The biggest match-up of this Champions League’s round of 16 is long over. We have all had time to digest the images, to share reactions, and ultimately, come to conclusions.
The pundits are unequivocal. This was Mourinho’s victory. The storyline almost wrote itself. The master returns do deliver a final lesson to his former pupils. “It was a tactical victory”, echo the chorus of knowing voices.
Yet very few of these journalists have delved into how that tactical victory was accomplished. Those who have, have done so only superficially.
This is not because the tactics employed were overly complex or groundbreaking. Inter approached playing Chelsea similarly to Barcelona, Arsenal, Manchester United, and many others.
They only did so more effectively than most.
Since Carlo Ancelotti took charge, Chelsea has played a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield. This formation gives them plenty of presence in the center of the park, and relies on the fullbacks to deliver width.
With so much empty real estate in front of them, Ashley Cole and Jose Bosingwa are accustomed to racking up the kilometers. Inter have a similarly narrow style, that relies particularly on the excellent Maicon to overlap and create danger.
Both Ancelotti and Mourinho understood the importance of the overlapping fullbacks to their rival’s attack and chose to counter it in the exact same way.
The selection of a 4-3-3 by both teams was not a signal of attacking intent, as some claim, but rather a defensive tactic to muzzle the attacking threat posed by the opposition fullbacks.
The presence of two wingers hugging the sideline prevented the fullbacks of either team from getting forward, because to do so would risk exposing the defense to quick counter attacks.
The knock-on effect of pinning back the fullbacks was the isolation of the midfielders. Without the temporary numerical advantage the fullbacks normally provide, both midfields had to rely on their own passing and movement to create space.
Chelsea’s midfield trio had the strength and energy to dominate the center of the park for spells, but never showed the guile necessary to create real goal chances. Over time, the superior technical skills of Motta, Cambiasso, and Sneijder began to show, with the latter in particular putting on a clinic in the later stages.
Given the pedigree of Ballack and Lampard, who had an especially quiet 90 minutes, it may come as a surprise that they were shut down for so much of the game, especially with the size advantage they held over their counterparts.
This too has an explanation in the lack of ball skills of Chelsea’s defenders.
While the stereotype of a center back is a large, stupid man who should not be trusted with the ball, the reality is quite different at the highest levels of the game. Center backs with the dribbling and passing ability to start attacks are highly sought after by coaches, yet often ignored in the press.
Most top clubs have at least one player in the “Beckenbauer mold”, and in Lucio, Inter have theirs. Chelsea, aside from the often absent Carvalho, have nobody capable ensuring possession from the back. Terry, Alex, and Ivanovic are quite poor in this regard. In marked contrast, Lucio, Zanetti, and Maicon all excel in this aspect of the game.
When pressed by the opposition forwards, Inter’s defenders were able to maintain possession among themselves until the right forward pass presented itself. Chelsea’s back line, on the other hand, opted almost exclusively for Route 1 football when put under pressure.
As a consequence, Chelsea’s midfielders and forwards had to fight for every scrap of possession, and could not create the same danger as their opponents, who received the ball in space and played to their feet.
The lack of service from behind them was such that Anelka and Malouda often dropped back in search of the ball. While this was of temporary benefit to them, it freed up Maicon and Zanetti to overwhelm Chelsea’s midfield even further.
Rarely has Chelsea looked so ineffectual as it did on Tuesday night. Mourinho knew the importance of the overlapping fullbacks to Chelsea. He also knew that they lacked credible alternatives to the creativity the fullbacks provide.
Inter did have alternatives, and three of them—Lucio, Motta, and Sneijder—were purchased this summer. Perhaps these are the areas Ancelotti will look to shore up come June.