Ever the astute tactician this pre-season we’ve seen Jose Mourinho primarily experiment with two formation templates, last season’s largely successful 4-2-3-1 and, the old favourite, 4-3-3. So we have two systems and two different approaches, nothing to get too excited about there right? Crucially, I think it presents two ways of potentially setting out the same eleven players. This could be a trump card up the Chelsea coach’s sleeve for the season ahead.
In the 2012/13 season we stuck quite rigidly to the same system, a tried and trusted back four, a midfield base of two and a creative three tucked in behind the lone striker. In Di Matteo’s side the midfielders were more gung-ho, the creative line more fluid. Under Benitez the shape was tightened up, the discipline more enforced and it made us more difficult to counter on the break. Under both coaches substitutions were nine times out of time a like-for-like replacement, often no matter the game scenario. There was little whole-scale tactical adjustment during the ninety minutes. We know from his previous spell at the Bridge this is not how Mourinho prefers it, if he needs to change things to grab a victory, he’ll do it.
I think the choice of which formation to kick-off with may well depend on the opposition in some cases. For example a forward three is more likely to offer the width that can stretch a defence, the midfield base of two offers more security in a tricky away game etc. Each system has it’s own merits and weaknesses and perhaps the coach will look to cut the cloth accordingly. The interesting part is that, given the personnel at his disposal, Mourinho could quite easily switch between these systems during ninety minutes. The back four forms a consistent defensive base that offers stability. Ahead of that things get interesting. Key players such as Oscar, Mata, Hazard and De Bruyne have the flexibility to be comfortable in a number of positions. They could be an offensive player in a midfield three, a playmaking number ten behind the forward or a winger on the touchline. Depending on the match scenario these positions could be very fluid.
I think given time we’ll see Mourinho get the best from both Di Matteo and Benitez’s approaches – striking the right balance between fluid attacking play, defensive security and tactical unpredictability that should turn some of those pesky draws into three points.