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Jan 2, 2007

Mourinho on the defensive

'We can't defend.' Jose Mourinho's candid admission was one of the few things that it was hard to contemplate the vocal Portuguese saying. It was succinct, analytical and utterly brutal, an acknowledgement of fallibility that laid bare Chelsea's recent failings.

It was also the latest in a sequence of gambles. Risk-taking may provide a surge of adrenalin for the manager with the resources to have anything, but it has been an increasing feature of Chelsea's latest games. Witness an eclectic assortment of substitutions, resulting in some particularly novel tactical formations. Now he is betting on a harsh truth proving a catalyst for revival when it could cause a crisis of confidence.

While it has never been easy to portray Mourinho as one-dimensional, more facets to his managerial personality are emerging in his third season in England. For two years, we had become accustomed to his control freakery, reflected by a team who were reluctant to allow their opponents the merest sniff of a goal. Defensive records were theirs and teams as parsimonious as Chelsea were a rarity.

Perhaps that was too easy. Luxuriating in previously unheard-of wealth, with a seemingly endless supply of internationals, Mourinho's gambling instincts came to the fore. A pared-down squad may have meant less frustrated footballers, but it also brought greater ingenuity from Mourinho, whose willingness to envisage players in novel positions has intrigued.

Hence Michael Essien as a right- and even a centre-back, Paulo Ferreira in the middle of the defence, two left-backs in harness and Claude Makelele withdrawn into an even deeper role in front of a solitary central defender.

Although a midfielder, Essien, has proved the most effective of Chelsea's four right-sided defenders this season, the cumulative effect has been to show that William Gallas was irreplaceable. Mourinho's most adaptable defender was so accomplished in three positions that adjectives like 'makeshift' hardly had to be applied to his team selection.

How times have changed. Chelsea paid £5 million, as well as providing Gallas in part-exchange, to acquire Ashley Cole, but what value would they attach to him now? Yielding eight goals in four games would concern any team; for one that completed a season conceding only 15 as recently as 2005, it represents a catastrophic decline in defending.

Mourinho's references to the absent pair of John Terry and Petr Cech as the world's best centre-half and goalkeeper respectively can be disputed, but their importance to the Chelsea cause cannot. Dominance was the most important quality they provided. Both, in their different ways, are capable of commanding a penalty box- with aerial ability ranking high among any list of Terry's attributes.

Until he was enveloped in the ensuing chaos against Fulham, Ricardo Carvalho was in wonderful form, but his was a one-man rescue bid. It was little wonder Mourinho had headed straight to his compatriot to congratulate him at the final whistle of recent games; although his accomplices in the Chelsea rearguard have been found consistently wanting.

Henrique Hilario lacks Cech's presence and, typified by Mathieu Flamini's goal for Arsenal, his shot-stopping ability. Not that this should surprise: the little known Tom Heaton and David Martin are Manchester United and Liverpool's third-choice keepers respectively and little would be expected of them.

Khalid Boulahrouz, however, is a £7 million defender, recruited after a World Cup where his no-holds-barred approach suggested he would be well suited to the Premiership and an excellent understudy to Terry. Even though his positional weakness at right-back was exposed, it was presumed he would be more comfortable in the centre of defence.

Not so. Instead, like Philippe Senderos, another imported defender with an imposing physique, he has struggled with the raw physicality of opposing strikers. First Everton's Victor Anichebe and then Wigan's Emile Heskey unsettled him, the latter scoring twice, though Chelsea ultimately won both games 3-2.

Boulahrouz was banned against Fulham, but his omission from the 16 to face Reading in the first of Chelsea's back-to-back 2-2 draws was telling. Ferreira deputised and, from possessing four fine central defenders (Robert Huth was sold along with Gallas), Chelsea are reduced to one who is both reliable and fit.

And even Carvalho erred in Chelsea's nadir, against Fulham. Carlos Bocanegra's late equaliser was preceded by a trio of usually dependable players - Essien, Didier Drogba and Michael Ballack - all finding different ways to fail to clear an innocuous cross.

Were he not indispensable in attack, Mourinho admits, Drogba would have been considered as an auxiliary centre back. Chelsea's attacking deficiencies are another consequence of their dealings and it amounts to evidence of complacency in their summer sales. The concept of a 20-man squad is proving unworkable, especially when several - Andriy Shevchenko, Salomon Kalou, Shaun Wright-Phillips and, in all probability, Boulahrouz and Mikel John Obi - are failing to meet the standards set.

The one consolation is that a critical situation has come when Chelsea have an opportunity to remedy it. They could be forgiven for lamenting Fabio Cannavaro's decision to join Real Madrid in the summer, but now there is an opportunity to recruit defensive reinforcements

As an available central defender, Matthew Upson's name has been mooted. A more longstanding interest in Manchester City's Micah Richards could prompt a bid, especially with the possible carrot of Wright-Phillips in part-exchange. The teenager would add to Chelsea's roster of right-backs and, while the suspicion is that he will eventually settle in the centre of defence, his sense of adventure and occasional naivety mean his best place now is on the flank.

Alternatively, requiring a goalkeeper, a centre-back and a right-back, Chelsea might just need three Phil Jagielkas. More seriously, there is a suggestion Terry may parachute himself back into the fray against Wigan on January 13. It would be a welcome return: where once there was an automatic assumption that they would keep a clean sheet, there is a regularity about Chelsea conceding twice.

And their manager himself is tiring of trying to conjure something from the bench. The time for gambling is over, and ruthlessness is required. The under-performing should quiver at his searingly honest interviews on Saturday because there is an element of the charismatic dictator about Mourinho. Having lost control at the back, his task is to restore order where there was panic. Whether or not he does will determine the outcome of Chelsea's season.


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