Chelsea fans need to stop treating “defense” as a curse word, even if it is applied to the Blues by Jose Mourinho.
Chelsea fans struggle to put Jose Mourinho in perspective. One minute he is the most successful manager in the club’s history. The next he is the man under whose stewardship Chelsea had the most wretched season of the past decade.
He has charmed the fans with his witty comments, yet his caustic reaction to adversity left a bitter taste in their mouths. So when he says anything about the club, the fans have a hard time taking it for what it is.
His recent comments have raised a fresh wave of outrage. How dare he say that Chelsea defend well? How dare he – of all people! – accuse Chelsea of defending a lot?
Guess what. He is right on both accounts.
Chelsea’s pattern the last six games has been to protect one-goal leads. The Chelsea attack has struggled to show the fluency which peaked in the 5-0 win against Everton. Branislav Ivanovic has come on in the last 10-20 minutes in four of the last six games to help see the game through.
There is absolutely no shame in it. Chelsea have always been more than happy to take a tough, hard-fought 1-0 win.
In the recent weeks, fans of Chelsea and English football have taken an inordinate amount of joy in City’s inability to defend. The critics have called his approach naive – suicidal even.
All of this is very reminiscent of the annual Arsene Wenger bashing that occurs when Arsenal collapses. However, there is an element of hypocrisy in not appreciating the fact that Antonio Conte is unapologetically a defense-first manager.
In recent years, the word “defense” has become taboo and is associated with negative football. So naturally when a manager is called “defense-first,” it is taken as a slight. It should not be.
Putting defense first is a time honored tactic in football, one which has won many titles. The maxim in football is: attack wins you games but defense wins you titles. No manager worth his salt, not even Pep Guardiola, would deny that a good defense is of paramount importance.
Of course, how you defend is another matter and beside the point. A manager could set his team up to defend deep and deny space. He could ask his team to suffocate the opposition with high pressing and deny them the ball. Or he could throw together everything between those two extremes.
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Possession football in and of itself is a defensive tactic. Pep would be the first person to admit that.
“Defending” is widely misused and is not the swear word it is coming to be regarded as. The remarkable thing about defending is that it can be coached.
Defending, more so than attacking, is a team effort. The very best teams have defended as a unit. Chelsea this season defend as a unit, and they are rather good at it. In the past 11 games, Chelsea have conceded just two goals. They have been the most defensively secure team in the league and ship the least amount of shots on target.
In their remarkable run of 11 wins, four of them have been 1-0 wins. Chelsea have won five of the last six games by one goal. In a league where teams at the top of the table have been shipping four goals in recent weeks, being able to rely on your defense to see through slender margins to victories is a valuable asset.
Jose Mourinho has rightly pointed that out. More so, he is right in saying that this is why Chelsea are the most dangerous team in the league.
Chelsea fans must take it for the compliment that it is. If the tone seems one of grudging respect, coming from a direct rival, it is a compliment of the highest form.
Teams have looked at Chelsea with envy as they’ve managed to win games by being both dazzling in attack and resilient in defense. If on some days the attacking players fail to come up with the goods, the Chelsea’s defensive reliability ensures that they can get at least a point from a game not zero.
There is great comfort in that and for a manager that hates losing as much as Conte. Indeed, it is the most important facet of the team.