Chelsea's Failure Raises Questions About Shortcomings of Defence-First Football

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Chelsea's Failure Raises Questions About Shortcomings of Defence-First Football
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With the Premier League season entering its final throes, perhaps it is two clubs with nothing to play for who are dealing with the most disaffected fanbases.

While fans of Norwich and Fulham are steeling themselves for a relegation that now looks almost inevitable, and supporters of Sunderland and Fulham desperately hold out hope that they can avoid the same fate, it seems to be at West Ham (14th) and Newcastle (ninth) where the natives are most restless.

This might seem somewhat counterintuitive, but then the concern is not necessarily with the results this season so much as the performances.

The fans (and media) at St James' Park want Alan Pardew out for a myriad of reasons—not all of them directly to do with him, one suspects—but the uninspiring nature of his side's recent displays is undoubtedly the primary one.

In fairness, Newcastle have lost their last six games in the league, so supporters have grounds for their complaint. But even if the Magpies had picked up a point here or there over that run, fans would still be expressing their dissatisfaction with the performances of a side that has looked disjointed, disorganised and disaffected.

A similar situation is occurring at Upton Park, where Sam Allardyce has faced regular booing from the club's supporters at the end of home games—despite achieving the club's primary ambition of staying in the Premier League for another season, a task that looked far from assured around the turn of the year.

Sang Tan/Associated Press

Yet, in a way, mid-table mediocrity only serves to intensify the scrutiny of the product on the pitch; with nothing left to play for in tangible terms, supporters dwell more and more on what their club is trying to achieve in terms beyond league positions and financial results, as well as the style in which they are trying to do it.

With Newcastle selling their best players (Yohan Cabaye's exit in January has turned the team into a completely different, and vastly inferior, proposition) and West Ham playing in the reductive, uninventive manner that has become somewhat synonymous with Allardyce, it is perhaps unsurprising there is such dissatisfaction when neither of those methods even produces regular wins.

At some level, of course, fans should be careful for what they wish for. The current examples of Norwich, Cardiff, Sunderland and Fulham should all serve as reminders that picking the wrong manager can have devastating consequences and that being able to guarantee Premier League survival on a yearly basis is nothing to be sniffed it.

Fans always hope a new manager will make things better, but they invariably overlook the possibility that a new coach could also inadvertently make them much worse.

On the other hand, part of the reason fans turn up to games is to be entertained. The negative, regressive football they are often seeing at the moment is not doing that.

When they can watch a team like Liverpool soaring to the top of the table, and doing so in a swashbuckling manner, they might well wonder what is preventing their team from trying to play in a similarly laudable manner (and Newcastle, thanks to Kevin Keegan, know just what that feels like).

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That is not exactly an uncommon problem, however. Professional football in general has seen a gradual trend towards a defence-first approach, with the money involved at the higher levels of the game—and thus the stakes in play for chairmen and managers—pushing clubs towards minimising risks, succumbing to the natural human tendency to try and avoid losing before they think about trying to win.

To pick one example, there's 11th-placed Crystal Palace. Tony Pulis has worked wonders to keep the Eagles in the top flight this term, fashioning one of the division's most obdurate defences in order to do so.

Clean sheets were Pulis’s path to survival, and the fans at Selhurst Park have enjoyed every step.

After a few years of that, however, expectations and ambitions change. Those same fans might want more, might want to see sophistication added to their side. This season the squad's two most technically gifted players, Jonny Williams and Jose Campana, have been loaned out.

The reasons for that have merit (Williams needs first-team experience; Campana has been unsettled), but nevertheless it is hard to see how they would have fit into Pulis' current system.

Two or three seasons down the line, Palace fans would be disappointed if that situation remained the same, particularly in Williams' case.

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Of course, Pulis' former club, Stoke, famously parted ways with him last summer for similar reasons, as after five seasons in the Premier League they felt the time had come to pursue a more sophisticated style of play.

This transition has so far worked out reasonably for them, on course as they are to finish in the top 10 under Mark Hughes, but that is not always the case. Norwich, for example, paid more than £8 million last year to make Sporting Lisbon forward Ricky van Wolfswinkel a statement of their heightened ambition.

Van Wolfswinkel has one goal all season, and Norwich are almost certain to go down.

While the financial pressures of modern football have perhaps done more than anything to make tactics more risk-averse, perhaps Jose Mourinho is the manager who has done more than anyone to help the practice become acceptable, even preferable.

Mourinho's approach has changed over time, but at Real Madrid—and, certainly in the big games, this season at Chelsea, too—it was characterised by the journalist Diego Torres as viewing football as a game of errors, that the best way to force the opposition to commit errors was to cede them possession:

This approach has been obvious in the biggest games and invariably very effective, too. Robust, defensive Blues sides have gone to Old Trafford, the Etihad, the Emirates and Anfield without conceding a goal this season—winning against both Manchester City and Liverpool thanks to perfectly executed, tactical-one-off game plans.

This tactical gambit was exposed somewhat on Wednesday, however, as a Chelsea team with seven defensive-minded outfield players was outmuscled by a more rounded Atletico Madrid—a side equally good at keeping the ball out of their own net but more varied and purposeful in pursuit of success at the other end.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press

Aftewards, one of perhaps only two true attacking players in that XI, Eden Hazard, complained to beIN Sports (h/t the Telegraph) that his side "were not made to play football."

With Chelsea out of the Champions League and unlikely to win the Premier League—despite their success in one-off games against their closest rivals—the questions have grown about Mourinho's approach.

"I agree with Hazard, to a certain extent, they don't play football—but they have the players to play football," ex-Liverpool player Dietmar Hamann told B/R.

"For some reason they don’t have the structure. At the moment they lack fluidity to their game, either by design or other factors.

"They don’t concede goals, but if you don't have the capabilities and the qualities to change a game when you do concede then you become one-dimensional, and that's what they are."

Perhaps that explains why Chelsea have negated the threat of their rivals so well yet contrived to lose games against the likes of the aforementioned Palace (1-0), Aston Villa and Sunderland—teams who also set out their stall to frustrate when facing bigger sides.

It can be difficult to play the spoiler one weekend and then the aggressor the next.

As Hamann adds: "I think the players are far better than how they have played this season—not necessarily in results, but in terms of style and performances."

Mourinho’s style might partially be a result of circumstance, from the possible conclusion that his current squad lacks experience and quality in key areas (experience among his attacking midfielders, quality in his strikers) and that shielding that weakness is his priority.

"I think this team probably is not a team with such maturity and personality to face the difficult moments in the game," Mourinho notably said, via the Independent, as recently as the September defeat to Basel at Stamford Bridge.

It seems to have coloured his approach ever since.

Next season, with a few additions and this campaign under their belts, he may feel more inclined to loosen the restraints. But first he evidently wants to get the defensive system ingrained.

"The difference between one year and three years is a big difference," the Portuguese said on Wednesday, via the Telegraph, in reference to Atletico boss Diego Simeone's tenure. "They are very adapted to the ideas of this manager."

Matt Dunham/Associated Press

The Atletico defeat may also play a part in his re-evaluating the shortcomings of his own ideology. Mourinho will point at his impressive haul of silverware, but to play devil's advocate, his Champions League record can be open to some criticism.

Since he won the competition with Porto in 2004, it is not unreasonable to suggest that Mourinho has managed one of the four- or six-best sides in Europe for every campaign since (bar the half-season after he was dismissed as Chelsea boss).

Yet in those nine completed seasons, he has reached the final just once (winning it with Inter Milan in 2010)—as simplistic as it may be, the law of probabilities would suggest he might have done better.

If his current style is not delivering final appearances and victories, and not delivering the Premier League title, then what is its ultimate merit? Mourinho will ponder that question as the offseason arrives.

A return to more attacking ambition in the higher echelons of football would be welcome and benefit the game in numerous ways.

But the pressure of elite football and the stakes involved will perhaps ensure that the defence-first approach will always have its place.

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