José Mourinho's teams are some goddamn cockroaches, man. Just when you think you've got them squashed, their viscous innards seeping from their corrugated underbelly—as PSG could've justifiably believed, leading Chelsea 3-1 after the first leg of their Champions League tie—they somehow keep right on crawling and end up ruining your meal anyway.
All of this is intended as praise of a sort for Chelsea's 2-0 home escape act, which saw them through to the next Champions League round on away goals. It was a slight variation on the typical Mourinho modus operandi, both on the pitch and in the larger narratives that surround the Special One. Just when you think his teams are dead—right when it looks like the Mourinho mythology has finally been exposed as little more than defense plus superstars equals titles—he goes and pulls off one of those victories that validates his standing as one of the best managers of all time.
Per usual yesterday, Chelsea were solid defensively and looked to counter on the break, though the need to score at least twice spurred them to attack with a little more abandon than normal against fellow big teams. Mourinho has taken up his predecessor Rafa Benitez's penchant for playing David Luiz in defensive midfield against strong sides, and on some days—like yesterday—Luiz makes that tactic look ingenious. He was the most influential player on the pitch, attempting a match-high 58 passes while also completing the most tackles of anyone on the field.
A player who has defensive steel coupled with attacking ability is exactly what a Mourinho team needs to thrive, and that's part of what makes him such an outlier among world-class managers. Most of the greats, like Johan Cruyff, Alex Ferguson, and Pep Guardiola, are revered for their insistence on playing attractive, attacking soccer. Mourinho's emphasis on the defensive end is singular. Offensively, Mourinho prefers to quickly break on the counter, not out of an ideological faith in counterattacking itself—against lesser teams Mourinho's expensive, impossibly deep squads can boss the game offensively—but rather because it is a natural complement to how he wants to defend. Like the Miami Heat, the offense is where his world-class players get to play; defense is where they must work.
But even his defensive ideology isn't the crux of Mourinho's belief system. The only thing Mourinho believes in is winning. That sounds obvious, but it's really not. For him, defense is the best way to ensure results. If you don't concede a goal, you're always one score away from victory. It's the distinction Johan Cruyff picked up on when he bashed Mourinho in an interview ahead of this Champions League second leg:
[Mourinho] lost the dressing room at Real Madrid and it's possible the same thing is going to happen at Chelsea. The problem is simply that Mourinho always focuses squarely on the result. Everything else is secondary, even all the top players he has running around for him.
That's the fundamental tension in Mourinho's career: Is he so exalted because he really knows how to win, or does he win because he's gone to places with the best players? And can his style last when, come credit-divvying time, he will usually praise his own genius instead of those world-class players?
Since you can't easily point to one aspect of Mourinho teams that make them inimitably his—besides their propensity to win, which borders on tautology—he is uniquely susceptible to these criticisms. Even when Guardiola's teams lost, that they always went down tiki-taka-or-bust, an almost noble sacrifice to the manager's chosen religion. When the same United team that coasted to the title last season under Ferguson struggles so mightily the year he retires, we imagine all kinds of magic tricks the Scottish wizard must have been using to hide the limits of his squad. When Mourinho loses, you start to wonder whether there actually is anything deeper to the man than results.
But right before that criticism really starts to hit home with Mourinho, he turns around and starts winning again. After a successful-to-everyone-but-the-insatiable-Roman-Abramovich run with Chelsea the first go-round, doubts crept up as to whether his shock Champions League win with Porto really was a fluke. In response, Mourinho moved to Inter and reeled off Serie A's first treble, winning the league, the Italian Cup, and the Champions League. At Madrid, when it looked like Mourinho would never overcome the Best, Most Beautifulest Soccer Team Of All Time, he won La Liga with the highest-ever point total.
When Chelsea started this season shakily, and Mourinho made it clear to everyone that he didn't rate their two-time player of the year Juan Mata, the whispers about his management began anew. Then Chelsea took advantage of a couple Man City and Arsenal slip-ups to sit atop the league for much of the latter half of the season, bolstering his credentials almost as soon as they were questioned.
Then, Chelsea dropped a few points erroneously, giving City and Liverpool control over their Premier League title chances. Couple that with the 3-1 loss to PSG, and the familiar questions started emerging yet again. After looking like solid Premier League favorites with a shot in Europe, Chelsea were no longer favorites to win any kind of silverware, the only true standard for Mourinho.
Just when that narrative started to grow, Mourinho came up trumps again. This most recent reversal should put to bed any concerns for this season. True, Chelsea will probably go without a trophy, a fate Mourinho has never suffered in a full season as manager. But the reinforcements he has already brought in (Nemanja Matic, Willian, André Schürrle), plus the new striker he will inevitably be gifted this summer should produce an even stronger title challenge next season. Plus, a final four UCL appearance is never something to scoff at. Who knows, they might win that, too.
At any rate, Mourinho continues to justify his position among the all-time greats. He may not be a tactical purist in the mold of Guardiola, but whenever you doubt his effectiveness, he can always point to the trophies, both of the past and the future.
Image via AP