Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho is renowned as a tactical genius. In the ever-evolving world of football, the Special One has made his name by flouting the rules and going against the tactical grain of the day.
Although he has tried to conform in recent years by using the in-vogue 4-2-3-1 formation, the argument against following the crowd is a compelling one.
A decade ago, Mourinho’s Porto were conquering Europe using variations on the traditional 4-3-3 formation.
Zonal Marking highlighted the strength of this side as the way they attacked and defended as a team, with each player fulfilling a clearly defined role. This fluid system was adapted depending on the opposition. The simple efficiency in his tactical plan, combined with his man-management skills, is what saw Mourinho win six trophies in two-and-a-half years at Porto.
When he arrived in England in 2004, 4-4-2 was the de rigeur formation, used throughout the Premier League. His implementation of a 4-3-3 with his first Chelsea squad allowed them to romp to their first Premier League title with a record 95 points, conceding just 15 goals in the process.
Although other teams caught on to the tactic, they were unable to stop Mourinho adding a further six trophies to his CV.
Having won every domestic title available to a top-flight manager in England, Mourinho packed up his tried-and-tested 4-3-3 and set off to Inter Milan.
There he won the Nerazzurri’s first treble, deploying the 4-2-1-3 variation of the formation against Bayern Munich in the Champions League final.
His conversion to the 4-2-3-1 happened when he joined Real Madrid in 2010. The system had been widely used in Spain since the 1990s and a club of Real’s stature was not going to sanction a change from their free-flowing attacking philosophy.
Perhaps Mourinho’s adherence to 4-2-3-1 is what prevented him from leading Madrid to their coveted 10th Champions League title.
Upon his return to Stamford Bridge, he found a squad that had been playing a 4-2-3-1 since Roberto Di Matteo took over from Andre Villas-Boas in 2012. This tactic worked in the short-term in the cup competitions, but it was a failure to adapt to the long-term ramifications of this system that led to Di Matteo’s sacking.
Now Mourinho, and Roman Abramovich, want to change Chelsea’s style from a utilitarian, win-at-all-costs unit to a team that can play beautiful football and still bring home the silverware. Persisting with a 4-2-3-1 is not the best way to achieve this aim.
The Premier League website recently recognised 4-2-3-1 as the most popular formation in the league, making it difficult for Mourinho to out-manoeuvre his opponents tactically.
Although he has made it clear that he wants to continue evolving as a manager, there is something to be said for the consistency that has brought him such great success. Switching to a 4-3-3 now would get the best out of his squad as they enter the crucial Christmas period:
Look, if I have a triangle in midfield – Claude Makelele behind and two others just in front – I will always have an advantage against a pure 4-4-2 where the central midfielders are side by side. That’s because I will always have an extra man. It starts with Makelele, who is between the lines. If nobody comes to him he can see the whole pitch and has time. If he gets closed down it means one of the two other central midfielders is open. If they are closed down and the other team’s wingers come inside to help, it means there is space now for us on the flank, either for our own wingers or for our full-backs. There is nothing a pure 4-4-2 can do to stop things.
Makelele has since retired, but there are a few players in the current squad who could fulfil that role. The central midfield pairing would become a trio with plenty of flexibility, instead of the ineffective "Rampard" pairing.
Frank Lampard is still trying to adjust to his new role as a deep-lying playmaker, while Ramires lacks the defensive commitment to anchor the pair.
Dropping Oscar back to central midfield would allow him the space and time to run the show, as he does for Brazil, whilst Ramires would offer an offensive outlet. In games where a more defensive approach is needed, John Obi Mikel would sit behind the two Brazilians.
The beauty of a three-man central midfield is that it allows a little more room for error in an area of the pitch where Chelsea have found themselves frequently crowded out this season.
A 4-3-3 would also allow the wingers to concentrate on attacking. The full-backs, in particular Cesar Azpilicueta, would still be able to make overlapping runs due to the extra cover in midfield, but the team would not rely on them for width in attack.
Branislav Ivanovic has completed just eight of 47 attempted crosses in the Premier League so far. Compared with Juan Mata, who Mourinho wants to play on the right wing and has completed 12 of 35 attempted crosses, the benefits of giving the wide men the freedom to stay on the wing become clear.
Relieving the strikers of the pressure that comes with spearheading the attack could actually improve their goalscoring form. As part of a front three, both Samuel Eto’o and Fernando Torres would be able to use their best asset—off-the-ball movement, to devastating effect.
Mourinho’s tactical substitutions that have seen Chelsea come back to win three of their Premier League games show that he is still a master of the game.
However, he is clearly growing frustrated with the way his team have been performing. If he doesn’t change things soon, the Special One will quickly become the Disappointed One.