The Portuguese is owed more recognition for this season than he’s being afforded.
There’s a little movement gathering pace in English football.
With Chelsea now all but certain to win the Premier League, there’s gathering momentum behind a movement which seeks to asterisk their impending triumph.
Over the past few weeks, there’s been on a focus on the gamesmanship employed by Jose Mourinho’s side, their habit of forcefully breaking down by winning cheap free-kicks and, most notably, the negativity of their employed tactics.
The first two points are really redundant. Chelsea players may surround referees and they might also be well-practiced in the art of winding the clock down and general manipulation, but that’s a universal problem within the game and there isn’t a professional team in existence who don’t, at one time or another, resort to those dark arts.
The final complaint is – superficially at least – more legitimate: Mourinho is guilty of being overly-cautious at times and his side, extravagantly gifted collection of individuals that they are, could often be said to be little more than the sum of their parts.
I get it, but I disagree with it – there’s something very sour in that mentality and it’s a transparent attempt to suffix Chelsea’s title success with a “yeah, but…”
Beyond that, however, such a mentality reveals a growing truth about the English game as a whole – as a nation, we’ve grown uncomfortable with some of the more more basic tactical principles.
The Premier League is known for its emphasis on attacking football and, in a more general sense, its more basketball-like qualities. Over the past twenty years, that’s become the norm and as crowds have gently turned into audiences, they’ve learnt to boo and hiss anything which doesn’t adhere to their idea of entertainment.
Attack or by damned.
The irony is, that while Mourinho’s Chelsea are cast as being anti-football, the arguments against them aren’t actually football-based – the champions-elect are anti-entertainment, but they’re not obliged to be anything else. The Portuguese’s coaching style is mainly pragmatic and he doesn’t preach the importance of flair as much as some of his contemporaries, but there’s still lots to admire about the second-generation side that he’s built.
Chelsea are characterised by discipline and, fundamentally, by hard-work. While their manager is often derided for reducing previously flamboyant players to functional components, there’s actually a lot to be said for his ability to convert well-paid, well-ego’d stars into players who are willing to sacrifice themselves for each other.
That process is frequently depicted as a reduction of talent, but actually it’s a fundamental of team-building and nobody proves that more conclusively than Mourinho.
The reaction, then, is somewhat contradictory: the British sporting public typically admire blue-collared attributes, yet they jeer the side who embody them most of all . Chelsea’s rigidity isn’t a symptom of pure negativity, it’s an example of the value of cohesiveness and of always having eleven players on the pitch who are willing to contribute without the ball.
Jose Mourinho is clearly a very antagonistic character and so the accusations of reductive football may just be a convenient stick with which to beat him, but allowing that to diminish his achievements does him a huge disservice. If anything, the lack of appreciation for Mourinho outside Stamford Bridge is an indicator of our naivety as a nation. We don’t tolerate possession football as much as we should, we sneer at containment strategies and vilify those who deploy them, and we have little love for anything beyond the Premier League’s breathless offensive frenzy.
There are no rules about how a championship must be won in this country, only a vague marketing directing which implies the importance of reckless, front-foot football. So look beyond Mourinho’s villainous traits and appreciate the hold he has over his players, the value he places in team-work and the diligent defensive planning which goes into every fixture.