Despite a marked change in approach from a free-flowing attacking side at the start of the season to a functional and rigid one in the latter months, Chelsea continued to consistently get results throughout and steadily separated themselves from the rest of the Premier League pack. That ability to alter their approach allowed them to gain points when they weren't at their best. Here, Kyle discusses Mourinho's pragmatism and how Chelsea pulled away from their rivals at a time they were playing their worst football of the season.
Jose Mourinho has long since cemented his reputation as one of football's ultimate pragmatists. Although his level of pragmatism is at times exaggerated, it's difficult to deny that he's built one of the game's most successful managerial careers primarily by setting his sides out for big matches in a way that stifles the opposition's creativity then looks to take advantage of their mistakes (on the counter or on set pieces) rather than proactively setting his side out to play on the front foot. In their 10 games last season against opponents that would go on to finish in the top 6 (Manchester City, Arsenal, Manchester United, Tottenham, Liverpool), Chelsea were outpossessed in 9 of them. It's noteworthy that the shock 3-5 New Year's Day defeat to Tottenham was the one exception.
While it's become trite to discuss Mourinho's pragmatism, there are some fascinating stats from last season that highlight just how effective Chelsea were when they weren't playing particularly attractive football.
Chelsea's season can be divided into two parts. The first part lasted through the Blues 5-0 away win at Swansea on Jan 17. and appeared to usher in a new, more proactive Mourinho. Chelsea played a free flowing attacking style and looked to use their wealth of attacking talent to outscore opponents rather than dropping into deep blocks of four and looking to nick goals on the counter. They netted 15 goals from their first four league fixtures and continued to produce solid attacking displays as the season progressed into the winter months. In the first 22 league fixtures they failed to score more than one goal on just five occasions.
However, as the season progressed the players appeared to begin to feel the effects of Mourinho's limited squad rotation. Chelsea used fewer players than any other first division side. As fatigue set in, they struggled to maintain their attacking prowess and Mourinho reverted to the pragmatism he's most comfortable with. Following the decisive win over Swansea, second place Manchester City visited Stamford Bridge five points behind Mourinho's side in the title race. Chelsea were without both Diego Costa, who had been banned for a stamp on Emre Can, and Cesc Fabregas, out through a hamstring injury. With his most creative midfielder and first choice striker absent, Mourinho opted to play Ramires in Fabregas's position alongside Nemanja Matic at the base of midfield. Ramires, whose strengths are his tireless work rate and pace, is quite a different type player than the ultra technical and creative Fabregas and his inclusion meant Chelsea were more suited to attacking with quick vertical passes after winning back possession. With the score level at 1-1 heading towards injury time Mourinho was pleased enough retaining a 5 point gap at the top and introduced Gary Cahill for Loic Remy and Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Oscar, meaning Chelsea finished the game with five defenders on the pitch and three holding midfielders.
This contest marked a turning point in the season for Chelsea. Concerned that continuing with the attacking style he'd started the season with would leave his tiring side too open at the defensive end, Mourinho opted for a far more functional approach that revolved around defensive solidity and relied heavily on the individual talent of Eden Hazard to create and score goals.
The run in to Chelsea clinching the title highlights Mourinho's ruthless effectiveness. Starting with the Manchester City match, Chelsea remained unbeaten in their next 14 matches despite undergoing an obvious dip in form that saw them score more than one goal on just four occasions. They clinched Mourinho's third Premier League title with a home win over Crystal Palace in the thirteenth match of that run. In their opening 22 league fixtures they averaged 2.32 goals per game. That number fell by nearly a goal to 1.36 per game in the next 14. Fabregas, who had been the catalyst for Chelsea's enterprising early season style, providing 15 assists in 21 appearances to start the season, had just 3 assists in his last 12 matches.
In order to win a title a squad has to learn to win matches when it's not at its best and Mourinho has proved that there are few managers better at forcing results out of his side when they're not playing well. Chelsea matched their longest unbeaten run (Chelsea started the season unbeaten in their first 14 before losing at Newcastle) while playing their least convincing football- it may not be the easiest on the eye but when you do that you give yourself a decent chance.
One of Mourinho's biggest attributes as a manager is his ability avoid the temptation of taking risks in the heat of the moment that may not ultimately be the best thing for his side's title challenge. While at the time Chelsea's supporters surely would have preferred chasing a winner in the home 1-1 draw with City rather than introducing an extra center back and holding midfielder, Mourinho was able to view that result as part of a bigger picture and accept that maintaining a 5 point lead at the top was an adequate result. When his side was being questioned by some sections of the media for their uninspiring approach in the second half of the season, he continued to stick to his guns and set his team out in a way that gave Chelsea's rivals little chance of closing the sizeable gap at the top of the table. He recognizes Chelsea's supporters care little about having to sit through some unentertaining performances if they can celebrate a title at the end of the season. He may not be one for those among us inspired by the likes of Rinus Michels, Cruyff and Guardiola but it's hard to argue against his effectiveness. With him at the helm Chelsea must be considered favorites again this season.