YOU ALMOST felt sorry for Jose Mourinho in his post-match interview following Chelsea’s 2-1 defeat at Leicester City. For the first time in his career, the “special one” looked down-trodden, bereft of ideas and at a loss to explain the malignancy of Chelsea’s appalling form in 2015-16. He used words like “betrayal” as if he genuinely believes he has been let-down by his players.
But then he added that he had done a “phenomenal” job in lifting them to a new level in 2014-15. So failure is in the hands of the players, but success was down to him. He may be right, but to unashamedly take that credit suggests that there is a fracture in team harmony and there may be no going back. If there are dressing room issues, Mourinho’s claim of sua culpa will do little to heal any rift.
Chelsea have a few options here, but ultimately, you feel that Mourinho is as much a “dead man walking” as Claudio Ranieri was in 2003-04.
Shake hands and say farewell: A top four place is almost a pipe-dream now for Chelsea, so they have to win the Champions League to return to that competition next season. They will have to throw all their eggs in one basket to achieve that. It is not impossible, as their success in 2012 showed, but they will be up against Paris St. Germain, the opponent that exposed some of Mourinho’s shortcomings last season. They don’t have to worry about the Champions League for a couple of months. If they release Mourinho now, they can install a caretaker and focus 100% on staying up (!) and winning the Champions League and FA Cup. Roman Abramovich may keep faith with Mourinho now, but if Chelsea’s malaise continues, he may decide to merely defer a decision until the close season. It will be difficult to bring in a replacement on a permanent basis, but in the summer, top managers will be available. Chelsea are running out of big-name coaches so, inevitably, the same candidates keep re-emerging.
The backbone of Chelsea’s title team has crumbled this season
One mo’ chance: There’s no doubt that Chelsea’s team looks jaded, off the pace and in need of new blood. Chelsea made a mistake in the summer in not adding to their title-winning team. Was this arrogance or just tunnel vision (with Stones and Pogba at the end of that tunnel)? With other clubs making big signings, Chelsea’s squad, which was already looking tired at the end of 2014-15, was left behind. John Terry had an excellent season, but it was very much an “Indian summer”. The club could not really expect more from one of Chelsea’s durable and iconic players. Hindsight is wonderful, but the over-reliance on the explosive and hard-to-manage Diego Costa, was also a mistake. The backbone of last season’s Premier-winning season, Courtois, Terry, Hazard, Fabregas and Costa, have all fallen away this season: Courtois through injury; Terry through ageing; Hazard and Fabregas have dramatically lost form; and Costa has looked unfit and unhappy. Chelsea have a huge squad, but many of them are out on loan, leaving a core that is too thin. If Abramovich wants to back Mourinho, he has to do it by providing the January funds to reshape the team. If he does that, we could see the likes of John Stones, Antoine Griezmann, Alex Teixeira and even Zlatan Ibrahimovic heading for Stamford Bridge.
Accent on youth: Chelsea’s youth squad is the most successful in England, yet the last player of note to emerge from the academy/youth system was John Terry. There are hopes that Ruben Loftus-Cheek may develop into a good Premier player, but like many clubs, the conveyor belt lacks lubrication. Could Chelsea’s current predicament be the signal to start “blooding” some of the youngsters currently being farmed-out to clubs in continental Europe? What is there to lose? If the Premier is a write-off, surely the club can afford to experiment, as long as they do not run into relegation trouble – unthinkable even in this most unexpected of seasons? Chelsea’s fans would probably back that approach. Although the post-SKY generation will have little recall of it, the club relied on kids when it hit dire financial problems in the mid-1970s and the public reaction was emotional, encouraging and exhilarating – for a while.
What, though, is the future for Mourinho? He looks uncharacteristically lost at the moment. The situation is unprecedented for him, but what it has shown is that Mourinho is the ultimate short-term manager, not a man to build a dynasty. Why? Because he cannot accept that fortunes dip at various times in your career.
As we have said before, Mourinho’s career has been silverware-laden and mid-table, relegation and inconsistency are completely alien to him. And being the character he is, the media will not leave him alone when things are not going to plan. In fact, the football world positively wallows in schadenfreude when people like Mourinho are fidgeting uncomfortably.
Chelsea will undoubtedly get through this crisis and Mourinho will regain his chutzpah, but the question is whether they do it together. Even a vote of confidence from Abramovich may not quell the fire. Week-by-week, damage is being done to Chelsea’a aura, to Mourinho’s aura, largely because the reaction to the possibility of that great unthinkable in modern football – failure – has not been good. If this continues, Mourinho’s reputation, even at a place where he is rightly revered for bringing unprecedented success to a club renowned for under-achievement, may start to be eroded.
You could argue that erosion has already set in, that Mourinho has no secret alchemy behind his methods and, like all football movements, the Mourinho way may have run its course. Leicester City certainly looked as though they had solved that puzzle. And so did Bournemouth, Crystal Palace, Everton, Stoke, Southampton, West Ham, Manchester City and Liverpool.
The fact is, every ethos has an expiry date: WM, 4-4-2, Total Football, Catenaccio, Tika-Taka and the Mourinho method (a form of 21st century Catenaccio). Even Hellenio Herrera got the sack. Mourinho’s teams do not play with a smile on their face – they are ultra-functional, cautious, fast on the break and built on rock-solid defence. They are intense, requiring constant out-performance, which may be why Chelsea look like they are suffering from burn-out.
The best thing may be an amicable divorce and a clean-out of the squad. A costly exercise, but how much longer will the current situation be tolerated?