Jose Mourinho says that Chelsea are a team in transition – but an interminable identity crisis might be a more accurate description, after yet another unconvincing display in the Premier League on Saturday and defeat on Tuesday night in the Capital One Cup.
Although the Pensioners are once against being managed by the Special One, they are not his side. In fact, Chelsea haven’t really been anyone’s side since Mourinho left in 2007. The years of managerial upheaval and owner meddling have produced a talented but uneven squad, unsurprisingly unsure of its sense of self.
It’s worth recalling that when Mourinho and Roman Abramovich fell out six years ago, artistic differences played a major role. For the oligarch, winning was no longer enough. He wanted his club admired as much as it was feared. Mourinho has always seen things differently. For him, the win has always been paramount. If his teams entertain, then it’s just an unintentional by-product.
Since the Portuguese left, Abramovich has been searching for beauty. Managers have been encouraged to play more expansively and the players recruited have increasingly reflected Abramovich’s desires. Inspired by the brilliance of Barca, the Russian spent heavily on the creative. The purchase of Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard was a transparent attempt to emulate the Catalans and shift the emphasis away from the Mourinho’s power plays of the early and mid Noughties.
Which is why, for me anyway, it was strange to see Jose return to Stamford Bridge. The talk was of reconciliation – but it’s hard to accept that, on the evidence of the intervening years, Mourinho has changed his outlook. And it may go some way to explaining why he appears to be struggling to impose a consistent pattern of play on a set of players, many of whom would never have been on his shopping list.
No doubt Mourinho sees the quality of the aforementioned Spaniard, Brazilian and Belgian, for instance, but he’d never have seen the need for three of them in a squad, let alone on the field of play. And the addition of Willian, given the personnel already at the club, also seems at odds with what we’d expect of Mourinho, hinting not only that he’s not entirely in charge of where the transfer budget is spent, but of who gets to play.
The January transfer window may tell us much about the level of influence Mourinho has over Abramovich and whether the problems of six years ago have been settled. Rumoured targets Zouma, Draxler and Guarín better fit the Mourinho profile and methods. If purchased, Chelsea may return to a more direct, powerful brand of football. But will Abramovich so easily give up on his dream?
The outcome of this debate will have a major impact on whether Mourinho can bring the Premier League title back to the club. Despite his many qualities, Mourinho is not the man to get the best from a side that must accommodate the likes of Hazard, Mata, Oscar and Willian. And if the owner insists that he must do so, then Chelsea will continue to struggle with their identity, a struggle that may undermine their hopes this season.