Chelsea 0-1 Inter – a classic Mourinho victory, but no blame attached to Ancelotti

March 16, 2010

This is what Jose Mourinho does. Not the prettiest victory you’ll see in this season’s Champions League, but incredibly effective. Inter reduced the game to a scrappy, stop-start battle, defended brilliantly from the front, and then pounced when Chelsea started to push forward.

Mourinho’s tactics were essentially his standard ‘plan B’ he switched to in the first leg – a 4-3-3 (or perhaps a 4-2-1-3) that involves two forward players in wide roles, which had the effect of keeping Chelsea’s full-backs in defensive positions (whereas Mourinho’s favoured narrow 4-3-1-2 would have allowed Ivanovic and Zhirkov time on the ball).

Ancelotti went for a 4-3-3 rather than a diamond from the outset, with Anelka and Malouda wide, and Mikel in the holding role.

This site has often discussed the concept of ‘free’ players in midfield, attack or even at full-back. Whilst football has largely moved away from the classic system of man-marking in open play, it largely remains a game where you can identify key battles on the pitch. The most exciting, open football games often come where one side has a spare player in an offensive area of the pitch, or in the centre of midfield. This game featured no such players. Mourinho’s system was designed completely to make sure that every Chelsea player was ‘occupied’. The use of two holding midfielders with one player ahead of them meant that Cambiasso and Motta were directly up against Ballack and Lampard, whilst Sneijder was in a position to worry Mikel. The two high wingers did the same against the Chelsea full-backs.

This meant that the only ‘free’ player on either side was a centre-back. And given that none of Terry, Alex, Lucio or Samuel are particularly proficient passers of the ball, there was little creativity from either side.

But this was probably what both managers wanted in the first-half, which led to the fairly dull spectacle in the opening 45 minutes. Mourinho would have been delighted with a 0-0, whilst Ancelotti generally looks to keep things tight early on in games he needs to win, making sure his team don’t concede a goal in the first half, before making offensive changes in the second. This was a hallmark of his successful European forays with Milan, and it seems to be his approach with Chelsea too, based upon tonight’s game.

Ancelotti probably played this one right, in that respect. The obvious change to make for the second half was to change from a 4-3-3 to a diamond – getting Anelka further forward (he rarely seems comfortable in the outside-right position) and shifting Malouda into a midfield diamond to try and create an extra man in that area, at the risk of allowing Maicon and Zanetti further forward.

He did this, but Chelsea still remained unable to create many chances. To stay in this competition, Chelsea had to score a goal, and they rarely looked like doing that. Ancelotti’s tactics are hard to fault, and yet Chelsea’s only goal in 180 minutes came from a weak shot that was fumbled in by Julio Cesar in the first leg. The questions should be asked of the Chelsea players tonight, who were up against a defensively brilliant side, but one that can be exposed against pace and trickery. What did Anelka contribute? Where were Lampard’s incisive passes? Does Michael Ballack ever do anything good in an attacking zone for Chelsea? A coach can organise and instruct his XI, but in the attacking third a side relies on some level of creativity from the flair players. There was very little in that respect from Chelsea’s front five tonight, and over the two legs they deserved to be beaten.

A Mourinho masterclass? Perhaps, but you could have read the tactics from a mile off. His switch to 4-3-3 in the first leg indicated exactly how he thought it best to combat the threat from Chelsea, and he did exactly the same thing tonight. Indeed, it was a similar tactic to the one Sir Alex Ferguson favours in big games, as he showed against Milan last week. One benefit of this shape was that it meant Wesley Sneijder plays deeper than he does in a 4-3-1-2, and he saw a lot of the ball in the centre of midfield, constantly hitting sublime passes to the wingers – and it was no surprise that this is where the goal came from. Sneijder is a dream of a footballer and crucial to the way Inter play in either shape; he was the difference between the sides tonight in a game of little creativity – had he been on the Chelsea side, the scoreline could have been the other way around. Sneijder performed for Inter – Lampard and Ballack were anonymous for Chelsea.

The only surprising thing was that Mourinho didn’t look to play Samuel Eto’o more centrally, considering the fact that Chelsea were playing an astonishingly high defensive line, and their centre-backs have been exposed recently against pacey players (see Carlos Tevez and Craig Bellamy’s goals in Chelsea’s previous defeat), but Eto’o pace eventually did lead to a goal anyway, when he moved to the left. Otherwise, Mourinho played it by the book, down to small details late on – the more defensively-aware Stankovic came on for Pandev when Chelsea put Malouda to left-back; Materazzi came on as a third centre-back in the final moments to assist when Alex was pushed forward into a makeshift forward role.

A good victory for Mourinho, and probably a good one for the tournament. Europe is still yet to see the best of this Inter side, but tonight was a step in the right direction.

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