Football’s establishment doesn’t like outsiders. We’re not talking xenophobia, racism or sexism, or any other hard-line prejudice, but a challenge to the accepted order. Take league champions as an example. Whenever anyone outside the core group of traditional “alpha clubs” wins the title, there’s always 101 reasons to devalue it. In 1985, the “alpha clubs” were Arsenal, Tottenham, Everton, Liverpool and Manchester United – then known as “the big five”. Back then, you couldn’t imagine that this self-appointed select group could be challenged. Today, if there is a big five (its really down to four, but let’s be generous) is: Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool.
But Chelsea (founded 1905) and Manchester City (founded 1880) are seen as Johnny-come-latelies. They are only in the big five because they have acquired inflated investment, say the supporters of the fading members of the elite section.
That may well be, but the cash that repositioned these clubs readdressed imbalances that long existed in British football. You could say it has now created new imbalances. A club with a 75,000 stadium playing alongside a club that has a 21,000 capacity. Nobody questions this, because Manchester United have always been bigger than Burnley. Turf Moor, know your place. United use their brand and their vast ground to make money. They have a global fanbase. They will always be bigger than Burnley, and arguably their Manchester rivals. Money from the Middle East, Russia or Asia helps balance things out. Isn’t that the excuse?
How a club is funded shouldn’t concern anyone else. It’s good business to get a major backer. It creates an uneven playing field they say, but is 75,000 versus 21,000 an even playing field? Football is not a democracy.
This is why Chelsea, the champions-elect, are so despised by the rest of the Premier League. That and the anti-Jose Mourinho campaign that is gathering momentum. Conspiracy theories? There are plenty if you want to look for them.
“Boring, boring Chelsea,” was the cry from the Arsenal fans. “Boring is not winning the Premier for 10 years,” responded Mourinho. Wenger v Mourinho has the air of the school playground about it, albeit with a twist of subtlety. “It’s easy to defend,” said Wenger. “Oh, yeah?,” seemed to be the reply from Mourinho. “So why d’you lose 3-1 at home to Monaco?”
Wenger and Arsenal are part of the “establishment”. Chelsea and Mourinho, despite their cash and success, are not. Never mind that Chelsea, since 2004-05, have won more trophies than Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and Manchester City combined. For most of their history (yes, Spion Kop, Chelsea do have history), Chelsea were also-rans. From 1905 to 1997, they had won four trophies, one FA Cup, one League, one Football League Cup and one European Cup-winners Cup. They were the great under-achievers.
They has already started winning when Mourinho turned up in 2004, but the period since has seen unprecedented success for the club. The last decade has been the age of Chelsea, and their trophy haul in that period (including the inevitable Premier title this season, 13 major cups in 11 seasons) has only ever been matched by Liverpool between 1975-76 and 1985-86 (18 majors). During that period, Arsenal have won two, City three, Liverpool three and United six.
Mourinho is not liked, and he’s not easy to warm to. To a large degree, that’s why he doesn’t get the credit he deserves as a coach and shrewd tactician. His record as a manager is outstanding. Since arriving at Chelsea, moving on to Inter Milan and Real Madrid and returning to Stamford Bridge, he has never finished lower than third in any league, has won six titles and his teams have scored 823 league goals in 381 games.
“Boring, boring Chelsea,” was the cry from the Arsenal fans (have they forgotten their own history, when Chapman’s teams employed extra defensive cover, Bertie Mee’s double winners were written off as “bores” and George Graham’s team opted for strength in depth?). “Only City have scored more,” replied Mourinho. You can make stats say anything you like, but you have to consider that Chelsea have the best away victory in the division – 5-0 at Swansea, and took part in the highest scoring game – Everton 3 Chelsea 6.
Mourinho hasn’t won a single “Manager of the Month” award this season, despite Chelsea being top since day one. But he has never been a popular choice – in 2004-05 he won two and two years later another one, but since then, nobody has felt inclined to honour his achievements.
And the achievements are considerable. For starters, the big clubs cannot beat this fellow. We all know that Wenger cannot get one over on his Chelsea counterpart, but in 40 league games since 2004-05 against City, United, Liverpool and Arsenal, Mourinho has lost only three.
Critics claim that Mourinho’s style is basically “the modern cataneccio”, with a strong back four and a man in front – Nemanja Matic – to protect them. It is true that Mourinho builds from the back, but he also has rapier-like counter-attackers that ruthlessly punish the opposition.
Chelsea 2014-15 are not a million miles away from Arsenal 2003-04, the benchmark for all would-be Premier champions. Chelsea-bashers claim that Mourinho’s men are experts in “1-0”, but they have only won four games by that scoreline and 10 games by a single-goal margin. Compare that to Arsenal 2003-04 – 14 by a single goal margin including three by 1-0. Arsenal scored 73 goals and conceded 26. Chelsea are on target to level that, at least, and have conceded 27.
In fact, Chelsea’s 10 single goal victories represents a much smaller number than Manchester United in 2012-13 (16, including four by 1-0) and 2010-11 (11, including three by 1-0). From a statistical point of view, Chelsea 2014-15 are not a million miles away from champions of the past.
Chelsea’s approach is a classic case of that new footballing cliché, “game management”. Mourinho plans for each game, changing his tactics and, sometimes, personnel, when it suits him. We saw at the Emirates that whatever Arsenal threw at them, Chelsea soaked it up. With the point intact – John Terry’s (arguably the player of the year, although like Mourinho, he will never win a popularity contest) reaction told you they knew the title was only days away – the following morning saw the critics come to the fore. “Mourinho has a shelf life at every club…he will be gone in a year or two when Abramovich tires of this team,” said one radio phone-in caller. But the media, generally, have acknowledged that Chelsea will be worthy champions.
We [nearly] all buy success
“They have bought it again,” said one Arsenal fan on the radio. “Without the Russian’s money, they wouldn’t be anywhere near it.” Maybe not, but Chelsea have been a top six side every season since 1995-96. Twenty-odd years.
That same accusation was made of Blackburn Rovers in 1994-95 and of course, Manchester City in 2011-12. EVERY club buys the league title with one or two exceptions down the years. The Arsenal “invincibles” team of 2004 was assembled from outside the club – only Ashley Cole and Ray Parlour didn’t cost a fee. And while the transfer figures pale into insignificance when compared to the current era (2004 was actually when it all started to go seriously wrong, and that is one thing Chelsea can be blamed for), there were big money signings in the form of Henry, Bergkamp, Wiltord, Pires and Lauren. As a matter of interest, the Arsenal and Chelsea line-ups at the Emirates on April 26 cost £ 135m and £183m respectively.
When money isn’t blamed for a “new” club winning the title, their playing style is usually picked upon. When Leeds United won the league in 1969, they were accused of being defensive and “ultra-professional”. Don Revie is probably the nearest thing we’ve seen to Mourinho in post-war football history in the UK – a win-at-all-costs approach combined with intense analysis of the opposition. Revie wasn’t liked either. Chelsea are being lambasted for both their financial advantages and their playing style.
Nottingham Forest were also criticised for their style of play – mainly in the early months of the campaign – when they won the 1977-78 league title. Most people wrote them off at every turn, but they lost only three games. While the man on the street liked Brian Clough, their manager, the establishment refused to take to him. “One season wonders,” said the sceptics.
2014-15 will be Chelsea’s fourth Premier title (and fifth overall), but they will still not be regarded as “part of the union”. But there’s one thing Emirates regulars should think about – if Mourinho had been manager of Arsenal (the most unlikely of marriages) over the past decade, with the same level of talent that the club has enjoyed, the Gunners would have won the title more than once. Why? Because he would have gone all-out to win it. For all his acidity, social unease and intensity, do you ever see a banner claiming he should go? (even Wenger, post-canonisation, has his detractors). In modern life – rightly or wrongly – success allows a multitude of sins to be overlooked.