After Chelsea had lost at Sunderland in the League Cup, Jose Mourinho looked haunted. He twitched and shuffled on his feet and criticised his forwards for not scoring goals. But the real issue, he insisted, was the defence.
Matters had come to a head, he said: it was time to go back to basics. That was widely interpreted as meaning a shift away from the 4-2-3-1 he inherited from Rafa Benitez (and that he had used at Real Madrid) to the 4-3-3 he had employed in 2004/05, when he won the league in his first season at the club.
Sure enough, at Arsenal, the 4-3-3 was back, with Mikel John Obi holding and Frank Lampard to the left, just as it was toward the end of Mourinho’s first spell at the club, with Ramires taking the Michael Ballack/Michael Essien role to the right. The result was a classic grinding Mourinho performance and a 0-0 draw.
Afterward, Mourinho was notably relaxed, punchy and ironic as he is at his most charming, mocking Arsenal, celebrating the virtues of English football with a raised eyebrow, and promoting his own team. It was as though by slipping back into the old formation, all his cares had melted away.
The 4-2-3-1 was back at home to Swansea City, another scratchy, unimpressive home win that left Mourinho stressed again: “This team doesn’t let me relax,” he said afterward. “They’re killing me. Every game. They kill me. Every game, I’m tired at the end. I should have been relaxed in the technical area and on the bench.”
With that in mind, it seems likely that against Liverpool the 4-3-3 will be back again as Mourinho looks to counter a side whose youthful midfield has emerged from general scepticism to become a real strength; certainly no team has come as close to matching Manchester City as Brendan Rodgers’s side did on Boxing Day.
With a more functional midfield, the role of Eden Hazard becomes vital.
What has emerged recently is that, as Mourinho keeps rotating his vast stocks of attacking midfielders, the three he favours are Hazard, Willian and Oscar – who are far closer to the Mourinho template of the attacking midfielder than poor Juan Mata, who, having seemingly come back into favour, could be sidelined again by the reversion to 4-3-3.
While only Willian is particularly robust, all three are hard-working and perform their share of the defensive duties. It is not that Mata is lazy, just that he does not quite have the energy and directness of the other three.
Oscar has always played with discipline – after he had scored twice against Juventus in the 2-2 draw in the Uefa Champions League last season, Chelsea’s then-manager Robert Di Matteo hailed his performance in shutting down Andrea Pirlo as “tactically perfect”.
Hazard, though, arrived at Chelsea as a dilettante, and there is a certain irony to the fact that he was transformed into a Mourinho-type player by Benitez, a manager Mourinho has always scorned. The 22 year old insists there is more to come as he seeks the reliability Mourinho seeks form him.
“I’m hoping to improve my work-rate, work really hard on that and get more consistency,” he said. “He’s a manager that demands a lot both in defence and in attack.”
Hazard’s winner against Swansea was his seventh goal this season, to go with four assists, while his average of 2.6 key passes per game (according to Whoscored.com) is the sixth highest in the league this season.
His performance in the 4-3 win at Sunderland was arguably as good as anybody has produced in the Premier League this season. Just as significant for Mourinho, though, is probably that he is averaging 1.5 tackles and interceptions per game as well.