Failure may be a blessing in disguise for Jose Mourinho
Although Jose Mourinho's Chelsea will end the season without a trophy, it may be a blessing in disguise for the Portuguese manager.
Manchester City’s win last night confirmed mathematically that, for the second season running, Jose Mourinho will not win a trophy (unless you count the 2012 Spanish SuperCup). For all the talk of rebuilding, this is unfamiliar territory for the man who once psyched out his opponents in Italy by declaring they would win ‘zeru titoli‘. Chelsea will finish in the same position as last year (3rd), and it will undoubtedly play on Mourinho’s mind that Roman Abramovich is not known to be kind to managers who fail.
There is the sense of a fairytale return gone wrong. At Real Madrid, he was undone by a civil war of his own making. But at Chelsea he has the unqualified support of players, fans and a very generous owner. The stage was set for Mourinho to excel this season, especially with City and Arsenal in transition and Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. Ferguson is the best manager the Premier League has seen – and he had never beaten Mourinho in English football.
Most painful will be the knowledge that several managers he has taunted as losers in the past have trumped him. Arsene Wenger, the ‘specialist in failure‘, will marshal his side in the final of the FA Cup, a tournament Chelsea dominated till recently. The PL title could go to Manuel Pellegrini, his predecessor at Real Madrid. His old adversary Rafael Benitez guided Chelsea to a European trophy last season; in four seasons with the Blues, the Portuguese has yet to make a European final. Relations with former apprentice Brendan Rodgers are still civil, but that will not ease the pain of seeing bitter rivals Liverpool finish above Chelsea.
But Mourinho has a legitimate defence: his tactics this season have been driven by confusion over tactics and approach. This is due to Abramovich’s insistence on the side playing artistic possession football – a style that has turned Chelsea into a Barca look-alike, suiting neither the team nor its ultra-pragmatic manager. Their results have been like Liverpool’s were under Benitez: strong in big games, but losing matches they should have walked through. With Chelsea failing to win the league title for 3 seasons of the ‘Abramovich way’, Mourinho may be freer to implement his vision. Next season, the Portuguese will return to first principles.
In his first season at Chelsea, 2004-05, Mourinho created the most defensive-minded (or ‘pragmatic’) champions in PL history – 25 clean sheets and eleven 1-0 victories in 38 matches. To put things in context, that was more clean sheets than any team in ‘defensive’ Italy managed that year. Chelsea dispensed with playmakers, employing strong and pacy goalscorers – Didier Drogba, Arjen Robben, Joe Cole and Frank Lampard, with the hard-working Claude Makelele destroying attacks behind them. They won two titles, and Chelsea had found their definitive style.
But over time, efficiency gave way to impotence. Chelsea struggled against sides who adopted their model, sat back and attacked on the counter. Strikers like Drogba thrive when dealing with a defence that sits high up the pitch (that is also a weakness of Diego Costa, who will probably play the Drogba role next season). The strikers signed to deal with the problem – Andriy Shevchenko, Fernando Torres and Samuel Eto’o – were past their best, and none have been able to play the typical ‘battering ram’ role, running onto Petr Cech’s excellent long kicks.
Despite resistance from above, Mourinho has already set out to recreate that old side. The sale of Juan Mata – a talented creator, but lacking defensive work rate and speed – was a first step. Mata was a favourite of Abramovich and his departure was loaded with symbolism. Signed back from Benfica, Nemanja Matic has the physical power and talent to function as both destroyer and creator. Cesar Azpilicueta is an excellent full-back who can play on either flank. David Luiz and Tomas Kalas are seen as the long-term heirs to John Terry in defence, but both are as yet inadequate – Kalas is raw, Luiz indisciplined.
Atletico Madrid are expected to further provide players – both Felipe Luiz and Costa have been targeted for summer recruitment. Tactically, Atletico are very similar to the Chelsea of old. They thrive in a war of attrition, and their players are used to playing under pressure. Cech‘s understudy Thibaut Courtois plays there on loan, as does former Chelsea player Tiago Mendes.
The freezing out of Brazilian attacker Oscar is harder to explain, but Mourinho’s recent spat with Eden Hazard was suggestive about his methods. When Hazard complained that Chelsea weren’t ‘set up to play football’ after their Champions League exit at Atletico’s hands, Mourinho promptly lashed out at his player’s work rate, noting how Hazard was at fault for two Atletico goals. Forwards who work hard defensively are an important part of Mourinho’s core strategem. It is part of the reason Willian enjoys starter status in this side.
As if further evidence were needed, the recent display away at Liverpool was the cherry on the cake: even in a game he needed to win, Mourinho was focused on not losing, and content to wait for Liverpool to make mistakes rather than seizing the initiative himself. He remains a reactive rather than proactive manager, whose greatest gift is to make his words ring like war drums in his players’ ears. Unlike the three previous Chelsea managers who ended a season trophyless under Abramovich, Mourinho will probably keep his job; but he needs to deliver fast, and, above all else, properly leave his imprint on this side.