answer to the question: Can Jose Mourinho coach a team to be beautiful?
For Part 1: Mourinho and the Roman Revolution, Click here.
For Part 2: Post-Jose Blues, Click here.
For Part 3: Jose’s Spanish Inquisition, Click Here.
For Part 4: That Final in Munich, Click Here.
For Part 5: The Return of the Special One, Click here.
Part VI Is Chelsea’s Future Beautiful??
The answer to this question is both simple and complex.
In short, the easy analysis says, ‘Yes, he can make Chelsea play beautiful football but chooses not to because he is a negative coach.’ This is the generally accepted answer that is declared by many football fans and some pundits.
However, what that answer does, is skip over many more in depth reasons that lead us to the question in the first place. It has been important in parts one to five, to build the picture of both Jose Mourinho’s career from first taking charge at Chelsea back in 2004, and to the point where Chelsea Football Club stand in 2015. Both he and Chelsea are vastly different animals to the ones they were 11 years ago.
Both Chelsea and Mourinho are now more mature in their stages of development, and are ready to take a different approach to success. Jose’s whistle-stop tour of the European leagues was a mission to have immense professional success and build himself a lasting legacy. Winning the amount of titles he has in Portugal, England, Italy and Spain in just a ten year span is nothing short of incredible. His drive to go from the best young manager in the world to becoming one of the greatest club managers of all time is definitely achieved. On the other hand, Chelsea’s relentless push for European success saw them work their way through the cream of European football management, before finally striking it lucky with stand in boss Roberto Di Matteo. Having finally won the Champions League, and with Mourinho having achieved all he had wanted to for that stage of his career, the reunion has certainly made lots of sense.
The long terms aims for Chelsea when bringing back Mourinho, were winning by bringing through youth players from their lavish academy and playing attractive football. They found a Mourinho with a desire of wanting build a club rather than import players for short term success, which matched the Chelsea board’s view for the future.
The arguments over the style and pragmatism of Mourinho’s management have resurfaced during Chelsea’s stroll to the title in 2015. A draw at home to Manchester City, a 1-0 victory against Manchester United and a drab 0-0 draw away at Arsenal, are all results that have helped Chelsea to seal the title. Mourinho responded to Arsenal fans chanting ‘boring, boring Chelsea’ after the draw at the Emirates stadium by saying; “Sometimes I ask myself about the future, and maybe the future of football is a beautiful, green grass carpet without goals, where the team with more ball possession wins the game. The way people analyse style and flair is to take the goals off the pitch.”
This in some ways perfectly encapsulates his vision of football. Against teams you should beat; you pass, you move, you create space, you play quickly to pull opposition players around and you win. Against your rivals; you sit deeper, you are compact and draw teams onto you. You are not so worried about having the ball because when you regain it, you spring counter attacks and score breakaway goals.
The net result is that this adaptation to the approach taken against the varying quality of opponents Chelsea face during a season, is a key strength that Chelsea have over their title rivals. Pundits have been critical of Manchester City’s tactics in European competition, calling them naive for going on the offensive, playing two forwards and not getting results. Yet if Chelsea approach a similar game in a manner than gives them the best chance of victory (or not losing) and it is described in some quarters as boring.
Sky Sports pundit, Gary Neville, backs the Mourinho school of football thinking. In a recent interview with journalist Graham Hunter, he expressed his views on the game. He said he spent time after retiring watching lots of football from around Europe, to learn about different teams and analyse their performances and styles.
During the discussion, Neville said the teams that matched up most with his personal philosophy of how football should be played, were the first year of Pep Guardiola’s FC Barcelona and Jupp Heynkes’s Bayern Munich. The reasons given were that although Guardiola’s team at Barcelona were heralded as possibly the greatest team of all time, playing some of the greatest football ever seen, it didn’t match up to what he believed in.
He qualified his argument by articulating that although it was sensational football, it was too reliant on being able to do one thing and to only play one way. It needed Lionel Messi to make it work. The example was given of the 2009 Champions League final between his Manchester United team and Barcelona in Rome. Barcelona won the game 2-0 and general acceptance was that Barcelona’s midfield passing carousel dominated the game. But, the possession stats told a different story. The official UEFA figures had Barcelona with 51% and Manchester United with 49%. United had the greater number of shots and corners. Neville’s point was that Barcelona were able to match United physically in the middle of the park, whilst working hard off the ball to make sure that although Manchester United had more shots on goal, only two of the twelve were on target. This ability to adapt and play the short sharp passing and combining it with the pace and power of Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry, made them a great side and in his eyes better than the Barcelona team that went on to meet United in the 2011 final at Wembley, which by that stage had evolved into the tika-taka team we all remember.
Neville’s tactical approach to football seems to be aligned with Jose Mourinho’s. The ability of a great team is to be able to adapt to your opponent and be able to play in a variety of ways. In the 2014-15 season at Chelsea, Mourinho had his charges playing excellent flowing football, scoring lots of goals and generating rave reviews from the football world. The turning point of the season was New Years Day away against Tottenham Hotspur. A 5-3 loss to their North London rivals was the nadir in Chelsea’s season. This was the first time that Jose had allowed his team to go away to a rival and continue with the open, attacking, expansive style they had played with all season. It backfired as a cavalier Chelsea were exposed by a ruthless and in form Harry Kane. Since beating Swansea 5-0 in Wales on 17th January until beating Leicester 3-1 on 29th April, all of Chelsea’s victories in the Premier League had been by a one goal margin.
Motivator vs Cultivator.
A big charge levelled at Mourinho is that he doesn’t develop players. This has been mainly driven by his expressed desire to travel around Europe, win titles and then return to England to settle into a longer term project. Now given that chance to build and develop youth will he do it?
Chelsea’s Youth team were recently crowned FA Youth Cup winners for the third time in four years. Criticism from outside the club is focussed around why more of these talented youngsters don’t make the grade at First Team level.
Is it because Jose doesn’t rate youth development or is it that in the past short term success has been put before long term developmental gain?
The implementation of FFP (Financial Fair Play) has meant that Chelsea have a need to balance their transfer budget. One way to do this is to promote youth development and the club have invested heavily in their academy set up. Youth talent such as Izzy Brown, Dominic Solanke and Ruben Loftus-Cheek have been training with the Chelsea first team this season to further their development. Loftus-Cheek has made his senior debut this season and has been publically backed by Mourinho to be a member of his first team squad for next year. Others take their chances by playing first team football on loan. Patrick Bamford whilst at Middlesbrough FC won the Championship Player of the Year award for 2015.
The Chelsea way from here on will be to sign one or two players to go straight into the first team whilst including the best of the youth talent. Including youth players into his squad should prove that Mourinho is actually a coach that can develop players and improve them, not just be the master tactician and motivator of established professionals.
Seeing him answering the question over his ability to coach and develop youth talent, is one of the things most intriguing about Mourinho’s return to Chelsea. It is possibly his first real opportunity to do this since his time at FC Porto, which saw the rise to prominence of Ricardo Carvalho, Deco and Paulo Ferreria under his watchful eye.
When asked about the youth system at Chelsea, Mourinho stated: “”Their development is easier when they’re training every day with the first-team, doing preseason, playing some matches, playing 20 minutes or half an hour in an FA Cup match, Capital One Cup match, even a Champions League match or in the league now and again. Next season, Ruben will not be a kid in the development process. He will be a first-team player, absolutely ready to play and compete. And we will do the same with two or three or four players. Some of the older ones will go on loan to play every game in the Championship or the Premier League, even abroad. And we will bring some of the younger ones into the process. But to have them all at the same time in the first-team squad is hard.”
Whether a managerial leopard can change their tactical spots is another matter. He has shown this season that he can train Chelsea to play sumptuous football. The link up play between Oscar, Willian, Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas has been a joy to behold. The movement and speed of their one touch passing is in line with some of Europe’s best. The understanding of these players, their almost telepathic communication and ease at manipulating the ball, should only improve and generate more free flowing, passing football under Mourinho’s guidance.
Given the questions asked of him, it is only appropriate to let Jose have the final say.
“Football is about putting the ball in your opponents’ net and keeping it out of your own. For me, the beautiful game is to go to every game and know exactly the way you have to play and what you have to do. If a good team is the team with more points than anyone else, then we are the best. Or if it is the team with most victories, then we are the best. Or the side with fewest defeats, then we are the best. Or the team that leads the league for most of the season, then we are the best.”
Whether or not you agree, it goes to show that true beauty is only ever in the eyes of the beholder.