Chelsea have rarely combined both style and success in recent years, and it seems José Mourinho is set to sacrifice the former in search of the latter. With a difficult fixture list over the Christmas period, Mourinho has prepared the ground for a defensive-minded shift.
"We may have to take a step back in order to be more consistent at the back," the Portuguese manager said after Chelsea's surprise Capital One Cup exit at Sunderland on Tuesday evening. "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."
That harks back to Mourinho's first Chelsea side – he won the Premier League in 2004-05 with a functional but highly effective starting XI. The club won 1-0 on 11 occasions, and set Premier League records for the most clean sheets (25) and fewest goals conceded (15) on their way to an unprecedented final total of 95 points. The side featured no true playmaker, with Frank Lampard and Chelsea's wingers charging directly towards goal. It was results over aesthetics.
Mourinho insists that the quality of Chelsea's possession play this season has been excellent, and believes the problem is purely the lack of killer instinct up front. Having previously complained about his strikers not scoring enough, Mourinho is now concentrating on his side conceding fewer goals.
His comments are particularly intriguing considering Chelsea's next four opponents – Arsenal, Swansea, Liverpool and Southampton. All four play positive, possession-based football and attempt to control the game in the opposition half – Arsenal and Liverpool are the current top two, while Swansea and Southampton are the division's leaders in terms of average possession. It would be an appropriate time for Mourinho's side to become more reactive, soaking up pressure before pouncing on the counterattack.
While Mourinho has generally used a 4-2-3-1 system this season, his comments suggest a return to 4-3-3 could be imminent. That would allow an extra holding player at the expense of a playmaker, providing a solid, combative midfield triangle. Mourinho has played this way on occasion this season – in the 3-0 victory away at West Ham, Mikel John Obi sat behind Frank Lampard and Ramires, while Oscar drifted inside from the right.
However, this shape does not suit the composition of Chelsea's squad. Last week Mourinho ruled out playing David Luiz in midfield, which means only Mikel, Lampard, Ramires and Michael Essien are competing for the three central midfield slots – and Essien is suspended for Monday's trip to Arsenal, having collected a booking against Sunderland. It also means Mourinho's nine attackers – six attacking midfielders and a trio of strikers – would be competing for just three places.
Even if Mourinho is preparing his side for a change in approach, rather than a change in formation, he may encounter problems with Roman Abramovich. The Russian owner is known to favour an attack-minded style, although Chelsea's recent major successes – Mourinho's two titles and the Champions League and Europa League triumphs in the past two campaigns – have arrived following a much more cautious, reactive strategy.
Mourinho understands the importance of the Christmas fixtures in capturing the Premier League. In his two title-winning campaigns, Chelsea boasted 100% records over the festive period, whereas in his one failure, 2006-07, Chelsea failed to win their three post-Christmas contests.
Over the next four matches, we can expect constant tactical tweaks, heavy rotation in the final third and a more defensive Chelsea.