But after a hard-fought 1-0 win even without Matic in the side, Jose Mourinho had a bit of a grin on his face during the post-match press conference at Upton Park as he told the story of a ‘twist’ of fate at Wembley which ultimately rendered the controversy surrounding the Serbian’s suspension moot:
“Matic is injured and he got an injury celebrating the cup,” Mourinho explained. “I'm not kidding. It's not a big injury, but he couldn't have played against West Ham. He twisted his ankle. If he had not been suspended, he could not have played.”
As humorous as such a Steve Morrow-esque injury is, now we know Matic hasn’t suffered serious harm, it’s not just the fact that fate simply wasn’t going to allow him to start versus West Ham that is notable. It’s also the fact that, as it turns out, they didn’t even need him.
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Matic’s role in the side isn’t a pretty one. Teams often want strikers in the goals, playmakers running the show, full-backs offering width and pace, goalkeepers who dominate their own area. But the very best defensive midfielders are the ones who lead their team into battle when it becomes just that: a battle.
Captains are all well and good and centre-backs aren’t too different a player, but while skippers deal with chats to the referee and centre-backs hold their line to spring an offside trap, a good ‘enforcer’ is free to focus purely on the less beautiful aspects of the beautiful game.
And while Matic’s second stint at Stamford Bridge thus far has harked back to the days of Claude Makelele and Michael Essien in their prime for the club, during Mourinho’s own first run, who would have guessed that they actually had two superb enforcers on their books?
Centre-back Kurt Zouma first began playing slightly further forward in the aforementioned cup-winning performance against Tottenham which led to Matic jolting his peg. His performance was well-received, but at the Boelyn Ground he stepped it up a notch.
It is obvious he found the next gear in such a short space of time at the urging of his coach, because Mourinho knew exactly what laid in wait for them on the other side of the capital.
Hammers boss Sam Allardyce may not be on equal footing to Jose in the grand scheme of football managers, but he’s very much cut from the same cloth. His desire to win and ‘art of war’ mentality have seen him succeed at more than one club, regardless of the stigma attached to the brand of football he sometimes utilises – just like Mourinho. Both gaffers even make a habit of saying things to the press that they know will deflect the attention from their players.
Long story short, when Mourinho’s Chelsea face Allardyce’s West Ham, it’s often more of a war than a sporting contest – a war both bosses welcome.
Mourinho has ace soldiers in people like Eden Hazard and Diego Costa. He has generals like Thibaut Courtois and John Terry. What he needed in Matic’s absence was a horrible little bastard who could rile up the home side and exploit their weaknesses.
In addition to performing well, Zouma stuck his boot in whenever needed. When the roles were reversed, he stayed down for ages, only to be instantly ready to play as soon as the action re-started. He led with arms, he tugged on shirts, and he did everything else in his power to prevent the Irons from doing what they have been rather well this season.
No doubt Mourinho knew exactly what West Ham’s Achilles heel was heading into this game – and it wasn’t so much a tactical inferiority of Allardyce’s, per se, as much as it was Big Sam’s superiors.
In the summer, the West Ham board dealt with a ridiculous situation in a ridiculous manner. Though Allardyce restored the club to the Premier League and was keeping them there ahead of 2016’s move to the Olympic Stadium, fans decided they wanted attractive, positive football rather than results (of course, this self-righteous drivel would have been exposed if the results dried up).
Instead of shaking Sam’s hand, thanking him for re-establishing the club in the Prem and finding someone to take them to that next level of quality, Allardyce was reportedly given an ultimatum: instil a better brand of football, or you’re sacked. The ‘oh, and if results drop in the process, you’re also sacked’ part was presumably in the fine print.
Mourinho started the clash accordingly, having his side sit back and counter-attack. Despite the hosts’ promising signs, it went to plan for Chelsea as Hazard netted the only goal early on. From there, the rest was simple, all thanks to the West Ham fans and board.
As the away players dragged the game's quality down further and further, the crowd grew as restless and as spiteful as you’d expect. Chelsea then burst forward on occasion, at the height of the Hammers’ uproar, and Ramires came so close to settling the game on two occasions.
But it was his midfield partner on the night who was most crucial to such a plan.
While the supporters in the home end made themselves feel better by chanting ‘you won’t let him on the train’ about Zouma to their guests, Kurt and Chelsea carried on doing their job. One club obsessed with self-image and trying to hurt other people’s feelings. The other club sits on top of the Premier League.
It was nonetheless clear Zouma is no Matic, however – at least, not yet.
There was a 25-minute period in the second half when his lack of experience at such a ruthless job - and perhaps his lack of experience at the age of 20, period – was telling. Mark Noble was pivotal in taking midfield back for the East Londoners and they came so close to finding that equaliser and preventing what Mourinho admitted was a huge, crucial win.
Noble was ultimately symbolic of the tactical story being told over 90 minutes. In the closing moments of the match, as West Ham grew increasingly desperate and condemned to defeat, the captain was named ‘man of the match’ over the PA system.
The declaration was met by scornful laughter and bitter mocking from his own fans. It seems they disagreed on the quality of his shift, because he hadn’t a) scored two goals to give them a win or b) magically breezed from his deep-lying position and into the Chelsea box every time he touched the ball.
While West Ham fans scream at their own to ‘get forward’, Mourinho is taking Chelsea forward. He knows there’s more to success than just trying to look proactive. And there’s definitely more to it than thinking purely of the fanbase’s shallow gratification on any one given day.
He praised his side and called them "warriors" after the win. No doubt, had he inherited a Chelsea side with a Mark Noble in it back in 2013, he would certainly have found a use for his work ethic and cerebral approach.
But that’s why managers like him and teams like Chelsea and even the much-maligned Manchester United are now pulling away from clubs of the stature of West Ham and Swansea, who offered so much promise early on.
The run-in is a war-zone, and only the most astute generals battle their way through. If you fly out of the trenches, guns blazing, you’ll be shot down long before May.
Based on the evidence over the last four days, it’s hard to imagine Zouma - the man Jose admitted could be the one to succeed John Terry as club captain - not becoming a supremely high-ranking soldier over the coming years under General Mourinho.
Liam Happe at Upton Park | Follow on Twitter @liamhappe
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