Days of Infamy

Just because they’re behind you, it doesn’t mean they’re having your back.

It’s been 228 days. 228 days between José Mourinho’s third Premier League title and his departure ‘by mutual consent’ from Chelsea. A little less than eight months consisting of pain, defeats, complaints, excuses, conflicts, backroom turmoils, temporary improvements and more setbacks. A classic ‘hero-to-zero’ managerial story, in which the protagonist would repeatedly cross the margin of error, belittle the magnitude of his responsibility, heat up the drama instead of running away from it and, finally – become so alienated in his own clubs’ dressing room, he’d lash out against the players; the same players that were willing to drag their bodies through the mile of broken glass for him during the 2014/15 campaign.

“I don’t run away from responsibilities.”

Looking back at the plot of this astonishing disaster movie, it’s plain to see that certain signs of a storm could be seen from miles away. For instance: the February slapstick-like failure against PSG in Champions League’s Round of 16. Playing with an extra man for an hour and a half, having the winning lead not once but twice and receiving a favorable treatment from the referee – The Blues have failed to stop two goals coming from the set pieces. Technically, they weren’t defeated; the French champions pulled through on an away goals rule. Alas, once the team has been granted with an enormous chance, they simply threw it away. And eleven months later, a set-play situation costed them a home loss to Bournemouth…

Another questionable, dangerous issue was the transfer activity. As a club that managed to produce only one, fully homegrown first-team member in the past decade, CFC were always relying on hiring new guns and adjusting them to Mourinho’s footballing framework. Last summer, that approach worked well. The signings of Diego Costa and Cesc Fàbregas have allowed Blues to simply run away with the league before Christmas – after which, their main rivals have lost hope of ever keeping up the pace. This year, despite spending around £64 million on eleven players, the new quality the team has been supplemented with was nowhere near the class of signings, who captured the 2014/15 title in May.

“We had a couple of players that were not in the game.”

Let’s take a closer look at Mou’s freshly hired personnel. Pedro – hailed as a player who could revitalize Chelsea’s front lines, he had one good game against West Brom before falling into obscurity. Begović – played decently but, unlike injured Courtois in the past, has never really won the team any points with his performances. Falcao – considering his spell at Manchester United, the lad has been a gamble from the start; a failed gamble. Baba Rahman and Kenedy – never got a chance to play, not even when ‘big names’ kept shrinking before our eyes. Papy Djilobodji – totally pointless signing, made out of frustration for not getting Everton’s John Stones. Overall, it’s been a mixture of ‘squad rotation players’ and ‘young prospects’; not the footballers who could undermine the status of increasingly complacent first-team starters.

At the same time, the club has continued their ridiculous policy of loaning out hordes of players they could potentially use in the future. This summer though, they simply went overboard with it. As John Terry and Gary Cahill were unable to find their 2014/15 form, centre-back loanee Andreas Christensen had some excellent performances for Gladbach in Germany. Chelsea’s main star, Eden Hazard, has been easily outperformed by Victor Moses – the same Moses that’s been wandering from Liverpool to Stoke to West Ham, all while having a contract at Stamford Bridge. Cuadrado in Juventus; Salah in Roma; Aké at Watford – they all became important players for the sides that took them. Were all those ‘spare talents’ really of no use for CFC? And will they ever get a chance from their parent club?

Well, Mourinho was unlikely to offer them anything. In the days of hectic squad rotation and extra signings made just to fill up 24th or 25th positions in club rosters, The Special One has always been in favor of a consistent starting eleven. Last season, his first-team superstars have completed more Premier League pitch time than any other teams’ main lineup. Tired legs didn’t matter; occasional sub-par performances didn’t matter. According to the cornerstone of this philosophy, sending out the same squad on the pitch over and over again is a recipe for a) improving the teamwork between the players and b) reassuring the lads that even one or two poor displays won’t undermine their position.

“The first negative thing that happens, the team collapse.”

We’ve all seen how that worked out this autumn. The teamwork was thrown out of the window. In most of the lost efforts, Chelsea players didn’t look as if they grasped the idea that putting some graft would ease the job for their partners. If The Blues from the past had a strong, collective mentality and would occasionally slip on the fifth gear to snatch wins at a minimal cost – these New Blues pretty much stopped running as soon as they get rid of the ball. And it wasn’t just the lack of hunger from a side that has already proven to be the best a season ago – this was, without a doubt, the lack of belief in Mourinho’s judgement.

The real question is: can Chelsea players really be blamed for their shrinking degree of trust? For one thing is hard to deny: their boss has made many, many errors that led to a disaster. His well-known reluctance to bench underperforming players was in order as long as they’ve had a sense of responsibility and felt like they were granted ‘a second chance’. But the gratitude effect only worked in case of minor failures. When the real crisis came along, the Mourinho’s Method wasn’t enough. The best example? Branislav Ivanović. Whether it was a tactical novelty by his manager or a simple rebellion against the discipline – the Serb kicked off this season as a wing-back. It’s been an atrocious experiment; but it persisted despite it’s inherent flaws. And once it stopped, the damage has already been done.

For Ivanović, Montero was just the beginning of a nightmare.

In one case, José failed to react in time; in the other, he most certainly overreacted. Even though his fallout with Eva Carneiro has been greatly exaggerated by the media, it doesn’t change the fact that he himself has contributed to such exaggeration. After all, an incident like the one against Swansea was completely irrelevant in terms of the game’s result. And even if it was relevant, The Special One, formerly known for his ability to conceal strong emotions, could’ve taken the issue to the back of his dressing room, where all dirt shall remain. Instead of that, we’ve seen an outburst of fury. It wasn’t calculated. It wasn’t theatrical like it used to be in the past when he knew that the eye of camera was tracking him. All of that authentic rage over a minor moment. At best, it was a very bad sign.

“…my medical department: impulse and naive…”

Of course, when it comes to emotional side of the game, other things need to be taken into account. Mou, as we know him, has an uncanny ability to play along with the press and supply them with more and more evidence to the main narrative convention surrounding his club. On this occasion, he embodied the role of a buffoon perfectly, running his mouth against the referees and, eventually, directly criticizing his own players. It fit perfectly with his image at that particular point of time – but, just like hundreds of times before, it’s been merely a feint tactic to give the public everything they wanted to hear. For what purpose? Again: the Portuguese manager deflected the negativity towards other people (including himself) and kept the pressure off his players. Which seemed perfectly reasonable – except, in this circumstances, the players actually deserved to be put under both criticism and pressure.

At this point, another memorable Jose’s speech comes to mind. In 2014, he’d call Arsene Wenger ‘a specialist in failure’. It was a juicy morsel for the journalists; but they’ve also largely missed the importance of a follow-up quote. To cite it directly: “If, supposedly, he (Wenger) is right and I am afraid to fail – it’s because I don’t fail many times”.

Exactly. A manager, who’s been deemed by everyone to be the best and whose job history used to be not just impressive but also straight-up flawless – that’s the kind of a manager who, in case of an overwhelming, unprecedented crisis will not have the resources or experience to solve the problems he’s encountered. Mourinho isn’t the first one to hit that brick wall. Alex Ferguson, the man whose legacy Jose wanted to contest, was close to being sacked in 1990 – years before the proper MU era has begun! The only difference is that back then, United had Martin Edwards – a long-term thinking, patient chairman who was prepared to wait until something is built out of nothing. Roman Abramovich, as wealthy and ready to sacrifice a lot of resources as he is, doesn’t have the luxury of time.

“I feel like my work was betrayed.”

That’s one of the reasons why The Special One is now gone; but not the biggest one. Because regardless whether Chelsea players started to doubt their manager or not – their duty was to listen, submit and execute what their boss has been responsible for. And, quite clearly, it wasn’t the tactics that caused the majority of Blues’ grief: the individual performances did. Did anyone forbid Hazard to extract some kind of substantial end product out of 48 dribbles he’s made this season? Was it so unrealistic to expect that Fàbregas will be able to produce more than two assists out of 26 key passes he’s made? Who knew Nemanja Matić, the absolute warrior last spring, will allow players like Mané, Coutinho or Barkley to walk around him? Regardless of the managerial change, it’s them, who have a lot to answer for.

One good performance against Sunderland might’ve been an indication that there really was some sort of uprising by spoiled players, who knew that they’re not the ones to get a bullet if things go south. But frankly, it’s still too early to pass that kind of judgement on new, not-so-Special-anymore Chelsea. Beating a relegation team by two goals while still not being able to retain a clean sheet – that’s, at best, a decent beginning for Guus Hiddink. The real test will come on Boxing Day, against absolutely lethal Watford. That match, as well as the following, hard games against Manchester United, Crystal Palace and West Brom, shall give us some sort of answer. Will it be an immediate, giant improvement? Because if the answer is: yes – the ‘rentboys’ argument made by an angry Liverpool fan is going to be proven right.

“I’m so sorry, I have nothing to say.”

Mourinho, most likely, won’t care anyway. Out of the lads he’s left behind, only Fàbregas bothered to express his regret of losing him to the public. But, most importantly, there are more interesting options looming just beyond the horizon. With Louis van Gaal and Rafael Benítez both under pressure, there might soon be openings to take a job in a club even bigger than CFC ever was. Will José finally find a home where he’ll build a dynasty comparable to Ferguson’s? Or will his proverbial, big ego doom him to a life of eternal nomad?

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