There is going to have to be a lot of soul searching this summer for Mourinho and Co. at Stamford Bridge as the self-ordained ‘special one’ enters a make or break transfer window. The Portugeezer has been quick to point out that his team are in a season of transition, as well as to highlight the woes he and they have faced. But as Chelsea finish the season empty handed for the first time in a few years, and José goes without a league title two years in a row for the first time since taking charge of Porto in 2002, Mourinho only has himself to blame.
Much of his talk, as was to be expected, has been overanalysed and probed into tedium. But for most level-headed Chelsea fans, who knew they’d have to cringe and facepalm their way through post match interviews, it was to be worth it to bring a fifth league title to SW6. However, as speculation mounts around Eden Hazard’s future, most of those same fans must be dreading what sort of Chelsea and which Mourinho will show up for the league’s opening fixture next August.
It’s too simple to be considered a decisive factor, but one must wonder what would have happened against Aston Villa, Crystal Palace, Sunderland and Norwich if Chelsea still had Juan Mata amongst their ranks. I won’t deny that in the immediate aftermath of the transfer it looked like a nice bit of business as Chelsea marched on, still in the title race and still in the Champions League, while a drowning David Moyes squandered Mata’s talent by playing him out wide and asking him to deal with quick ball down the flanks; Juan had found himself doing exactly what he was uncomfortable with doing at Chelsea, while Chelsea chased honours in his absence.
As it transpires it may not prove to have been the wisest move. What followed the pint-sized Spaniard’s departure from London was Oscar dos Santos Emboaba Júnior’s form diving off a cliff and Mourinho lamenting the absence of a quality striker in his squad. Chelsea have over relied on Hazard recently and what a difference Mata’s presence could have made against the aforementioned clubs. Against Villa Chelsea had 61% possession, 67% against Palace, 63% versus Sunderland and 72% when Norwich visited the Bridge. In that same order Chelsea racked up 404, 380, 390 and then 585 passes in those matches, and averaged 83% successful passing rate. There were various elements to each defeat, finishing was certainly a problem in a few of the matches, and Mourinho doesn’t accept that the defeat to Villa was anything other than down to bad refereeing [Cue collective facepalm from Chelsea faithful]. But it would be hard to imagine that Mata, with his ability to link up play and find space in the number ten role, wouldn’t have been able to make something happen in at least one or two of these matches; with the amount of time Chelsea spent camped on the edge of the opposition box.
No doubt Big Sam Allardici is clutching his belly and chuckling. Chelsea have been repeatedly exposed for not possessing the ability to crack teams that have sat back in recent months. The irony is lost on no one; Mou lambasted the ‘19th century’ football of West Ham, was then accused himself by Liverpool fans of ‘killing football’ and the tactic that has brought him success in big games this season has been his downfall. Live by the sword, die by the sword.
On top of the sale of Mata, the singings of Willian, Schurrle and Salah speak volumes. All three are clearly wonderful talents in their own right. We’ve all seen Salah impress for Basel in recent years and there is a reason Schurrle has been a full international for Germany since he was 19. But the three don’t possess the same technical gifts, spatial awareness, vision and passing ability of Hazard or Mata. They are players who are all quick, direct, physical and willing to put in a shift without possession. In other words; a Mourinho wet dream.
But this cuts right to heart of the problem, and why it is so important that Eden Hazard’s services are retained by the club. When Chelsea come up against a backline that is willing to drop deep they have quickly looked void of ideas. Even in games where they have come away with a result, such as against ten-man Swansea, the attacking talents seem to shrivel away when the team are denied space in behind the back four.
It makes you wonder what Mourinho works on in training during the week? Because it certainly doesn’t appear to be link-up play or attacking movement. A man famed for his intensity and attention to detail on the training ground, José needs to carry the blame here. And the above-mentioned trio are not the solution to creating a balanced team. If Eden goes in the Summer, which, despite what’s being said, is hard to imagine, it’s even more difficult to see Willian, Schurrle and Salah, or even a returned-to-from Oscar, being the key to opening up teams who are going to make it difficult for Chelsea, regardless of what strikers they bring in. And it’s certainly been an issue this year.
It does beg the question as to what Chelsea will we see next year? Mou, ever the pragmatic manager, now has to start building a team with identity. There will be reinforcements and Nemanja Matić’s first full season since returning to the club will make a difference. But there will be no place to hide for José if Chelsea still lacks a cutting edge next season. And the recent months don’t supply much supporting evidence to suggest we’ll be excited too often by Chelsea come the new term.
Hazard’s frustration is understandable. No doubt, when he signed for The Blues following victory in the Champions League, the Belgian was sold a future based on him playing a key role in an exciting, attacking team as Chelsea were buying up every electrifying, young creative player they could get their hands on. And for the first two months of the 2012/2013 season Di Matteo’s Chelsea were free scoring and thrilling to watch. Fast-forward a season and Hazard reacts to Chelsea’s European exit by stating that his team are “not set up to play football.” Misquoted or not, Eden’s comments and Mourinho’s response, the manager remarked “He’s not the kind of player who is ready to sacrifice himself 100 per cent for the team and his mates”, says much about the situation facing both men.
When Damien Duff retired from international football in 2012, amongst the outpouring of tweets, interviews and articles remembering his international career was a piece written by Brian Kerr. In it Kerr noted that had Duff not spent the peak of his carrier in a Mourinho team that required him to do so much defensively for the team, but instead been in a side where he had been afforded the freedom to roam and express himself creatively, he would have been remembered as one of the outstanding attacking wingers of his generation.
Does Hazard, now having experienced his first full season under José, harbour fears of having his best years flogged out of him in a similar manner? Even Mourinho agreed that his team were mentally drained following defeat to Atlético and Norwich. Or does he see it as a challenge to rise to? And, perhaps, instead hopes to thrive under Mou, just as Cristiano Ronaldo did. Let’s not forget that before this lovers’ tiff the pair were publicly blowing kisses at each other, as José called him the best young player in the world and took credit for improving his game and Eden suggested that he could be as good as Messi and Ronaldo one day.
The stark reality this season, however, is in building a team that requires its creative outlets to do so much behind the ball Mourinho has failed to find a happy medium between defensive steel and attacking prowess when it came to the season’s crunch.
José Mourinho’s culpability in the Club’s shortcomings this season lies tactically as much as anywhere else. When Crystal Palace put it up to Chelsea, at Selhurst Park, Chelsea finished with basically a 4-2-4 system, which was a 2-2-2-4 by the end of the match. Matic and Luiz sitting on the edge of the centre circle, pinging balls forward to no one or out wide to the fullbacks, who were playing ahead of them, who then, in-turn, hit balls into no one, or tried to work the ball across; again to no effect. While Hazard, Ba, Torres and Salah clogged up the penalty box. Aside from Torres’ shocking miss, Chelsea never looked like creating.
Much of Chelsea’s recent poor results followed a similar pattern. It may have worked against PSG, but Mou’s inability to influence the aforementioned matches in the league has left him looking hapless. These games also played witness to Chelsea abandoning a starting 4-3-3 to go with a 4-4-2, which never looked effective, that then transitioned into the tactics highlighted in the previous paragraph, again to no effect.
Much was made of the return of the formation to fashion as PSG, Atlético and Manchester City, among others, began using it to such effect. But the fallibility of City at times and the use of it by Mourinho in these fixtures has highlighted its shortcomings and Moyes and Sherwood have firmly buried the idea it’s due a return to English football, not a return that could be healthy for the game anyway.
Watching Chelsea do everything short of putting John Terry upfront against teams that are struggling at the other end of the table, particularly a Norwich side that had just shipped four goals against a Manchester United who, despite being buoyed by Giggs’ first game in charge, were by no means impressive, makes one wonder what happened to the team that pressed so well and opened up Arsenal at will. Of course Arsenal played right into Chelsea’s hands in the match that marked Wenger’s 1,000th game in charge. But even so, none of that killer instinct has been seen since from Chelsea. The Blue’s impressive victory against City can easily be credited to Mou, Chelsea have been outstanding at times against the league’s top teams at times this year, but as the season draws to a close the Arsenal game begins to look more and more like a paradox.
Should Hazard depart it will mark a significant departure form the club’s ambition to win a second European Cup while playing a more eye-catching brand of football, even if only a symbolic one. Mourinho’s image and pedigree as a manager holds such weight that it has been suggested his tactics this year, particularly following his comments after defeat to Stoke in December, are part of a power play between him and Abramovich. But watching the man, standing bereft, while Diego Simeone celebrated alongside him it’s hard to imagine Mou thinking anything but ‘what excuse do I have here?’ Simeone looked slick and hungry, Mourinho simply didn’t. The man who proclaimed himself the ‘happy one’, and abandoned the sharp suit and much of the swagger that characterised his first stint at the Bridge has some work to do, and responsibility to take.
With the futures of Lampard, Terry and Cole up in the air there is a real feeling around South West London that a new team is about to be built. Ten years ago José laid the foundations of the side that eventually triumphed in Munich in 2012. What proceeded and followed that final was an obvious attempt at remodelling, one that claimed the job of more than a few managers. And the task has once again fallen to ‘the Special One’. It’s my humble opinion that there is nothing wrong with setting up a team to play in the manner that Mourinho did against Liverpool. While it can be frustrating watching José send out teams to play for a draw, as he did against Man United at Old Trafford and Arsenal at the Emirates, as well as in the Champions League away against PSG and Atlético Madrid, this is always going to be a feature of Mourinho’s management style. But with the talent and wealth at his disposal at Chelsea it is now José’s responsibility to utilise the attacking talents at his disposal.
But even if he does emerge in August with an exciting, free flowing side that is also defensively solid, which he is capable of, it won’t excuse the fact that the buck stops at Mou for Chelsea’s failings this year. Will no one think of poor Alan Shearer, affirming that José would be the difference in the title race week-in-week-out, only to end up with egg on his face?