Twice in the past week, Jose Mourinho has earned a familiar mixture of admiration and scorn for thoroughly defensive performances that achieved clean sheets. Beyond the obvious, though, there is, a major difference between a 0-0 draw away at Atletico Madrid and a 2-0 victory over Liverpool. While, if nothing else, his approach at Anfield proved a success, the same cannot yet be said for what transpired in the first leg of their Champions League semifinal. Simply put, the praise was premature.
The ethics of tactics is a difficult and much-debated subject. It is ultimately a matter of opinion. The temptations for a win-at-all-costs approach have never been greater, yet it is also surely true that if an approach to the game similar to Mourinho’s in the past week were to become widespread the rewards would quickly disappear because no one would be paying to watch. It isn’t true that it is the winners who are remembered, but rather the moments of brilliance and the teams who entertained or evolved the game. (The Dutch side of the 1974 World Cup live on in the pantheon of the sport far more than the Germany side that won the competition, for example.)
Taken on an individual basis, though, other than the blatant time wasting, Chelsea’s tactics at Anfield were hard to fault. Playing a makeshift team, Mourinho was clearly intent on simply getting through the opening 20 minutes, where Liverpool have been so devastating in recent weeks. It worked a treat.
It is highly debatable whether Chelsea’s performance in Madrid last week is worthy of similar acclaim. Much of the frustration with Mourinho’s tactics in the past week, and why he earns far more furor than other managers who approach games similarly, is the tools at the Portuguese’s disposal. There are few, if any coaches in the world today better at analyzing the game than Mourinho. His record in big games this season speaks for itself. If your life depended on getting a desired result in a one-off game, Mourinho would be the man to whom you’d turn.
While he primarily does so with reactive tactics, no coach is as good at making changes during a match to influence it in his favor. He did so notably when switching to a three-man front line to get the winning goal against Paris Saint-Germain in this year’s quarterfinals. It was hardly refined, but it was still more than simply the obvious decision of sticking as many forwards on the pitch as possible. He had diligently worked out how to successfully implement the strategy. Mourinho is relentless in deciphering how to deal with every possible scenario during the course of 90 minutes. The fact that many coaches still fail to do is staggering and at least partly explains Mourinho’s success.
Yet his analytical approach often goes as far as to take the sporting element out of the game. Following the dour Champions League semifinal between Chelsea and Liverpool in 2007, former Real Madrid player and coach Jorge Valdano lambasted the approach of both Mourinho and Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez, believing it came from the fact that they had limited playing careers.
“Those who did not have the talent to make it as players do not believe in the talent of players, they do not believe in the ability to improvise in order to win football matches,” he said.
Certainly, for all the cult-like worship he engenders in many of them, there is very little evidence that he actually trusts his players to do the things that require the greatest amount of bravery on the pitch. Not making a blood-curdling tackle, but playing a difficult pass or producing a piece of individual brilliance. Wherever he has been, ever since leaving Porto, Mourinho has had huge financial power at his disposal. Yet, whether at Chelsea, Inter Milan or Real Madrid, no matter the quality of his players, he has largely played the same way: hitting teams on the break in an effort to limit the errors his players are capable of producing. Mourinho would not have trusted Steven Gerrard receiving the ball just inside his own half with no player covering between him and the goal in the moment that led to Demba Ba’s crucial goal at Anfield.
For the most part, though, his approach falls under the category of reactive rather than defensive. And that can still be phenomenally exciting to watch, as it was against Arsenal and Manchester City this season. That demonstrably was not the case in the Spanish capital last week. The reason Chelsea’s performance in the Vicente Calderon was particularly galling was the massive gulf in the financial power of the two clubs. While Atletico have made a net profit on transfer dealings of £38 million in the past five years, Chelsea have recorded a net loss of £311 million. Should Chelsea not be able to do more than simply form a wall in front of their box? Should Mourinho not back himself and his expensive players to do more? Does Roman Abramovich not expect more for all the money he has invested? If results begin to slip even a little there is nothing else left to point to, as Mourinho found out to his cost in his first spell of Stamford Bridge.
Even taking any ethical objections out of it, whether Mourinho was right to so obviously play for a goalless draw is hugely debatable. Atletico are now the only team capable of getting an away goal. For a counter-attacking side, the tie is actually set up rather nicely for Atletico.
Chelsea may begin with similar tactics at Stamford Bridge, but Atletico now have no pressure to take the initiative as they did at home. Conversely, at some point, even Mourinho will feel at least somewhat compelled to be more proactive in front of his club’s own fans rather than having to rely on penalties to progress.
When Chelsea have been forced to assume the initiative against teams that are happy to sit back, as Atletico likely will, their limitations and, to an extent, those of Mourinho, have been exposed. Defeats to Sunderland, Crystal Palace and Aston Villa in the past six weeks are what are likely to cost Chelsea the Premier League title, despite their win over Liverpool and taking 16 points from a possible 18 against the other teams in the top four.
Mourinho deserves many plaudits, but he has not shown himself to be a coach capable of constructing sophisticated attacking patterns. The same could still be argued about his opposite number. Simeone’s approach to dealing with Chelsea’s negative tactics at the Calderon were sorely lacking in imagination and, arguably, sense. The idea to hit repeated aerial balls into the box was a dream for John Terry and Gary Cahill.
But what Simeone has that Mourinho doesn’t is a striker capable of popping up with a goal out of very little. It is widely believed that Mourinho is desperate to secure Diego Costa for next season, but for the time being he could be the difference in ending Chelsea’s hopes in this season’s Champions League. Costa missed what, by the standards of his exceptional season, was a presentable chance late on in the first leg. He is unlikely to be so profligate again.
The lack of Petr Cech and Terry, while not a factor on Sunday, undoubtedly gives Atletico a greater chance of progress. The same is true of the absence of the screening presence and counter-attack starting Nemanja Matic. Atletico, too, are missing a key midfielder in Gabi, and it will certainly be a major loss for the La Liga leaders, but he is their only absentee.
It will be a game of incredibly fine margins between two similar teams, but ultimately Chelsea’s tactics in Madrid may be seen in a very different light come the final whistle at Stamford Bridge; not just undesirable, but unwise.
Prediction: Chelsea 1-1 Atletico Madrid
Update (04/29 8. 45 a.m. ET): John Terry is now expected to start the match having taken part in training on Tuesday.