The most remarkable feature of Chelsea’s 2014/15 Premier League triumph was the manner in which the team’s style of play changed in the second half of the season.
It is notable, for instance, that prior to Chelsea’s 1-1 draw at home against Manchester City on January 31, Jose Mourinho’s team scored 52 goals in 23 matches, six more than City (46) and 13 more than Arsenal (39).
By the end of the season, though, City had outscored Chelsea by 10 goals (83) and Arsenal had scored only two fewer than the league champions (71).
It was thus the case that Chelsea lost almost a full goal per game during the final 15 fixtures of last season (2.3 before February 1; 1.4 thereafter), and where just three of the Blues’ 16 league victories prior to February 1 were achieved by a single goal, eight of their final 10 league wins came by a one-goal margin.
While commentators such as ESPN’s Gabriele Marcotti put this offensive deterioration down to fatigue at the end of a gruelling campaign, the fact that the players have returned after a summer break still lacking incision on front of goal (they have averaged 1.5 goals per game in the Premier League this term, more than a goal fewer than City) suggests that the team’s attacking bluntness is a symptom of tactical retrenchment on the part of Mourinho.
In the Guardian last season, Jonathan Wilson argued that this is Jose Mourinho “reverting to type.” No decision more clearly symbolizes the Chelsea boss’ instinct to shut up shop at the first sign of adversity than his dropping of Eden Hazard against Aston Villa last weekend.
Hazard is Chelsea’s best player.
The Belgian scored 17 goals in all competitions in 2014/15, and his records of having recorded the most completed dribbles (179), chances created (101), and duels won (335) in the Premier League marked him out as a worthy Player of the Year winner.
For Jose to seek to remedy his team’s inability to break defences down by dropping his most creative attacking player is fundamentally counterintuitive and should be the cause of real concern for Blues fans.
While Chelsea defeated Villa, they only did so courtesy of a self-inflicted defensive error and an own goal. Clearly, Mourinho’s justification for dropping his star forward hardly signaled a commitment to making his side more effective in attack.
“I left out Hazard because we are conceding lots of goals,” he said. “We needed more stability and effort to help make the team more solid. I like quality, but when you don’t have the ball you don’t have quality. And you don’t have control.”
“Control” is the operative word in all these statements.
Every manager craves control in a football match, however, the most effective coaches believe that it is best achieved through dominating possession. Coaches such as Louis van Gaal and Pep Guardiola, who learned their trades from Johan Cruyff, follow this precept. Jose Mourinho, on the other hand, seeks to attain control by minimizing risk.
Necessarily, Mourinho’s approach means ceding possession and, on occasion, sacrificing flair and invention in favor of structure and discipline.
Hazard is a victim of this philosophy, and although the Belgian returned to the first XI for Chelsea’s midweek trip to Kiev, he was rarely relieved of defensive responsibility, and it is no surprise that he rejoined a frontline that drew a blank in the Champions League for the first time since last April.
During the summer, Mourinho stated that he sees Hazard as being on a par with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. The accuracy of such an assertion, and whether Mourinho really believes it, is open to debate. However, it is clear that the 24-year-old is Chelsea’s foremost attacking asset, and his manager knows it.
Jose Mourinho’s failure to implement a tactical system in which his best player can flourish is an indictment of his creative capacity, all to the detriment of Chelsea’s championship ambitions.
The real concern for Blues fans is that Hazard might heed the advice of his international manager, Marc Wilmots, and leave the South London club.
[Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images Sport]