The modern game has seen a number of managers make a name for themselves just by their tactics. As some are obsessed about making imprints on their teams by the way they (teams) play, others are more open to different tactics in the course of the season. Many a time, managers decide on the tactics to play based on the players available which seem to be the palpable thing. Managers like Guardiola, Wenger, AVB, Laudrup et al demand their teams to play in a particular way and José Mourinho cannot be omitted from that list.
José is an astute manager who is very adamant about the way his team should and must play regardless of the players available. As most managers work with the players available and play to their strength, he fits them into his ‘puzzle’. He tries to bring in the sort of players that can fit into his ‘scheme of things’. Even in situations when he cannot add up to his squad especially when there is squad in depth, he is not afraid to change roles for certain players. This attribute about him is probably what has kept him going in his illustrious career; doing things his way. He moved Zanetti to left back position and sometimes right back in his tenure at Inter Milan; he moved Ramos back to central defence in his spell at Madrid and even played Modric in the defensive midfield role. That does not seem to be changing any time soon as he has currently ‘bought’ the right back role for Ivanovic in his second spell at Chelsea!
On his return to Stamford Bridge, José has met arguably one of the finest midfields across Europe. This midfield is highly endowed with flair, speed, agility and skill any manager would wish for. The gaffer has chosen 4-2-3-1 formation as his preferred formation, sometimes switching to 3-5-2 formation when he really needs to turn things around. So the big question most fans ask is ‘what is the best formation that Chelsea should play or adapt to?’ With the 4-2-3-1 formation, there are two defensive midfielders employed in ‘2’ role. That is to say that, there are two defensive midfielders (DM) that guard the back four and provide a transition between defence and attack. These two DMs should be complementary: as one is a good passer and distributor of the ball, the other should be a good tackler and a quick interceptor of the ball. The most important aspect of being a good DM is the ability to hassle opponents all over when the opponent ventures into the former’s area.
Taking a look at the Chelsea squad, Mikel, Essien and van Ginkel are the natural defensive midfielders. Mikel has been great over the past seasons and still looks good. He tackles really well and makes very complete accurate passes (albeit square and back passes the most numerous of them!). His presence in the ‘2’ position this season has to a large extent benefited the squad. Essien in all honesty, has passed his best and looks a pale shadow of the Bison we knew some years back. He has been used sparingly this season and his two starts have only come in the Capital One cup. His performances in those two games nevertheless, were more of an average performance than one worthy of making a claim for a spot in the starting eleven. Marco van Ginkel seemed to be picking up the pieces until his unfortunate injury. The lad looks promising and we can only hope he picks himself up and comes back strong next season.
Having elaborated on the defensive midfield options, José’s continuous use of Ramires and Lampard is quite startling, to say the least. Rami naturally is not a defensive midfield player but seems to have adapted to that role pretty well. On the other hand, not much can be said about Lamps in that context. Rami is not a good passer of the ball and rarely makes a good tackle. His bursting runs, when he does them, however, are the ones that really keep the team moving especially during counter attacks. What has been evident this season is that, anytime Lamps plays in that ‘2’ role, he gets very much exposed and critics even talk about ‘his mediocrity’. What a shame that Lamps is always at the receiving end especially when things are not ‘clicking’.
This problem can largely be attributed to the system in which Chelsea plays now: the team plays more of an expansive game and is much technical than solid tactically. The wide players also double up as the playmakers and so when they lose the ball, the pressure much lies on the ‘2’ holding midfielders. This system of playing Rami and Lamps in the double pivot raises more questions than solutions; why play a player at an unusual position when there are better options? Does it always have to be Rami-Lamps playing in the double pivot when Rami-Mikel seems the better pair?
To avert this instability in the midfield, a 4-3-3 or 4-1-4-1 formation will be the most profitable. Since José always craves for balance in his teams, such formations will do the trick. The 4-1-4-1 formation creates a lot of flexibility with the four forwards supporting the lone striker. There are two wingers (Schurrle, Willian or Hazard) working tirelessly and backtracking when not in possession and then two playmakers (Oscar, Mata, KdB, or Lamps) behind the striker (Torres or Eto’o). The defensive midfield role is played by Ramires or Mikel who will efficiently protect the back four and bring stability to the midfield. In this sense, Lamps does not have to struggle with a lot of defending. Again he can constantly pop in the penalty area as he loves.
The 4-3-3 formation also provides a very compact midfield and if Rami, Mata and Oscar, Lamps or Mikel play, they move laterally across the field as a harmonized unit to protect the back four. They also create easy movement and constant attack for the three forwards (i.e. two wingers and a striker through the middle). The talk of ‘false No. 9’ can be played in the 4-3-3 formation especially when our strikers are having an ‘off-day’. Also there is a lot of movement from midfield to attack and the midfielders do a lot of backtracking and closing down of opponent midfielders and attackers. The counter attacking (which this current squad loves) when presented with the chance can be very exhilarative with this formation too. The team is excellent creatively but sometimes when the midfield is bullied the creativity becomes so blunt!
With constant calls for the change in personnel vis-à-vis the current formation (4-2-3-1), José can only convince the fans by just changing the formation to either 4-3-3 or 4-1-4-1. We can only hope he will patch things up pretty soon because some draws and defeats are very excruciating for the fans. Everyone loves ‘The Happy One’ but certainly not ‘The Stubborn One’!