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Apr 29, 2014

Nuances of Mourinho's tactics save him from 'hypocrite' tag

In one sense, Jose Mourinho is football’s greatest hypocrite. He introduced the term "parking the bus" into English football nearly a decade ago, as part of a complaint about Tottenham’s defensive tactics. He’s now regarded as the ultimate exponent of that approach, best epitomised by his Inter Milan side’s all-out-defence approach at the Camp Nou in 2010, but also obvious throughout his career.

He also complained about West Ham playing "19th century football" when they dared to defend deep at Stamford Bridge -- again, despite the fact he has prescribed the same thing in contests against Atletico Madrid and Liverpool. This particular criticism is, in truth, factually inaccurate anyway -- in the 19th century the dominant formation was the pyramid, 2-3-5, and the concept of keeping multiple players behind the ball is a distinctly modern invention.

In another way, though, Mourinho is consistent with his beliefs. He dislikes playing against parked buses because he knows there’s no obvious solution, and as someone who prioritises winning over style, he logically utilises this system when required. His complaints are nothing more than his usual wind-ups (to describe them as "mind games" gives him too much credit) and born out of frustration at the opposition stifling his team’s play.

It’s arguable that Chelsea’s past couple of months have done more to encourage the use of "parking the bus" than any team in recent footballing history, for Mourinho’s side have shown the value of bus-parking in both a positive and a negative sense, from their perspective. It’s hardly a novel concept for Chelsea to defend deep on the edge of their own box and repel any attacks. The difference with this Chelsea team, however, is that they struggle against deep defences themselves.

Should Mourinho fail to win the league -- which seems likely at the moment -- it will be because Chelsea failed to break down deep defences like Aston Villa, Sunderland and Crystal Palace, dropping nine points from contests against bottom-half sides, despite dominating. Chelsea depend on counter-attacking football, and without a reliable penalty-box poacher, or indeed a naturally incisive midfield playmaker, they’ve come up short. Parking the bus blunts counter-attacking as well as tiki-taka.

Watch Chelsea over the past month and the message is clear. They excel defensively when parking the bus. They struggle going forward when the opposition parks the bus. Why play another way?

What has been confused recently, however, is the difference between parking the bus and playing on the break. The two can be combined, certainly, but playing one style isn’t necessarily the same as playing the other.

Chelsea have done both. For example, their 1-0 victory at Manchester City in February was one of the most controlled counter-attacking performances of the Premier League season, even if it lacked the sheer brutality of some of Liverpool’s fine victories. Chelsea defended deep, certainly, but they broke forward with multiple players -- Samuel Eto’o darted into the channels, Eden Hazard’s acceleration was terrifying, Willian’s sprinting a constant menace, Ramires’ energy exhausting just to watch and Branislav Ivanovic constantly attacked from right-back, too, eventually scoring the game’s only goal. Just because Chelsea counter-attacked at the Etihad, though, it doesn’t mean all their defensive performances have been counter-attacking displays. In the 2-0 victory over Liverpool at the weekend there was probably an intention to break quickly, but they played poor initial passes out of defence, and some of Demba Ba’s lay-offs were poor. There was only a significant threat on the counter once Chelsea went 1-0 up, and Liverpool needed to advance more -- and when Willian was introduced. For long periods, though, it’s difficult to say it was a counter-attacking display when there weren’t any counter-attacks to speak of. It was, quite simply, a defensive showing.

Equally, a side can counter-attack without necessarily defending deep. Chelsea’s 6-0 victory over Arsenal saw Mourinho instruct his players to press powerfully when Arsene Wenger’s side played the ball into midfield, before immediately knocking the ball in behind the defence for Eto’o and Andre Schuerrle to run onto.

In Mourinho’s first spell in charge of Chelsea, Joe Cole astutely observed that counter-attacking doesn’t necessarily mean sitting deep. “You can counter-attack by winning the ball in midfield, too,” he said. The key is about breaking into space, and because Arsenal leave space at the back when building up play in midfield, Chelsea could counter-attack without defending on the edge of their own box -- Olivier Giroud’s lack of pace contributed to their freedom to push up.

The disappointing thing about Chelsea’s first leg against Atletico is that both sides are, on their day, excellent at pressing in midfield and breaking quickly in spectacular fashion. Atletico are capable of packing their own box, but are much better when springing into life higher up the pitch, using the ball quickly and attacking directly. This type of contest between the two sides would be fascinating, but presumably only an early goal in the second leg would allow this.

Stylistically, football moves in cycles, often based upon fashion rather than logic. The obsession with possession was inspired primarily by Spain and Barcelona’s triumphs in 2008 and 2009, just as Porto and Greece’s successes in 2004 prompted negative football.

If Atletico wrap up La Liga, Chelsea triumph in the European Cup and the World Cup is won by an outsider playing reactive football (perhaps Uruguay), there will be another shift. Next season, we could see multiple sides playing counter-attacking football. Or, because replication of a strategy used by superior sides often forgets to copy their best attacking moves, more teams will simply park the bus.