The Special One another poor season away from being yesterday’s man

by Robert Redmond

jose-mourinho

The dubious accolade for the Premier League’s biggest flop presented a number of viable, unfortunate nominees last season. There were misfiring strikers, such as Roberto Soldado or Ricky van Wolfswinkel, expensive but underwhelming signings, Erik Lamela and Marouane Fellaini, and mismanaged clubs, such as Fulham and Cardiff City. There was also David Moyes.

The former Manchester United manager was perhaps the most popular choice for the season’s biggest flop. Moyes presided over a disastrous campaign, devoid of any positive developments, where every occurrence, from the United’s falling stock price to the upsurge of Everton, his former club, seemed to further convey his inadequacy. When Moyes’ hellish year eventually ended, he was no more sacked than put of his misery.

While it would be impossible to dispute that Moyes’ time as Manchester United manager was anything but an unmitigated disaster, there is an argument to be made that he does not qualify as the worst flop of last season. The concept of being a flop is based on prior expectation not aligning with the subsequent reality. So while United underperformed last season, almost every other aspect of the season, from the team’s final position, points total and record against the top teams, was in line with David Moyes’ managerial career.

A more fitting recipient of such an unwanted distinction was not even among the nominees. José Mourinho, Chelsea manager and ‘Special One’, returned to England from Real Madrid last summer to great fanfare from football fans and media outlets alike. At his opening press conference, Mourinho re-anointed himself as the ‘Happy One’, spoke of staying at Chelsea for years to come and of a repaired relationship with owner Roman Abramovich. He also dismissed reports that he wanted to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson as United manager and generally seemed humble and content. A more mature version of the brash Mourinho that first arrived at Chelsea in 2004, and nothing like the man whom had apparently waged civil war in his previous position. ‘I am where I want to be’, Mourinho said. ‘I wouldn’t change it for anything. It’s my job and the job I want. It is the job I was offered and I accepted immediately’.

Mourinho seemed primed to return Chelsea to the pinnacle of English football. In the six-year spell since he left, the Blues, despite achieving European success, won just a single league title. The power vacuum created by Ferguson’s retirement partly resulted in the most open title race for years. It also provided Mourinho the opportunity to stake his claim as English football’s dominant figure, as he had threatened to do during his previous spell in the Premier League.

However, Mourinho was neither special nor happy. Chelsea endured a fruitless season, finishing third and exiting the Champion’s League in the semi-finals, the fourth time in four years Mourinho’s teams have lost at that stage of the competition. It was also the first time in his career that he had experienced consecutive trophy-less campaigns. To further compound Mourinho’s misery, his former club Real Madrid, seemingly bounded by his departure, and guided by Carlo Ancelotti, very much the anti-Mourinho, finally achieved La Décima.

Throughout the domestic season, Mourinho talked down his side’s chances of success. After winning 1-0 away to eventual champions Manchester City last February, Mourinho said: ‘The title race is between two horses and a little horse that needs milk and needs to learn how to jump’. In this bizarre analogy, Chelsea, a club fuelled by a Russian oligarch’s millions, the recent European champions, team of internationals with the average age of twenty-eight, were the underdogs. Liverpool’s surge for the title, consisting of a sixteen game unbeaten run, made further mockery of Mourinho’s theory.

Steven Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea will long be remembered as the defining moment of the 2013/14 season. Combined with Liverpool’s subsequent collapse against Crystal Palace, the narrative has since been that the Merseyside club bottled their chance to win a first league title in twenty-four years. However, despite the dramatic de-railing of Liverpool’s season, there is an argument to be made that it was in fact Chelsea who squandered the greater chance of glory.

Last season, Mourinho’s side were undefeated against the top four, winning five of their six games. Yet Sunderland were the only other team to take more points from the top ten teams than those in bottom half. This trend was particularly telling during the title run-in, where Chelsea continued to drop points against struggling teams. Mourinho’s side lost away to Aston Villa and Crystal Palace, at home to Sunderland and drew with Norwich City. Six points from these games would have secured Chelsea the league crown.

Mourinho attempted to pin the blame for his team’s woes on a number of variants, from misfiring strikers to poor refereeing to, without even a hint of irony, the opposition’s defensive, ‘19th century’ tactics. However, perhaps the real reason lies in Mourinho’s footballing philosophy. Spanish journalist Diego Torres’ book, The Special One: The Dark Side of José Mourinho covers Mourinho’s time at Real Madrid and provides a dark, fascinating insight into the Chelsea manager’s methods and mindset.

The book depicts Mourinho as calculated, manipulative and extremely paranoid, a fish out of water, attempting to mould every facet of one of the world’s biggest football clubs to fit his own personality. Torres paints the Chelsea manager as a controlling, power mad, Machiavellian war monger, with a manic fixation on controlling media narrative. There are a number of telling passages in relation to Mourinho’s tactical outlook.

After the 2011 Copa Del Rey Final, where Madrid defeated Barcelona in extra-time: ‘he puffed out his chest … repeating, ‘This is football! This is football!’ The final reaffirmed his belief that a very good way of playing football is to give the ball and the initiative to the opposition’. Torres also said that Mourinho: ‘Insisted to his players that possession of the ball does not have value in itself and, if not treated with extreme care, at times can be dangerous’ Following Chelsea’s defeat to Sunderland last December, Mourinho essentially validated Torres’ tactical insight, saying: ‘It’s something I don’t want to do, to play more counterattacking, but I’m giving it serious thought. If I want to win 1-0 I think I can as I think it is one of the easiest things in football. It is not so difficult, as you don’t give players the chance to express themselves’.

This method has brought Mourinho great success, including two Champion’s Leagues and four league titles in four countries. However, will it be possible, in an era where tactical flexibility is ever-growing in importance, to further this success with such a dogmatic, one-dimensional outlook? How long will it be before English teams realise the path to defeating Mourinho potentially lays in playing him at his own tactical game? Those that done so last year, such as Sunderland, West Ham and Aston Villa, recorded positive results. Meanwhile, Liverpool and Manchester City dominated possession, but were defeated in both games against the London club.

Chelsea do however look a more formidable prospect for the forthcoming season as they are significantly bolstered by summer signings Diego Costa, Cesc Fàbregas and Filipe Luís, and the return of Thibaut Courtois. Yet this also means that, if his team ends another campaign trophy-less, Mourinho’s excuses will no longer have any semblance of validity. No more talk of little horses or misfiring strikers.

Mourinho dismissed Torres’ book as a work of fiction. If the author did in fact entirely fabricate events from the Chelsea manager’s time in Spain, then he should be working in Hollywood, rather than Spanish broadsheet El País. However, if even a percentage is true, then Mourinho’s best days may be in the past. If we take the Portuguese’s career in two halves, divided by the time he moved to Madrid in 2010, then the latter period is considerably less successful.

If the trend continues, then the ‘Special One’ may have run out of road, tactically and personally. If Mourinho can no longer guarantee success, conflict is almost certain. And, if Chelsea have a repeat of last season, one imagines it will not be long before Mourinho and Abramovich clash again. This could be the defining campaign of José Mourinho’s managerial career.

9 Responses

  1. Tony Lee says:

    I’ve been a football fan and Chelsea supporter since 1963. An average player, a former Class 1 referee and to this day bemused by some of what to me seems like over analysis of a fundamentally straight forward game. The criticism of Mourinho’s pragmatism was one contributory factor to him leaving Chelsea, yet Abramovich’s belief in his tactical competence is one of the reasons behind his return. Is the author suggesting Ferguson or Wenger aren’t paranoid at times? It’s a highly pressurised job and everyone is made differently. I’m not professing to enjoy all of Mourinho’s behaviour or have enjoyed all the football played last year, but I do believe that he did what a manager (in any walk of life) is supposed to do and that is to make the most of the resources at his disposal. Chelsea were an inferior team to Man City and possibly Arsenal last season, but Mourinho crafted wins against the odds and by playing ‘negative’ football against the top teams (Arsenal apart). The teams limitations were exposed in the games against Villa, Arsenal, West Brom, Sunderland, West Ham and Crystal Palace when having more of the ball didn’t suit a team including a number of talented but young players and a lack of goals. If you apply the same criteria to Man City over the last 2 seasons, then Mancini and Pelligrini both under performed because City should have won the PL at a canter. This season Chelsea have a chance and no more than that, as Mourinho has quite recently said. Is Abromavich unhappy? If he is he has a strange way of showing it. Is this Chelsea a longer term project? Yes I think so. Is a part of the media obsession because Mourinho speaks openly and Abramovich says nothing at all? Without doubt. My goodness, wouldn’t you miss him.

  2. “The teams limitations were exposed in the games against Villa, Arsenal, West Brom, Sunderland, West Ham and Crystal Palace when having more of the ball didn’t suit a team including a number of talented but young players and a lack of goals”. – Mourinho’s limited tactics were exposed last season, not Chelsea’s players. The average age of the team was 27, so the argument for Chelsea being a young team doesn’t stand up. Having more of the ball didn’t suit the team because Mourinho strips his teams of creativity. Then twists the focus onto misfiring strikers or referees or opposing teams having less games to play. Anything but his own failings. Another season like that and might not be able to get away with those excuses.

  3. Tony Lee says:

    If you were describing someone lick Claudio Ranieri (if one nil up shut up shop) or Sam Allerdici (any one else’s fault but his) with no track record of winning anything, I might be inclined to agree. Mourinho’s Chelsea team 2004/05 played with creativity and width but then lost Duff and Robben (injury issues rather than a desire to sell). I recall walking through Munich after beating Bayern and a Munich fan shouting out “You can’t be proud of that!”. I answered “There are 3 reasons why I am. First, Chelsea don’t have a Robben or a Ribbery. Second, it’s not Chelsea’s job to score for Bayern. And third, I don’t care.” Oh, but of course that was Di Matteo and not Mourinho, but really this whole thing is just an anti-Chelsea agenda and Mourinho fits the bill. For anyone interested in football history, Herbert Chapman admitted to sacrificing style for efficiency when winning 3 championships for Arsenal in 1930’s, George Graham anyone? Too many on their high horses. If Mourinho was persuaded to do the England job part-time, we might even win when it mattered, but then of course paying Hodgson 3.1m a year plus bonuses makes far more sense….

  4. That is exactly Mourinho’s’ tactic, especially against the big teams. Did you not see the quote I used from Mourinho himself admitting that? Width isn’t the same thing as creativity either. Duff and Robben were exciting and very effective but they weren’t the creative hub of the team.

    I have absolutely no ‘anti-Chelsea’ bias or agenda. It’s nonsense to suggest that I have, or such a thing even exists, because you disagree with me.

    I’m not bemoaning so-called practicality. I accept not all teams will play free-flowing, attacking football and don’t expect it. Not all managers have to be purists. My main point was that Mourinho’s limited tactics cost Chelsea the title last year. Only Chelsea and Sunderland picked up more points from the top 10 teams than those in the bottom half. This highlights the limits of Mourinho’s defensive minded tactics. He could successfully park the bus against Liverpool, but couldn’t get his team to break down Sunderland, West Ham or Norwich at home.

    If the trend continues this season then Mourinho will more than likely be finished at Chelsea. This view is nothing to do with being on a ‘high-horse’, it’s a reasonable, practical estimation.

  5. Tony Lee says:

    Fair enough, I accept your rationale. Perhaps I’ve been in the company of too many supporters of teams playing in red lately and become a bit tired of the rhetoric. I’ve watched all Chelsea’s pre-season friendlies and the style of football is much more positive and the creative hub is of course Fabregas. Costa is much more of a team player than he seems to be given credit for and has laid on as many goals as he has scored.

    It seems clear to me that this is a ‘different’ Chelsea and that Abramovich brought Mourinho back to do a different job. You may be right, lets face it the odds are in your favour in terms of managerial sackings, but personally I doubt it. And I did read your quote. To be honest I shuddered when I heard Mourinho say that, because we knew what it meant for the rest of the season. To suggest someone of his calibre is not capable of creating a different way of playing seems like sloppy journalism to me (Redknapp, Lineker etc not you).

    Where I completely disagree is with your analysis of the team last season, it was unbalanced and lacked fluidity and goals. The team’s collective strength, that brought fortunate victories against Man City (by far the stronger team overall) with 30% possession, were completely different to those required to beat teams when Chelsea had 60% plus possession. Chelsea scored one less goal than the rest of the Liverpool squad (minus Saurez contribution) and far fewer than Man City. That wasn’t down to Mourinho’s tactics, it was because of a failure to take enough of the chances created and because of an inability to move the ball quickly enough through midfield to attack.

    In effect Sunderland etc mugged Chelsea in the same way Chelsea mugged Man City. The only reason Chelsea were in the hunt was because Man City made such hard work of what should have been a comfortable job, possibly 10 points clear. I’ll take your ‘wager’ on Mourinho. I believe this is a long term project and that he will be in the job longer than any of his previous ones.

    Thanks for the reply. I enjoyed it even if we do choose to differ!

  6. Pre-season isn’t a great way of gauging how a team will play throughout the season. I also mentioned how Chelsea’s transfer dealings in the article. Both Costa and Fabregas should be considerable upgrades on last season.

    Mourinho has shown in the past he’s capable of being tactically flexible, he never would have achieved what he has otherwise. My point was that in the past few years, seemingly from 2010, when he went to Madrid, and through last season, he hasn’t shown as much flexibility. His teams have at times been impressive without the ball, playing on the counter-attack and pressing the central midfield area. For example, Chelsea were brilliant when they beat Arsenal 6-0 last season. But when teams sat off them, they really struggled. I think that’s a slight more on Mourinho than his players. He blamed his strikers, or the refs or the fixtures but it reflects poorly on Mourinho’s football philosophy and tactics.

    I don’t agree that Chelsea were much poorer than Man City and it’s too convenient to take Suarez’s goals from Liverpool to make a point. The fact was that Chelsea scored at least 30 goals less than both. And Liverpool, a club with considerably fewer playing resources, finishing above Chelsea also reflects poorly on Mourinho. I agree that the strikers weren’t exactly prolific and the team now has more creativity with Fabregas. But the fact remains that in the games that cost Chelsea the title last season, against Norwich, Villa and Sunderland, the team couldn’t break down the opposition defence. For me, that’s reflection of Mourinho’s tactics and defensive mindset.

    I offered no ‘wager’. My argument was that if Mourinho continues to rely on, what I feel is, a limited tactical outlook, he will struggle to continue his successful. And if he fails to deliver success again he’ll be gone. Maybe Mourinho would like to be at Chelsea longer than in previous jobs, but the the only thing he has offered clubs is success. He’s not a football purist, he doesn’t want to build a team, bring through young players or build up a club. He’s only about winning. And until the past few seasons he could guarantee that, but there’s no way he could excuse another season without a trophy. So if he can’t provide success anymore there won’t be a long term project.

    No problem, thanks for reading and replying.

  7. Tony Lee says:

    Before kick off tonight I predicted 4 nil to Chelsea. In the end, the first half was the Chelsea I would like to watch and the second pragmatism a la Mourinho. In reality none of the questions we debated were answered because Burnley played openly and certainly didn’t park any buses. Nonetheless, this is a different Chelsea and I hold my opinion that this team is set out both to win and entertain and that with the crop of young players coming through, this is a long term project.

  8. tonylee2014 says:

    I think that the possibility of Mourinho staying at Chelsea for the duration of his contract, Chelsea playing entertaining winning football and young players coming through from a youth system that has been long in the developing is too much to bear for those who have already made up their minds. Here is my prediction for the next 3 years (in no particular order), not about team performance but managers – Pelligrini sacked, Mourinho still at Chelsea, Wenger 50/50 put out to grass or not, Rodgers to leave of his own volition and LVG sacked. I wonder what odds I might get on that……..

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