Chelsea manager Antonio Conte has embraced change this season, something from which Manchester United boss José Mourinho ought to learn.
Chelsea’s recent run of form is a dream for football analysts given how neatly it ties in with the club’s new formation of 3-4-3. The team appears more solid at the back, having amassed four league clean sheets in a row, and also pose a potent threat in front of goal.
Indeed, so successful has the transformation been that the untrained eye may lay blame with Chelsea boss Antonio Conte for insisting on what are now clearly inferior formations initially.
Points dropped while enforcing 4-2-3-1 and even 4-2-4 should never have been, but to apportion blame as such would be to miss the wider point.
Conte’s tactical flexibility and ability to match his current players to an optimal formation will be the underlying reasons for ultimate success should the club’s current form continue. In stark contrast, Conte’s counterpart at Old Trafford, Jose Mourinho, has displayed an inability to change which may prove detrimental.
Mourinho’s Premier League track record is now just eight wins in his last 26 matches. His Manchester United side are as many points away from the top of the table as they are from the relegation zone and their 4-0 thumping by Chelsea last weekend showcased all the dreariness and lethargy that we have come to expect from them this season.
But what is most remarkable is that while Mourinho’s level of success has certainly changed, his tactics both on and off the pitch have not.
Mourinho’s appalling treatment of club doctor Eva Carneiro at Chelsea, ostensibly in a bid to assert his dominance at Stamford Bridge, clearly did nothing of the sort. It left his relationship with the club frayed, his authority over the players diminished.
His casting aside of Bastien Schweinsteiger can be seen in a similar light. Just last week Mourinho ruled that the German international could not even play for the club’s reserves. Logical reasons for such a decision simply do not exist, and the argument that a World Cup and Champions League winner could add nothing to the dressing room of the first team is asinine.
Recent reports that Mourinho has ushered the midfielder back into first team training can be interpreted as both an admission of wrongdoing and also a small step in the right direction, although whether it will lead to first team football remains to be seen.
Mourinho’s transfer market activity provides further evidence of his insistence in sticking to his own well worn script. Forever a lover of burly centre forwards, Mourinho had clearly hoped that Zlatan Ibrahimovic would be able to do for Manchester United what Didier Drogba and Diego Costa (last season apart) did for Chelsea. But the Premier League has moved on.
Pace and guile are now rewarded where brawn and bombast were before and the statistics back this up. The current Premier League goalscoring chart is dominated by the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Jamie Vardy and much trimmer and more nimble Diego Costa. Zlatan has so far managed just half the goals Costa has banged in, and has found the net once in his last 10 appearances.
Other flagship signings now appear similarly inept, as Henrikh Mkhitaryan remains little more than a concerned on-looker and Paul Pogba is shoe-horned into a more defensive role than he would like, purely to suit Mourinho’s system. Such treatment of the world’s most expensive player has left him looking directionless in midfield and far from the flourishing all conqueror he embodied under Conte’s tutelage at Juventus.
By contrast, Conte’s pursuit of a new defender ran into several roadblocks as he was denied Juve’s Bonucci and Napoli’s Koulibaly, his persistence eventually bearing fruit in the shape of David Luiz.
The Brazilian’s signing was clearly a last resort, he is not the type of defender Conté would typically associate himself with, but the Italian has again showcased his tactical awareness to embed him into Chelsea’s starting XI.
Playing in the middle of Chelsea’s back three means his lack of pace is somewhat mitigated by the likes of Moses and Azpilicueta, but also affords him ample opportunity to showcase his long-passing ability to pick out Hazard and Co.
During Manchester United’s 0-0 draw with Burnley last weekend, Mourinho was banished from the touchline by referee Mark Clattenburg.
It is the 13th time in his career that he has met such a fate. A scarcely believable record although as explored above, change is not one of Mourinho’s fortés.