Regardless of what he does or doesn’t achieve at Tottenham Hotspur, Jose Mourinho will forever be enshrined as an icon at a different London club: Chelsea. From 2004 to 2006, Mourinho shattered the hegemony of Arsenal and Manchester United, catapulting the Blues to the highest echelons of the English game, and forever altered the tactical landscape of English football.
Free of the dogmatic English obsession with the 4-4-2, Mourinho’s deployment of the 4-3-3 which brought him a Champions League title with Porto caused havoc for opposition teams. There are obvious advantages from having three central midfielders against sides who only have two, but these were amplified by the quality of Chelsea’s individual players and Mourinho’s ability to alter his tactics based on the opposition.
At the base of the midfield was Claude Makelele, who by virtue of his supreme positional awareness, ball-winning, mobility, strength, passing, and ball-carrying, redefined the defensive midfield role in English and European football. Tasked with screening the back four and progressing possession from deep, Makelele shone and was vital to allowing Chelsea to make the most of the space afforded by their numerical superiority in midfield.
With the dynamic Tiago or Geremi alongside him, Frank Lampard was unleashed as a creative and late-arriving goal-threat, hitting new heights under Mourinho and establishing himself as one of the league’s best midfielders.
The structure of the formation, the quality of the midfield trio, and the ability of striker Didier Droga to occupy two central-defenders at once meant that Chelsea were always able to create space in dangerous areas and allow the attacking talents of Lampard, Drogba, Joe Cole, Damien Duff, and Arjen Robben to flourish.
Mourinho also continued the emerging modern trend of attack-minded fullbacks, with William Gallas and Paulo Ferreira providing the width, the likes of Robben, Duff, and Cole were able to cut inside and interchange positions, an unconventional function for wide players at the time.
Yet where Mourinho made his greatest impression on Chelsea tactically was in defence. They kept 25 clean sheets and conceded just 15 goals, breaking Premier League records that remain unbroken to this day.
Mourinho requires defenders with superb concentration and discipline, perhaps more so than other coaches due to his predilection for ceding possession in order to maintain a solid defensive structure and maximize counter-attacking opportunities. As such, it is no surprise that Mourinho purchased two defenders who were part of his Porto side in Ferreira and centre-back Ricardo Carvalho, who was also a useful instigator of attacks in transition with his impressive passing range.
With Makelele, Carvalho, John Terry, and Petr Cech forming the defensive spine of the team, Chelsea boasted players with the necessary technical, tactical, physical, and mental qualities to fit within Mourinho’s defensive system.
Another feature of Mourinho’s approach was his ability to alter his tactical setup based on the opposition. As Michael Cox has noted, he would frequently use Eidur Gudjohnsen, nominally a striker, in midfield alongside Frank Lampard to give Chelsea something of a 4-1-4-1 shape in games where they needed greater attacking impetus.
It’s the sort of decision that belies Mourinho’s reputation of being ideologically committed to defensive tactics. While this may be applicable to him now, in his first spell at Chelsea Mourinho was a true pragmatist who would do anything to win, be it reactive or proactive.
Yet for all his tactical ingenuity, it was Mourinho’s personality that made his Chelsea side tick. His ability to develop a siege mentality, one in which the team was a cohesive unit who faced a slew of outside opposition, was vital to inculcating the necessary mentality and morale needed for the team to be Champions. It’s perhaps the biggest deficiency in Mourinho’s current man-management and one that he certainly possessed and used to great effect when he won two Premier Leagues at Stamford Bridge.
Tactically innovative, built on a core of excellent players, and led by a dynamic and intelligent coach, the Chelsea sides of 2004/05 and 2005/06 will forever be revered as one of the best teams in Premier League history.