If Jose Mourinho had had his way back at Real Madrid, Iker Casillas would have been shown the door, more than likely followed by Sergio Ramos.
The Portuguese coach got his way when he returned to Stamford Bridge at the start of this season, leveraging the kind of power that wasn’t quite afforded him at the Bernabeu – though that’s not to say Mourinho didn’t hold some say at the club, he certainly held more than his immediate predecessors.
Juan Mata, back-to-back Player of the Year at Chelsea, was removed from the team, isolated for his ‘unwillingness’ to become a defensive player, and eventually sold to domestic rivals Manchester United. No one cared to step in and question why a player who had helped the club to successive European titles in 2012 and 2013 was suddenly no good.
Along with Mata, Kevin De Bruyne, a hugely talented youngster brought in from Belgium, was deemed surplus and also no good. Chelsea may have played a smart piece of business in generating well over £50million for the pair, but their removal began the systematic chipping away of creative nous in the team that evidently isn’t over yet.
Eden Hazard is far and away Chelsea’s most valuable player, and yet Mourinho has taken it upon himself to re-enact the events that led to his demise and removal from the Real Madrid dugout last year.
Hazard was at fault for Atletico Madrid’s first goal last Wednesday in the Champions League semi-final, failing to track his runner. Mourinho has reportedly fired a warning shot to Hazard, and one or two others, for their failure to work to his system. Yet what has been missed by the Chelsea manager is that much of the team’s good results this season can be owed to the form of Hazard, a player whose image and reputation he attempted to enhance at the start of the campaign.
Hazard is naturally frustrated, as he spoke following Chelsea’s semi-final loss about the weight on his shoulders to carry the team’s attacking threat and his displeasure at what most perceive as negative tactics.
Chelsea have struggled this season, not because players like Hazard are failing to track their man in their own half, but because the Belgian has been isolated on the pitch, given neither the tools nor the flexibility of the manager to turn third into first. And it was well within reach.
Hazard’s numbers in his first season in English football were spectacular for a youngster who had tasted nothing else but France’s Ligue 1. The trio of Hazard, Mata and Oscar quickly became famed for their attacking prowess, and suddenly Roman Abramovich was getting a taste of that beautiful football he longed for.
But how will this team look next season without Hazard? Most have jumped to the conclusion that Diego Costa, or a striker or similar quality, is the final piece that will turn Mourinho’s little horse into a stallion able to outrun those from Manchester and Merseyside. But Chelsea don’t just need reinforcements at centre-forward, they need to replace the creativity of Mata and retain the good that they do have in Hazard.
This is a team that have become both dull and blunt this season. As Diego Simeone’s Atletico showed in the Champions League, Mourinho’s methods can be outdone by a manager willing to find a balance in defensive solidity and attacking threat.
The Chelsea manager can defend his tactics all he wants, but what the club needs is for him to offer some leeway in order to work with the attacking talents the owner has given the green light to acquire. If Mourinho is on the brink of going to war with players like Hazard, as he has done in the past, then intervention from the club’s hierarchy is a must.
As the adage goes, it’s easier to replace the manager than it is to replace the entire squad. And at the moment, there is no reason why the club’s leading attacker in Hazard should be offered any kind of motivation to pursue a move elsewhere.