José Mourinho, in his first period as Chelsea manager, prompted a mini-tactical revolution in the Premier League with his solid, structured midfield triangle. With Claude Makelele sitting in front of the defence and barely venturing forward, opponents struggled to win the midfield battle. "If I have a triangle in midfield, Makelele behind and two others just in front, I will always have an advantage against a pure 4-4-2," Mourinho said at the time. "It starts with Makelele."
The Frenchman has long since departed but Mourinho has not attempted to purchase a player in that mould. Instead his new Chelsea will be considerably more flexible and mobile in central midfield, underlined by the roles of Ramires and Frank Lampard in the efficient 2-0 victory over Hull City.
The two are naturally energetic players – Lampard grew into a tremendous goalscoring midfielder under Mourinho, breaking forward from the left of the triangle, while Ramires has greater stamina and tremendous acceleration that allows him to burst into attack unannounced.
Both central midfielders were allowed to venture forward, alternating their positions and providing Hull's midfield with an unpredictable threat. Such a format is increasingly common in modern football but it is rare that Mourinho has allowed such flexibility. Even when he has used a deep-lying playmaker rather than a pure holder, like Xabi Alonso at Real Madrid, that player rarely moved forward in advance of his midfield colleague.
Early in the second half one isolated incident summed it up. Chelsea won the ball inside the opposition half and Lampard nearly found Ramires breaking through on goal with a lofted pass. The ball was overhit and ran out of play but for a Mourinho side this was a particularly unusual situation: not only were the central midfielders positioned higher than the three attacking midfielders, they had also swapped sides – Ramires was to the left, Lampard to the right.
That flexibility is particularly promising given the identity of Chelsea's central attacking playmaker. Oscar is enormously skilful and creative on the ball but is also extremely intelligent in a positional sense, tactically disciplined and hard working. Many gifted playmakers concentrate entirely on receiving possession personally but Oscar's clever off-the-ball movement, often making runs to wider positions or into deeper zones, creates space for others in dangerous positions.
Here, with Robert Koren and Robbie Brady pressuring Lampard and Ramires, Oscar dragged David Meyler into different positions, leaving Hull's back four unprotected and encouraging Chelsea's midfielders forward. Another beneficiary of Oscar's selfless movement was the debutant Kevin De Bruyne. Starting high on the right, he thrived in the space between the lines and they looked promising even before they combined for the 13th-minute opener.
In terms of the result, this was reminiscent of Mourinho's first era – they went into a comfortable early lead, before shutting down the game and creating a rather barren contest. Stylistically, however, their attacking approach was entirely different.