Manager showing signs of breaking with his history of short-term focus
Mourinho instilling his new long-term vision at Chelsea
In between his two spells at Stamford Bridge, Jose Mourinho would sometimes still speak of Chelsea as “my Chelsea”.
He did so in the way an architect might speak of a building he designed but does not occupy, and Mourinho usually said “my Chelsea” to remind anybody who might have forgotten that although the London club would win prizes – the English Premier League and FA Cup under Carlo Ancelotti, the Uefa Champions League with Roberto di Matteo – without him, Mourinho’s stamp has in the past decade been the one most firmly imprinted on the club.
Over the past week, the shape of Mourinho’s Chelsea II, the version that a mature manager now in his 50s hopes will emulate the previous model he oversaw in his 40s, has taken on a distinct shape.
Activity in this, his second transfer window of his second spell in charge, has appeared far more in keeping with a long-term vision than the buying and selling he oversaw last summer.
Chelsea’s Player of the Year from last season, and from 2011/12, Juan Mata, has been sold, as has the Belgian winger Kevin de Bruyne.
Mourinho had doubts about Mata’s role in his tactical schemes, expressed them openly and, as the club made a tidy profit by selling the Spaniard to Manchester United for £37.1 million (Dh225m), will not have offended the club’s treasury by signing off on his departure.
Instead of a gifted attacking midfielder in Mata, Chelsea now have an imposing anchor midfield player, Nemanja Matic, hired from Benfica.
For that deal, Chelsea’s accountants were obliged to nod in deference to the manager’s better judgement: the same Matic, then age 22, was transferred to Benfica exactly three years ago from Chelsea as a makeweight in the deal that brought David Luiz to Stamford Bridge.
The value put on Matic then was £3m; Chelsea’s fee this time – more than £20m – means Benfica have registered about a 600 per cent profit.
Matic and the 21-year-old Egyptian winger Mohamed Salah – costing an initial £12m, from Basel – look far more like an endorsement of Mourinho’s recently declared intention to break from his past, restless habits and be at Chelsea for long enough to grow a squad and develop strategy over five years or more.
“The record for a manager here [in the era of Roman Abramovich’s ownership of the club] is three and a half years,” he said with a smile.
That was the duration of his own first stint. Eight others have done the job in the past 10 and a half years. “I want to break my own record,” Mourinho added.
Salah and Matic are young enough to be allies through that length of stay. They could be still peaking in their respective roles in, say, 2018/19.
A player such as Samuel Eto’o, hired in the summer, will not. He turns 33 in March and was an opportunist signing. Willian, the Brazilian winger, snatched late in August from the grasp of Tottenham Hotspur, having been made available by sudden cost-cutting at Anzhi Makhachkala, where he and Eto’o were playing, was also someone who rose up the Chelsea agenda abruptly. Willian is 25, and impressing, but may feel his position in the hierarchy is the one most threatened by Salah’s arrival.
Salah is startlingly quick. Matic, at 6ft 4ins, is strikingly rugged. Pace and power have always been trademarks of the best Mourinho teams.
He has never been shy of discarding crowd favourites such as Mata, either. When Mourinho began at Real Madrid, club captain Raul and vice-captain Guti both departed.
Neither has he been reluctant to inject something extra into his squads in January.
Ten years ago, coaching Porto, Mourinho used a mid-season transfer opportunity to bring in a young flyer from Brazil named Carlos Alberto. Four months later the same player, a mere teenager, scored the opening goal in Porto’s triumph in the Champions League final. An encouraging omen?
Perhaps. Chelsea supporters might also note that in the January before Mourinho’s Inter Milan won the 2010 Champions League, part of a historic treble, he was active in the transfer window.
He brought in a young, rugged holding midfielder – MacDonald Mariga – and a versatile attacker to be used in wide areas, in Goran Pandev.
At Chelsea, Inter and Real Madrid, Mourinho usually had access to significant transfer funds.
Not all his signings have been roaring successes, and he has sometimes been styled as a short-term strategist, always with an eye on his next job rather than on the enduring capabilities of the squad he assembles.
Matic and Salah seem to represent something beyond instant dividend, although both would hope to be regularly involved in a busy fixture period immediately ahead, starting against West Ham United on Wednesday.