Jose Mourinho and Inter Milan did a job on Chelsea last night. Not only did they display the kind of defensive obduracy that was the quintessence of Mourinho’s tenure at the Bridge, but they carried a far more incisive attacking threat, particularly when play was syphoned through the impressive Wesley Sneijder.
Tactically, Mourinho was perfect. In the interviews leading up to the match he claimed he watched the tape of the first leg seven times. Well it won’t have taken him that long to realise that the way to stop a team when they play with a diamond midfield, is to prevent their fullbacks from bombing forward. It is not without a sense of irony that the formation he used to eject his former club from this year’s competition, was the formation he used so unwaveringly in his best years at Chelsea.
Samuel Eto’o and Goran Pandev are not quite the wingers Arjen Robben and Damien Duff were, but their presence out wide was enough to cast doubt into the minds of the Chelsea fullbacks. Florent Malouda is capable of breaking out wide and feeding Drogba, yet the same cannot be said of Michael Ballack on the other side, and Anelka shifting out wide right is a waste; he was proven to be ineffectual there during Phil Scolari’s time at the club. In any case, Malouda and Chelsea’s attacking players were marshalled expertly by Lucio and Walter Samuel, two rugged, blood and thunder defenders typical of those favoured by Mourinho.
Wesley Sneijder’s ability to retain possession and pass the ball at unusual angles in between the center-backs and the fullbacks is a potent weapon, and in sharp contrast with the attributes of the Chelsea midfield. It’s nigh on amazing to think that no English club save Aston Villa declared an interest in him in the summer. Imagine if Liverpool had signed him. Mourinho, again, hinted after the match he may be coaching an English team in the near future, perhaps Liverpool, and I would not be suprised to see him take Wesley Sneijder with him. The ball Sneijder arced for Etoo – the scourge of English teams in the Champions League – was nothing short of sublime.
Psychologically, Mourinho, as is his custom, got his approach spot on. There is much debate as to just how tangible his influence is when the match starts and the talking stops, but you cannot separate his personality from his record. The recurring theme of all his teams is the siege mentality he fosters by way of his media performances. A common enemy unites, and the adage is employed spectacularly by the Portuguese, as it has been by Alex Ferguson in the past. Furthermore, by pointing out he had not lost a game in all his time at Chelsea he arrogated their home ground, and resurrected the soul of his influence at the club.
For Chelsea, this is likely the last time this particular group of players will contest the Champions League together, it would be predictable and foolish to criticize the team, rather than the performance, too harshly – especially when they were once again denied several clear-cut penalties by an unsympathetic referee – but there are, nevertheless, issues with the long term viability of the present squad.
This Chelsea side was built upon defensive obduracy and midfield power. Many of their players, such as Ballack, Lampard, Mikel, and even the injured Essien to some extent, are midfield dynamo’s who rely on their workrate and power.
The problem is, they are all too similar to be playing that sort of football in a side together. Their midfield should be comprised of Lampard, one holding player (Mikel, or Essien when fit) and two genuine wingers.
Scintillating sides are built around attacking wing play, pace, and passing. Manchester United, Arsenal and Barcelona are built around technical players who can turn quickly and move quicker to receive the ball and shift it out wide; thereby stretching the play.
Ferguson had a point when he accused Chelsea of being old last year. It’s not that the players are too old to make a challenge of it, but moreover, they are too old to enact a philosophical and technical change to the way that they play their football. For Abramovich to get the attacking team and the Champions League trophy he craves, it is imperative that he rebuild his Chelsea side with pace, youth and width. Whether Ancelotti is capable of that kind of change will be interesting to see.
In the short term, Chelsea will have to focus on the league and FA Cup, but alongside the tactics employed by Inter Milan last night, English teams would do well to take note of their emotional combustibility which was again in evidence; that is the third time Didier Drogba has been sent off when Chelsea have been ejected from the Champions League, and John Terry was walking a tightrope by the end too. The message is clear: this team can be ruffled. Jose Mourinho knows that, better than anyone.