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Jack: Mourinho finds Chelsea's new "Fab (Fundamental) Five"

Kristian Jack, TSN.ca
1/19/2014 3:08:48 PM
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"This is not a team to win tomorrow, it's a team of kids, this is a team where the best years are to come, the best stage is not this one or the next one. More than 50 per cent of the team are aged 23 or below, this is a team to be built, which is what I have been asked to do, build, with the fantastic talent I have, a Chelsea team for the next decade." - Jose Mourinho, summer 2013.

Without a ball being kicked, Mourinho knew the size of the task at Stamford Bridge. When his team came up against Manchester United at the end of August at Old Trafford, he kept it tight, bringing a new resilience to the team to help them get a point. It was an examination of his players and one they had rarely been asked to do under Roberto Di Matteo and Rafael Benitez last season.

Almost five months later, in the return match against United at Stamford Bridge, Mourinho put his players through a different exam, one they passed again, thumping Manchester United 3-1.

This was not a game won on the training pitch, or at the blackboard tactically in the buildup; instead a deflection and two poor defensive errors handed the game to Chelsea. Mourinho had hoped something like that might have happened at Old Trafford. This time he'd hoped they might create a bit more, but he will certainly take the manner in which they won.

In the minds of many, the game officially ended United's title challenge but, realistically, this was secured two months earlier. Instead, this game showed us more of Chelsea - a win where they finally relied upon a striker to deliver the critical blows, as Samuel Eto'o scored a hat-trick inside 50 minutes, and a win where they easily defeated an arch-rival without being at the top of their game.

And it is that which will please the manager most. Strikers are paid a lot of money to score goals and often these become vital, isolated moments that have no reflection on the way the game was played.

When Eto'o's shot deflected off Michael Carrick and into the net on 17 minutes, it put an end to a period that United were in control of the match. Eto'o scored again and again, both times being left to easily poke home in the penalty box to secure a rare kind of victory for Chelsea. Don't get used to it.

Mourinho acknowledged this recently, saying: “We cannot just let the players hide behind the fact that we are not scoring enough goals and wait for that to happen. We cannot play for that. People need to change their brains a little bit more."

Sunday was the first time all season a Chelsea striker had scored more than once in a game. Last season? It happened just once in 38 games when Fernando Torres got a brace at Sunderland (and one of those was a penalty.)

Eto'o handed Chelsea the three points on Sunday, but with a settled back four and an average striker playing up top for Chelsea this season, their championship-calibre credentials will be determined by the five that connects them together. This is Mourinho's most important project.

The Fundamental Five

Mourinho knows that these five players dictate the way his team is playing. When they lose, like they did at Sunderland in the League Cup last month, it makes Mourinho question how these five play, as he said: "We may have to take a step back in order to be more consistent at the back. It's something I don't want to do, to play more counterattacking, but I'm giving it serious thought. If I want to win 1-0, I think I can, as I think it's one of the easiest things in football. It's not so difficult, as you don't give players the chance to express themselves."

If Mourinho is giving counterattacking more thought, it requires a more solid double pivot in central midfield, but when you ask him about this area, Mourinho would admit he isn't fully sold on the style, saying, as he also did last month, this time after a win: "We are not a very solid team, at the same time compared with last season, when this team played a big part of the season with David Luiz and [John Obi] Mikel in front of the four defenders, so at the end of the day they had five defenders plus Mikel, Ramires playing on the right side closing one side down and the team was playing with one striker and Juan Mata behind him, defending well and trying to counterattack, that's not the direction we want to go."

Mourinho will only tell you publicly what he wants you to know. In truth, if Chelsea are to become the powerhouse Mourinho wants, the team needs to be able to attack better and counter and that was shown on Sunday against United. Up 3-0, he brought on Mikel to play alongside Luiz and pushed Ramires on to the right to close down the threat of Adnan Januzaj, who had moved there when Javier Hernandez came on.

However, it is one thing to do this, up 3-0, but it is quite another to do it at 0-0. Yet, at 0-0 Chelsea still countered. And at Arsenal last month, a game that ended 0-0, they countered from deep positions on regular occasions. 

However, in that match never, was it more evident that the playmakers didn't trust Torres, as they often would break from deep positions and not want to give the ball to the Spaniard.

"It was like they were playing with 10 men," said Sky Sports analyst Gary Neville after the match and he was absolutely spot on.

Ramires has been a permanent fixture in central midfield and, despite often saying Luiz wasn't a central midfielder, the Brazilian was selected there again for Sunday's clash, just as he did last week at Hull and at home to Liverpool recently.

Luiz is clumsy on the ball and gives away needless fouls, but, unlike Frank Lampard, he gets the best out of his midfield partner because, positionally, he is ideal. He allows Ramires to use his speed and energy, getting forward to connect with the playmakers further forward, but is also useful in counterattacks because he can often ignite them with the first pass as he thinks like a centre back when his team is not in possession of the ball.

It is clear Mourinho wants to play a four-band system, which has been labeled 4-2-3-1, but is often really 4-3-2-1 with the central playmaker dropping deeper when not in possession, another reason why counterattacking can work for this team.

When asked about the three behind the striker, earlier this season, Mourinho said: "We have six players for these three positions and they will give me chances as a manager to change, match to match, depending on the opponent, the game plan. It is based on these three players how we create our football."

This has certainly been true. Five months after that comment, Kevin De Bruyne has been sold, Juan Mata and Andre Schurrle have sat on the bench a lot and Mourinho has found out who the three players he relies on most in those positions - Willian, Oscar and Eden Hazard - and, with whoever playing as a striker continuing to be inconsistent, these playmakers certainly dictate Chelsea's creativity.

Hazard is the 'fun' inside the fundamental five and has had a wonderful season, already scoring nine league goals. Of the three, he sticks to his position, on the left, more than most, but has the football intelligence to come central, to occupy the centre backs, when the striker comes deep, and even go right and attack from deep through the middle, as he did when he scored his wonderful individual goal against Liverpool.

Keeping the Belgian predominantly on the left appears to be the reason Mourinho prefers Cesar Azpilicueta over Ashley Cole at left back. Mourinho rarely encourages his full backs to get forward and having a more defensive-minded full back down the left negates Hazard's defensive issues, which were far too evident under both managers last season.

Finding these combinations all over the pitch is what is crucial in finding the perfect balance for Chelsea going forward. Oscar is much better at combining with Ramires than Juan Mata, for example, while Willian's workrate on the right has made him a perfect partner for Branislav Ivanovic.

It was fitting, after a win on January 1st, that Mourinho said: "We are right in it, we have a good team but we need a few important bodies for next season, and I will say in the summer we will get it, I would say the team evolves in this direction, I can predict in the next season we will be real important contenders."

For many, Chelsea are real important contenders this season, but what Mourinho means is that, by then, his team will play the way he wants them to. Nemanja Matic has arrived and 4-3-3 may well be in the future, but for that Chelsea needs a legitimate star striker and they need to continually show their manager that they are getting better when they immediately lose the ball.

Transitions are the theme for Chelsea to improve, but in this transitional time at the club, they might even be surprising the manager with just how well they are doing. The team not built for tomorrow is becoming the team to win today.

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