In the immediate wake of their team’s weekend victory over Crystal Palace, and the league title that accompanied it, 40,000 Chelsea fans sat in sullen, stoney silence around Stamford Bridge. Arms folded, scowls fixed, the blue-tinted denizens of the King’s Road looked on with a mixture of apathy and anger as the players cavorted treacherously on the field.
This was the first championship in half a decade, the fourth of the Roman Abramovich era and José Mourinho’s third since his arrival from Porto in 2004 — allowing for a five-year Continental sojourn with Internazionale, where he won the Champions League, and Real Madrid, between then and now — yet the accomplishment was a hollow one.
Chelsea may have crossed the finish line with three matches to spare but Mourinho’s charges had done so playing ugly football, grinding out victories which are, as is well known, less valuable, morally if not mathematically. Only trophies secured while performing like Barcelona, or Brazil in 1970, may be celebrated.
These are, after all, the only achievements worth celebrating. You see, defensive solidity and tactical discipline are inherently inferior in the victory stakes and the Chelsea faithful, payers of high ticket prices, were right to register their displeasure.
For the sake of clarity, most of the foregoing is, of course, nonsense, save for the bits about collecting lots of trophies and Mourinho’s managerial garlands. Chelsea supporters, in truth, care little about the alleged agrarian nature of the team’s play, preferring instead the taste of success over stylistic acclaim.
Latterly, as the club’s chances of ending the campaign at the summit of the table became more likely with each passing week, a petty and petulant narrative began to gain traction within those rarefied circles where the Premier League and national media overlap.
It draws fuel from mass chants about “Boring, boring Chelsea” and is propped up by the snide red meat thrown out from great aesthete and former serial winner, Arsène Wenger. The impression was further deepened thanks to Manuel Pellegrini’s recent talk of “goals” and “style”, a hasty attempt to soften Manchester City’s meek defence of their crown — a title claimed, in part at least, thanks to Chelsea’s prickly efforts in April 2014.
The prevailing perception is fairly straightforward: Mourinho’s latest round of decorations (including March’s League Cup triumph) is, somehow, less worthy in an era of redefinition and fluid formations, false nines and post-millennial total football. To be traditional is to be nothing much at all.
This, too, is absurd. Whatever his catalogue of manufactured slights, Mourinho has, once again, underlined just how much he values the wisdom of churlish peers. As two more domestic notations sit etched on his already gilded résumé, he has nothing left to prove.
Nor is his philosophy one derived from the dark ages. When he first strutted into the English game, Mourinho reeked of European sophistication. Urbane and totally convinced of his own greatness, the national media stood bewitched by this smirking, occasionally cartoonish outsider.
Yet his team hardly operated beyond the bounds of common understanding, exhibiting the rigidity that appears as essential to the Portuguese as breathing in and out. He used that as the launch pad for a searing counter-attacking approach centred on Frank Lampard’s goalscoring instincts, the blistering directness of Arjen Robben and Damien Duff, the muscularity of Didier Drogba and Eidur Gudjohnsen’s scheming forays. As basic as it was, the strategy yielded 144 goals and 186 points over the course of two seasons.
A decade on, however, Mourinho’s heelish act has lost its novel charm. Over the last few months in particular, as his players came within view of their bounty, he fabricated conspiracies and picked fights, building a siege mentality to see a tiring squad through the exhaustion of the home leg.
Granted, this is not exactly an original method of generating desire but it worked. The public consciousness, meanwhile, seemed less than enamoured and so, suddenly, for all his professional acumen, Mourinho’s sensibilities are now decried as dull in some quarters, his deeds marked by the stain of being straightforward rather than fantastical.
But surely this sport is about winning? Scoring and not conceding is a fairly uncomplicated route to the top. Even a brief examination of Chelsea’s current statistics reinforces such fundamentals. With 69 goals scored and 27 conceded, they enjoy an impressive goal difference of 42, seven more than the relatively prolific City in second and 11 better than third-placed Arsenal.
The product on the field is now arguably more refined, less hectic, than the juggernaut Mourinho first constructed. Notable amongst that coterie of clubs possessed by oligarchs and sheiks, where largesse is no longer remarkable, the club under Abramovich has always operated in a slightly cooler manner, building through expensive purchases collectives that function properly, their pricey internal components trumping external flash.
That the 2015 iteration of Chelsea, the second coming of Mourinho if you will, was always going to be a formidable challenger for honours, having undergone another summer’s worth of fine tuning since his return, has felt unsurprising. Indeed, he even predicted as much in the dying weeks of 2013/14.
The present set-up could be said to reflect its leader’s preferences, and his character. The best defence in the league is populated by flinty warriors committed to preserving clean sheets: the outstanding Branislav Ivanovic, Gary Cahill, an evergreen John Terry, César Azpilicueta, whose hardy discipline Mourinho has praised. Backed by one of the world’s best goalkeepers in Thibaut Courtois, this unit is the base from which everything else flows.
As a spearhead, leading scorer Diego Costa seems the perfect centre-forward to carry out the coach’s instructions, a snarling, muscular arch provocateur as grimy as his talent is high-end. The Brazilian trio of Oscar, Willian and Ramires bring both dynamism to the side, all bustling kineticism mixed with honest graft. Nemanja Matic — hulking, immovable, singular — is every inch the prototypical Mourinho signing, an essential cog at considerable cost.
Eden Hazard, however, represents the anomaly in the equation, a consistent, elite-level maverick afforded licence to poke, to prod, to divine space and opportunity in the crowded hothouses of modern-day opposition penalty areas.
The PFA Player of the Year has largely excelled following his transfer from Lille in June 2012, dispelling any suspicion that he was a self-indulgent, swaggering dilettante blessed with skill and little else, though his form over the past 12 months specifically has been nothing short of mesmeric.
Marrying a relentless work ethic with dazzling technical prowess and that scorching change of pace, Hazard has moved beyond his underwhelming displays for Belgium at the World Cup to become the driving creative force at Stamford Bridge.
While Cesc Fabregas’s performances sputtered after Christmas, Hazard assumed the responsibility of orchestrator, as well as finisher. With 14 league goals and 8 assists, he has found a balance between selfishness and altruism that renders him practically undroppable. Fittingly, his scrappy goal against Palace sealed the prize on Sunday, an inevitable crest on a stellar season.
Only the Champions League exit to Paris Saint-Germain in March has properly soiled the record of Mourinho 2.0. Lessons have been taken from that, plans hatched; a renewed and vigorous assault on the competition is a certainty. It should be fascinating to watch.