Jose Mourinho leads defensive rebirth

Three of the UCL semifinalists turned in defensive showings last week, while Chelsea repeated the trick in its win versus Liverpool. Does this signal a new dawn of pragmatism?
When Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona clinched a second Champions League win in three seasons with an exhibition of passing soccer against Manchester United in 2011, fans and pundits far and wide took the opportunity to speculate whether the Blaugrana were the greatest club team of all time.

Wind forward three years and Chelsea is aiming to emulate the feat. Except, the Blues are hoping to do so with a brand of functional, pragmatic soccer that relies heavily on defense. It is not the type of play that will have people rushing to proclaim Jose Mourinho’s side to be the best team ever.

In truth, it is not the only club to be relying on such a style right now. Chelsea’s semifinal first leg fixture against Atletico Madrid was notable for both sides’ ambivalence to possession. Two teams intent on winning with counterattacking soccer ended up canceling each other out completely.

We should all have expected as much, though. Atletico has reached the top of La Liga at this late stage of the season thanks largely to an excellent counterattacking game. Captain Gabi even joked to reporters before the first leg that “if Chelsea give us the ball, we’ll instantly give it back to them.”

When Real Madrid beat Bayern Munich 24 hours later, it did so despite having "enjoyed" only 28 percent of possession. Guardiola’s attempts to turn Bayern into his old Barca, with sparkling soccer its modus operandi, had met a defensive obstacle it just could not negotiate.

If Chelsea give us the ball, we'll instantly give it back to them
- Atletico Madrid captain Gabi

Bayern’s players later spoke as though they had won 5-0. Philipp Lahm proclaimed: “I don’t remember a Bayern side coming here and dominating like that.” Arjen Robben added: “I have to give a big compliment to the team. We played at the Bernabeu and we were so in control.”

Yet it was Madrid that had the three best chances of the game, and took one of them. It is Madrid that is within 90 goalless minutes of the Champions League final. And it is Madrid that proved to be an excellent proponent of the new fine art.

Chelsea drew great consternation once more Sunday. Its 2-0 victory at Liverpool moved it right back into the Premier League title race, but the way in which it was achieved was again used as a stick with which to beat the club.

Liverpool v Chelsea

Possession 26.96%
Total passes 226
Successful passes 153
Passes in opposition half 153
Successful passes in opposition half 98
*stats from Opta

While Mourinho revelled in what he called a “beautiful victory,” opposite number Brendan Rodgers made the assessment that Chelsea had “parked two buses, rather than one.” He added: “From the first minute they had 10 men behind the ball. We were the team trying to win but we just couldn’t make the breakthrough.”

It seemed an unusual reaction to claim that Liverpool was the only team trying to win a game when Chelsea had picked up the three points. The Blues had its smallest share of possession in any Premier League game all season, but with that 27 percent it carried out its game plan to perfection.

Liverpool had completed 353 passes in Chelsea’s half, whereas the visitors had only attempted 226 total during the whole game. But what did that matter? Mourinho’s plan had not been to win more of the ball, rather to win the game.

He knew that the league leaders had scored a large number of goals through transition plays this season, and sought to narrow their opportunities to do so again. He realized that Liverpool’s aerial presence in open play is negligible and forced the Reds into delivering from wider positions. What coach wouldn’t want to neuter an opponent’s threat?

And with three of the Champions League semifinalists set to deliver such structured and opportunistic tactics this week, soccer across Europe is currently going through one of its most pragmatic phases in decades.

In 2011, attacking soccer was king. But it 2014, defenses are on top.

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