Much has been made of Chelsea’s success this season. Eleven points clear, they look set to record one of the most comfortable titles in Premier League history. More than that, the Blues have topped the table all season, and have never really looked like relinquishing the stronghold they have had on that position. Yet, there are still question marks over whether or not this Chelsea team are ‘great’ champions. They are effective, ruthless and efficient, no doubt; but for one reason or another, Jose Mourinho’s side have not endeared themselves to the footballing world.
As Chelsea celebrated a 0-0 draw away at Arsenal as if they had just lifted the Champions League, a chorus of “Boring, boring Chelsea,” rang around the Emirates. It is a chant which has been heard at a few grounds both this season and last, and more recently sung ironically by Chelsea fans themselves. At the heart of this discussion there lies two questions; the first, are Chelsea boring to watch? The second, which is only applicable should one find the answer to the first question to be yes, is does Jose Mourinho care?
It would seem every style of play is subject to scrutiny. The silky tiki-taka of Spain and Barcelona was seen as the pinnacle of the game when Spain lifted the World Cup in 2010, yet when they won Euro 2012, in even more emphatic style, accusations of being boring were suddenly thrown their way. The more direct, fast-paced approach of Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich over the last five years subsequently became the flavor of the month, showing the fickleness of those in the game. Andres Iniesta said in 2012, “Football’s so great because not everyone likes the same thing, we don’t have to all agree on everything.”
There is probably some truth in what the Spaniard says, but there are certain ingredients which do tend to make for a more exciting spectacle. When assessing the relative ‘excitingness’ of a team, which seems a near enough impossible task from the outset, one of the first criteria people will look to is goals scored. Certainly, in this regard, Chelsea do not fare well. Their 70 goals this term is somewhat dwarfed by the 102 goals scored by last season’s champions Manchester City, or even runners-up Liverpool, who scored 101 goals. Chelsea themselves hold the record for the most goals in a Premier League season, scoring 103 times on their way to the title under Carlo Ancelotti in 2010.
Mourinho’s men fall considerably below the Premier League average of 92. Likewise, Chelsea’s total number of shots on goal and shots per game tallies are lower than that of any other Premier League title winning side since the competition’s inception. In this respect, criticisms levelled towards Chelsea for a lack of attacking intent seem to have some grounding. Whilst the aforementioned statistics are rather simplistic, it is difficult to employ any other genuine barometer of excitement. Some are equally enthralled by excellent defending, and will marvel at a well-read interception by John Terry as much as any 30-yard screamer.
As important perhaps, as Chelsea’s play on the ball, is their work off it. Mourinho has had accusations of playing ‘anti-football’ thrown his way during his spells in England, Italy and Spain. Certainly this seasons Chelsea squad are no stranger to the occasional use of football’s dark arts; back in November Gary Cahill spoke of Chelsea’s “game management”, a generous rebranding if ever there was one. Epitomized by Diego Costa, who played a similar brand of football under Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid, Chelsea have more yellow cards for diving than any other team in the Premier League.
Now, should one accept that Chelsea’s style of play is not the most beautiful way in which the beautiful game can be played, then they can come to our second question; does Mourinho care? Your instinctive response is likely to be simple, no. Mourinho has enjoyed unrelenting success wherever the game has taken him, with 20 trophies becoming 22 this season. His style of play has always been pragmatic, adaptable and effective. Yet there is still reason to believe that Jose is not wholly satisfied with the manner in which he has won things. If there is one manager who has managed to get under Mourinho’s skin like no other, it is Pep Guardiola, and to realise why, we must look back nearly 20 years.
In 1996, Mourinho joined the backroom staff at Barcelona. The same year, he told Mundo Deportivo, “With the ball, Guardiola is incredible, one of the best in the world,” later adding, “I’m an admirer of Cruyff”. All the early signs seem to suggest Mourinho admired a free flowing, passing game that was easy on the eye. Yet whilst Guardiola went on to emulate his playing style in management, the same philosophy Mourinho admired, he became an image of its most prevalent and effective opposition. In 2008, he wanted the Barcelona job. Eleven years after he had declared, “Today, tomorrow, and forever, with Barcelona in my heart,” he was turned down after his interview with club, who instead opted with Guardiola.
All of this mounts a decent case that Mourinho is a man playing a style of football he never loved, as he was rejected from his dream job at the club he truly loved. It is not then, as preposterous a question as it first seems. Yet, the answer, most assuredly, is no. Guardiola perfected the style of play set in motion by Johan Cruyff at Barcelona, there was no way Mourinho could out-Barca Barca. Instead, Mourinho has become a dichotomy to all that was Barca-centric. Unmoved by the pure aesthetic of the game, Mourinho’s teams became experts in winning without the ball, with consistent results capitalising on opposition errors whilst remaining defensively astute.
It is not true that Mourinho and Chelsea are “boring” or that they are ‘anti-football’, yet it is true that they can be boring and can display anti-football. Mourinho is a man without ideals, without principles, and without any specific ideology. He sets his teams up to get the result in which they need, nothing more, nothing less. Sometimes this will entail exciting, expansive football displaying skill, flair and ambition. Other times, he will happily sit ten men behind the ball, put Kurt Zouma in midfield and tell Eden Hazard his foremost concern should be monitoring any overlaps by an opposition full-back. The Mourinho way. The Lebanovsky way. The Bilardo way. To win at all costs. That is all.