After Chelsea’s 2-0 win over Liverpool at Anfield, a result that once again altered the landscape of an absorbing Premier League title race, the tactics employed by Jose Mourinho have been widely criticised as negative and unsightly.
But while Brendan Rodgers accused him of parking "two buses" on Sky Sports, the reality is that Mourinho, not for the first time, has outdone a rival manager tactically and secured a vital win for his side. He may be guilty of hypocrisy—having criticised other sides for their defensive approach in the past, as reported by Sky Sports earlier in the year—but there should be no doubt that he executed his game plan brilliantly and delivered what seemed beforehand like an unlikely victory.
Without John Terry, Petr Cech and Ramires, and with one eye on their crucial Champions League second-leg with Atletico Madrid later this week, Mourinho had an obviously weaker group of players to choose from, yet his side emerged from the home of the best attacking team in the country with a clean sheet and three points. It was a masterclass in how to deal with Liverpool’s aggressive football and how to alter your system to best deal with the opposition.
Chelsea enjoyed just 27 percent of possession, playing with a back four and a deep midfield three, but while Liverpool had most of the ball and looked by far the more creative, it was Chelsea who executed their tactics better.
Liverpool’s ability to take sides apart, particularly in the early stages of their home matches, had seen them seize the initiative in the title race before yesterday’s defeat, and rather than naively trying to play them at their own game, Mourinho adapted and emerged with a special win.
Quite why people expected Mourinho to go and attack in an away game with a side full of injuries and suspensions is a mystery, but the game should serve as a reminder to Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini that tactical flexibility is a virtue that can win a side points in difficult circumstances.
I would encourage anyone who suggests Liverpool were 'the real winners' yesterday to check the score again.— James Maw (@JamesMawFFT) April 28, 2014
In fact, had the Chilean adopted a more cautious approach when his side visited Anfield recently, City could be firmly in the driving seat in the title race, rather than leaving themselves with no room for error as is the case right now.
In that game, City once again stuck rigidly to their open, attacking brand of football and paid the ultimate price by falling two down inside 30 minutes. It was their most important league game of the season, and they left themselves a mountain to climb thanks to their own naivety; even a superb second-half performance wasn't enough to see them leave with anything.
Mourinho, though, didn’t make that mistake, recognising instead the need to contain Liverpool early on to frustrate them and subdue the home crowd. It worked a treat, and despite his constant downplaying, his team are well and truly involved in a three-way battle for the title.
Pellegrini brings many qualities to English football, but to have the level of success he is capable of at City he must begin to show a greater degree of pragmatism when necessary.
Rob Pollard is Bleacher Report's lead Manchester City correspondent and will be following the club from a Manchester base throughout the 2013-14 season. Follow him on Twitter here: @RobPollard_.