While Chelsea are in a better position than a year ago, writes Richard Jolly, Jose Mourinho's highest accomplishment this season is merely being the first Chelsea coach to go trophy-less and retain his job in the Roman Abramovich era.
Mourinho, ‘the man who scorned many a nearly man’ now one himself
Jose Mourinho’s extraordinary managerial career includes some historic achievements. He became the first manager to win the Premier League, Primera Liga and Serie A. He is the only one since 1995 to lift the European Cup with a club outside England, Germany, Italy and Spain. He went unbeaten at home in 150 league matches spread over nine years.
And yet the most unlikely feat may beckon. A man who forged an identity as a serial winner is on the brink of accomplishing something altogether different. Mourinho should become the first Chelsea manager in the Roman Abramovich era to end a season without a trophy and retain his position.
The last time they were starved of silverware, in 2011, Carlo Ancelotti was dismissed in a corridor of Goodison Park. That the same Carlo Ancelotti, of course, could end this season as a champion of both Spain and Europe hints at Chelsea’s problems: with the exception of Pep Guardiola, Abramovich’s ideal coach, the well of Champions League-winning managers has almost run dry. They have appointed virtually all of those who have not retired.
For a while, it seemed as though Mourinho was destined to conquer the continent in Chelsea blue. Defeat to the underdogs from Atletico Madrid in last week’s semi-final felt like a missed opportunity but Chelsea are not among Europe’s best four teams. Taking them that far was a success in itself.
The same cannot be said of Chelsea’s Premier League record. Mourinho’s predictions that they would not win the league have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Perhaps he will take a perverse pleasure in being proved right. Yet Chelsea could – arguably should – have emerged on top.
They had a seven-point lead less than two months ago. They took 16 points from a possible 18 against the rest of the top four, illustrating that, in Mourinho, they have the best big-game manager in England.
But the “little horse”, to use the Portuguese’s phrase, tripped up on the little fences. Chelsea failed to score at home against West Ham United and Norwich City. They lost to Aston Villa, Crystal Palace and Sunderland. They have only won two of their last eight games against teams in the wrong half of the league.
They have lacked the efficiency and the ruthlessness of the great Mourinho teams. When Chelsea hit the front in the title race, past experience suggested it was ominous. Instead they, rather than supposedly more fragile Liverpool and Manchester City teams, failed the test of temperament.
Mourinho has formulated and framed the argument that Chelsea lack strikers.
With Samuel Eto’o and Fernando Torres in the autumn of golden careers, they have no one comparable with Luis Suarez or Sergio Aguero. Yet that is not reason enough: partly because Chelsea do not need to score as often as Mourinho, charismatic miser that he is, has constructed England’s best defence.
Rather the lack of goals points to both managerial miscalculations and stylistic issues. Mourinho felt he would sign Wayne Rooney last summer and, rather than having a better contingency plan, ended up with Eto’o, a man of uncertain age.
Partly because he is so persuasive, he has tended to escape criticism, just as he has done for loaning out Romelu Lukaku and selling Juan Mata. Because Mourinho is Mourinho, many Chelsea fans automatically assume he is right, just as they deemed Rafa Benitez wrong last season unless he proved otherwise. The Spaniard would have been demonised for making the same decisions.
Lukaku has a trait of independent thought that may not endear him to Mourinho but, predictably, he has outscored the strikers Chelsea kept. He has mustered 14 league goals himself. Eto’o, Torres and Demba Ba have only 19 between them.
Mata’s Manchester United career has been underwhelming, but he was Chelsea’s double Player of the Year, an artist who was sufficiently productive that his final full season in London yielded 20 goals and 25 assists. The Spaniard’s precision and invention may have helped unlock the packed defences who have frustrated Chelsea of late.
Selling Mata signified Oscar’s coronation as Mourinho’s preferred No 10 but the Brazilian has had a wretched second half of the season. Mata’s £37 million (Dh229m) fee is significant in age of Financial Fair Play but it is a moot point if Mohamed Salah, who arrived as he exited, is merely a second-rate Andre Schurrle or a player who offers something different in his own right.
With Eden Hazard incurring Mourinho’s displeasure last week, the flair player he seems to trust most is Willian, whose work ethic brings plaudits, but who has scored four goals in 42 games. The Brazilian has become the personification of prioritisation of the physical at the expense of the technical.
If Chelsea are to prosper next season, they require more subtlety as well as greater potency. As it is, and though they are trophy-less – Mourinho disparaged the Europa League Benitez won 12 months ago – they are in a better place they were a year ago. Mourinho has revived John Terry’s career, converted Cesar Azpilicueta into the best defensive left-back in England and recruited Nemanja Matic to become a formidable barrier in front of the back four.
Yet over the past decade, Mourinho has dealt not in individual improvements but in collective achievements. Progress has been measured in silverware and Chelsea will end this season without any. Mourinho, the man who scorned many a nearly man, has been this season’s nearly man.
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