TFN editor James Dutton looks at how Jose Mourinho’s bitter experience at Real Madrid has defined his management back at Chelsea…
“The only friend I have in this dressing room is Granero… and I’m not even sure that I can trust him any more. You’ve left me all on my own. You’re the most treacherous squad I’ve had in my life. Nothing more than sons of bitches.”
Real Madrid changed Jose Mourinho. The bitter, twisted and paranoid Mourinho that has stalked the Stamford Bridge touchline since the turn of the year is not the one that departed Milan in 2010, a European champion for the second time and ready to be feted by the biggest club in world football.
Sure, Mourinho has never been a saint. At Porto and his first spell with Chelsea there was plenty of evidence of the dark, underhand tactics that so riled Graeme Souness on Wednesday night. But Madrid was a new experience for him, it challenged him in ways he had never come across before. The insubordination that he met at Real Madrid, the dressing room cliques that festered and chronically undermined his final season in the Spanish capital, have resonated with him more than anything he has ever encountered in his glittering managerial career.
He proclaimed himself “The Happy One” when he returned to West London in June 2013, but he has barely raised a smile since. Of course, he did not mean that he was literally happy – there are always undercurrents to Mourinho’s words. More it was relief that he had returned somewhere where he could command the instant respect that he had had to earn for himself at Madrid.
The Portuguese feeds off controversy. It keeps him going. Seemingly coaching a football team and managing a club isn’t enough of a stimulus for him. There has to be something to fight against. It’s one of the leading constructs in the theory of nationalism – that a collective must come together against one other. German nationalism flourished in the mid-19th century because of the constant French threat that had perpetuated since the Napoleonic Wars.
Since Madrid, since his first experience of player rebellion, that theory has defined every season. For two years it was Barcelona and Pep Guardiola. Thankfully when Tito Vilanova took charge – a man he infamously poked in the eye in 2011 – even Mourinho did not have the gall to pick fights with someone fighting cancer. Instead, that was the season he took on the cliques in the Real Madrid dressing room, eventually dropping club captain Iker Casillas, creating a whole new conflict with the club’s hierarchy.
Last season it was Chelsea’s misfiring forwards and an obsession with horse metaphors. David Moyes was small-fry, he didn’t take Liverpool seriously, Arsene Wenger was cannon fodder to him and though he tried with Manuel Pellegrini it was as pointless as drawing blood from a stone.
This season the mantra has mutated into a full-blown siege mentality, an us against the world diatribe. First the Chelsea fans weren’t loud enough for him after a 2-1 home win against QPR, before he decided in December that there was a media-led refereeing campaign against his league leaders. This ridiculous accusation has dominated his rhetoric and newspaper column inches as a result; it resides in the realm of fantasy and deserves no attention.
It has, up until now, been an effective cloaking defence to shroud the deterioration of his side in recent months. It has served its purpose, but this should be the point of no return for that argument. The lack of squad rotation, which Miguel Delaney righty concluded was central to their excellent start to the season, has noticeably caught up with them since Christmas and the form of key players, particularly Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa, has dropped off a cliff.
So too, quite clearly, has a style of play that looks to extract the bare minimum in pursuit of victory. Rather than pushing his players to the very maximum of their capabilities Mourinho charges his men to play very much within themselves. In his review of Diego Torres’ illuminating book, The Dark Side of Jose Mourinho, Ken Early identifies this attitude from his time at Madrid.
“I score and I win, you score and you don’t know if you win,” is the essence of Mourinhoball. If you score first, I might equalise. But if I score first, it’s good night, because I’ll shut down the game and only venture forward to prey on your mistakes.
The mental scars of the insubordination he encountered at Madrid help explain the degradation in Chelsea’s form – don’t forget that the same thing happened last season. After a 1-0 win at Manchester City in February 2014 – a counter-attacking masterclass for which Mourinho was rightly acclaimed – they fell away badly. They should have won the league, instead they became cagey and ultra-defensive as the season waned – typified not just by their setup in the 2-0 win at Anfield, but the pitiful Champions League semi-final second-leg performance against Atletico Madrid.
This year Chelsea have lost a lead ten times – seven of those occurring since the turn of the year and the 5-3 defeat at White Hart Lane on New Year’s Day. Performances and results have drifted while the starting eleven has remained consistent to that which made a blistering start.
His Madrid experience explains the reluctance to rotate – a policy he engaged in regularly in his first spell at Stamford Bridge. It explains the ostracisation and sales of a number of talented footballers at Chelsea in the last two years – Juan Mata, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin de Bruyne, David Luiz, Andre Schurrle, Mohamed Salah. It explains his very public criticism of Eden Hazard’s work-rate and failure to sacrifice himself for the team last year.
Madrid shapes his whole outlook on football now. He demands complete trust and loyalty from his players. Those who don’t adapt – Mata, Schurrle and the rest – are out. You only have to look at Oscar, a fine attacking midfielder, who has come to resemble the archetypal Mourinho footballer in both a positive and a negative sense. He’s adapted his defensive game and become a mainstay.
Ultimately the culture that Mourinho has cultivated at Chelsea – not simply the siege mentality – is of doing just enough to win. It’s why setbacks, like the one on Wednesday night, become so much harder to accept. If you’re going to lose a football match, better surely to lose with everything left on the pitch, than wondering what might have been.
Mourinho has also caught the bug that afflicts almost every single top-flight manager, that of deflecting the blame for poor results and performances onto anything or anyone but himself. Citing minutes 30, 33, 43 and 69 for Chelsea’s failure to beat Burnley at home was a low point, and so too blaming his players for lacking the mental capacity to defeat 10-man PSG on Wednesday.
Put any other manager in charge of those players and in that situation, they do not sit deep and invite pressure, they do not show a complete lack of attacking ambition and imagination. They have played to instruction. They have played in the exact manner that has seen them fail to beat many of the top sides this season. For Mourinho it is an embarrassing fact, but the biggest team he has beaten this season is Arsenal, managed by someone he has never lost to.
Chelsea should still win the league this season, to add to their League Cup triumph. But after their ominously strong start to the season, it just doesn’t feel good enough anymore, and it’s all of Mourinho’s own making. Senior players and Roman Abramovich eventually grew tired of his antics back in 2007; if he keeps this schtick up then his claims that he could build a dynasty at Stamford Bridge upon his re-appointment two years ago could prove very hollow indeed.