There was a sense of inevitability about Chelsea’s season even before they laboured to a disappointing goalless draw with relegation doomed Norwich City at Stamford Bridge on Sunday afternoon. The lacklustre performance gives new evidence for the growing number who have begun to question Mourinho’s methods. Yet just a month ago Chelsea were on course for the league and a possible European title with Mourinho, arguably one of the best managers in the game, at the helm and in control. However, this disappointing slump in fortunes should not lead to writing off Mourinho but serve as a wake up call to the club for a necessary revaluation over an intriguing summer at the club.
In the days leading up to the Norwich game, Eden Hazard’s tactics tiff with boss Jose Mourinho only served to add sourness to an already flat week for the Blues. The Champions League defeat to Atletico Madrid on Wednesday night meant, realistically, a first trophyless season under Mourinho for Chelsea, something he was keen to put down to this being a season of transition. But just how much does being ‘in transition’ account for Chelsea’s failings this season? After all, they clearly have enough quality. They are unbeaten in their six games against the other teams in the top four, winning five, including impressive doubles over both Manchester City and Liverpool, as well as dispensing of Paris Saint Germain over two legs in Europe. Clearly there is something a little more complex going on in West London.
Back in June of last year the much anticipated and inevitably romantic reports of Jose Mourinho’s renaissance at Chelsea began after his long awaited return to SW6 was confirmed. It was thought that after a stuttering and inharmonious season under Roberto Di Matteo and Rafa Benitez, the self-proclaimed ‘happy one’ would return a sense of control and unity to a squad that had seemingly been yearning for him during fractious spells under Andre Villas-Boas and Benitez. However, times had changed since his previous spell at the club and ‘The old guard’ were no longer as young and full of vigour as they once were. Frank Lampard’s lung busting runs were less frequent, Ashley Cole suffered from injuries and lost his trademark consistency, there was no longer the bullish force of Didier Drogba to call on and he lacked the tirelessly hounding midfield machine in the mould of Claude Makelele, all such instrumental parts of his last reign. There were new players, young and talented; a host of attacking midfielders, added to by Mourinho in the shape of Andre Schurrle and Mohammed Salah; Caesar Azpilicueta and Gary Cahill both seemed empowered by the ‘Mourinho effect’ in defence and the astute addition of holding midfielder, Nemanja Matic in January gave this Chelsea team a classic Jose Mourinho look. He was ruthless in rebuilding. Any players who did fit into his new approach were soon weeded out. Juan Mata is the prime example but also Kevin De Bruyne and, perhaps more surprisingly, Romelu Lukaku. So, Mourinho was allowed to build his own team from the start and yet there has always been a sense that his Chelsea squad were a ‘cut below’ their rivals; Manchester City had such strength in depth to call on, Liverpool with the best attack force in the world and even Arsenal seemed to be revitalised and stronger having spent £44 million on a marquee signing, Mesut Özil. There was a tendency to blame the striking problems but Mourinho had the chance to bring in a big-name striker in the summer and didn’t; seemingly fixated by a deal for Wayne Rooney which never seemed likely. This left them with a continually floundering Fernando Torres, an ageing Samuel Eto’o and an inconsistent Demba Ba. Naivety in the market by Mourinho or just a lack of the right option?
As the season wore on, Chelsea were always within touching distance but never really took control of the title race. We were left waiting for them – using Mourinho’s experience and guile – to pull away at the top, but it never quite happened. Meanwhile they fell out of both domestic cups in the winter and although they progressed in the Champions League there was never a resounding feeling that they were the best side in Europe, or capable, really, of winning the competition. In the league Chelsea never pulled up any trees, they were effective on the counter attack against the better, possession based teams – namely Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool – but they lacked the cutting edge or dominance to demolish the lesser teams, more concerned with clean sheets than goals. The old maxim that Mourinho ‘prefers to win 1-0 than 2-1’ seemed to ring true. They dropped wasteful points away to Everton, Newcastle, West Brom as well as, most crucially, against Aston Villa, Crystal Palace and Sunderland which left them just behind in the title race despite their fantastic record against their main rivals. Meanwhile, away from the pitch, there was never the old confidence about Mourinho. His tousled grey hair seeming to fall flatter with every passing defeat. He seemed to have lost some of that verve and vigour which he so embodied during his first stint at the club. This seemed to be replaced by a more contemplative and measured Mourinho; wiser, more experienced. The feisty ‘Special One’ only appeared on rare occasions. The touchline sprint following Demba Ba’s winner against PSG, a passionate celebration at the end of the win at Anfield, even the nonchalant and sarcastic appraisal of referee Mike Dean after the defeat to Sunderland. But these fleeting moments were few and far between and at times we were left lost as to the true meaning behind what he said and did. Does Mourinho still have that ‘special’ touch he so often leads us to believe he does?
The answer is, undoubtedly, yes. Mourinho is still one of the best managers in the world, and despite Chelsea’s somewhat flat campaign petering out, Mourinho has hardly had a dreadful first season back in English football. His tactical knowledge and understanding of the game are second to none and that has been shown this season more than any other. The victories against Manchester City and, more notably, Liverpool, while not being brilliant to watch, were extraordinarily effective and he clearly still relishes the big matches. Perhaps, at times, he is guilty of overthinking a game, such as against Atletico in the second leg where he played Caesar Azpilicueta – a trademark hard working defender – as an attacker. But there is no doubting that Mourinho gets it right more times than he gets it wrong when it comes to tactics. It is possibly more off the pitch were he has got a little lost this season. His desire for every player to work unremittingly hard for the team is perhaps a compromise some of the best are unwilling to make. It is widely accepted that Eden Hazard has been Chelsea’s best player this season; winning PFA Young Player of the Year, and coming second to Luis Suarez in the main award. And yet, here is Mourinho stubbornly demanding he tracks runners and puts defending first in such a big match against Atletico Madrid. For a man who has been a shining light of flair in an otherwise ordinary season for Chelsea on the pitch, it seems counter productive to ask him to play so restrictively.
As Chelsea look to the future, the players, Abramovich and Mourinho need to find a way to relight the fire at the club. They must decide on a strategy, a philosophy, to rebuild the club around during this transition period and they should look to Mourinho to lead the process. They need a clear aim, a goal or they risk losing their identity in a haze of player power, Russian billions and media manipulation. Mourinho clearly sees himself there long-term so they can finally start thinking that way. For the first time in the Abramovich era, there is a chance to build a football club not just a football team. Is there enough desire and patience at Chelsea to do that? It’s certainly going to be a test for the club and it’s yet another thing to look out for in this extraordinary world of English Football. One thing is for certain, a second barren season will be difficult to see out. Even for someone so special.