It took place less than two years ago, but the relentless pace of change in the Premier League makes it seem like a lifetime ago now.
The first three weeks of the Premier League season have restored Jose Mourinho as the most feared manager in the division, his Manchester United side carving up everything in their path to seal three straight wins without conceding a goal. But back in December 2015, the Special One had fallen to his lowest low, an unanticipated plunge into the abyss that collided so spectacularly with Leicester City’s miraculous rise amid a fateful clash at the King Power Stadium. It was the match that would end Mourinho’s second spell as Chelsea manager, and affirm Leicester’s affluent form as so much more than a mere honeymoon under Claudio Ranieri.
2015/16 was a Premier League season quite like no other. Aston Villa and Newcastle United, two top flight institutions, both dropped out of the division; Liverpool, just two seasons after finishing second, plummeted all the way to eighth place; Tottenham suddenly emerged as one of the Premier League’s most relentless forces; West Ham and Southampton both claimed Europa League football; and even Arsenal awoke from their habitual dormancy to finish in second. The table didn’t quite turn on its head completely come the end of May; rather, somebody shook up all twenty clubs like parts in a kaleidoscope, creating a new, unpredictable, awkward pattern to gaze upon. Very few clubs, if any, finished up where they’d expected at the start of the season.
And yet, no transformations were more significant, shocking and unimaginable than Chelsea and Leicester City’s. Just six weeks before the end of 2014/15, the two clubs couldn’t have been further apart; the Blues ever-steady in the pole position they’d acquired after their first game of the season and held onto ever since, Leicester rock-bottom of the Premier League and staring relegation in the face. Chelsea slowly but steadily jogged over the line to clinch their third title under Mourinho, while Leicester completed a last-gasp great escape inspired by an ageing, soon-to-be-departing Esteban Cambiasso. The two clubs couldn’t have entered the new campaign under more polarised circumstances.
But something happened that summer, only comparable to the ever-rehashed body-swapping plot of Freaky Friday – in essence, Chelsea and Leicester traded places. Of course, we could look back upon their reflecting rises and falls chronologically, but we all know the facts by now. Leicester began the season with just one defeat in their first ten games, winning five, and unexpectedly flew to the top of the table. Chelsea, meanwhile, starting from the first game of the season now infamous for Mourinho’s vicious verbal lashing of Eva Carneiro, jumped from crisis to crisis, the reigning champions in contrast losing five of their first ten.
Almost perfect mirror images of each other, but there was nothing mystical going on. As a poor pre-season and a worrying transfer window snowballed into a shambolic start to the season proper, the champions left a power vacuum at the Premier League’s summit, which their many rivals stuck in transition (United about to sack Louis van Gaal, Liverpool changing managers to Jurgen Klopp, City on the verge of hiring Pep Guardiola) struggled to adequately occupy. Leicester City, still overflowing with belief after their great escape yet over-prepared for the new campaign fearing another relegation battle, suddenly found themselves filling the void instead. The Premier League always needs a front-runner and amid the inadequacy of the usual suspects, Leicester commandeered the postion for themselves.
That switch in roles came to its inevitable head when Chelsea travelled to the Midlands in December. At that point, Leicester had ended a sixth matchday in first place, whereas Chelsea had spent just two outside of the bottom half, suffering a staggering eight defeats. In front of an aghast, almost speechless fan base that didn’t know whether to point the finger at the manager who once provided the foundations to transform Roman Abramovich’s wealth into on-pitch success, the players whose performance levels had dropped so dramatically from the season previous or the transfer puppet-masters behind the scenes, Chelsea’s matches had already been reduced to pure pantomime farce. Nobody knew the remedy to the Blues’ tribulations, or when they’d end. The 2-1 defeat at the King Power Stadium sustained that trend in emphatic fashion.
Leicester’s first goal provided a familiar sight, the once-imperious John Terry lost at sea as Jamie Vardy charged between the Chelsea captain and Kurt Zouma to prod home a Riyad Mahrez cross, one of the Foxes’ talismanic duo’s many collaborations that season. Their second saw Mahrez turn goalscorer, twisting the usually impenetrable Cesar Azpilicueta all ends up to curl past Thibaut Courtois from just outside the near post. Chelsea hit back through Loic Remy late on, but the result and Mourinho’s fate had already been sealed.
Yet, more than any of the three goals, the truly telling moment came after just half an hour. Relationships between Mourinho and his players had clearly been strained for weeks, if not from the moment the Portuguese turned his frustrations on Chelsea’s female physio in their opening clash of the season. As Leicester asserted their dominance but before they even scored their first goal, Mourinho’s and Hazard’s relationship surpassed breaking point. In short, it was the moment – perhaps the first moment in Mourinho’s entire managerial career – when it had become clear he’d lost control.
Hazard’s form was a shadow of a ghost of the season previous when he’d won the Player of the Year award and inspired Chelsea’s march to the title. After half an hour of continued anonymity, the Belgian signalled to the bench, limping his way from the left wing to the dugout. Mourinho looked at his talismanic midfielder and instructed him to give his ankle one last try. Hazard begrudgingly attempted one more pass, before instantly turning and marching down the tunnel without even a peripheral look at his manager. The pass was a completely token gesture. If there was any image to confirm Mourinho had lost his dressing room, or at the very least the faith of his most important player, this was it. It combined with a frustrated Diego Costa throwing a bib at Mourinho just a fortnight earlier, and didn’t create a pretty collage.
The result compounded Chelsea to 16th place, just one point above the relegation zone, and pushed Leicester two points clear at the other end of the table. Three days later, after admitting even Champions League qualification was now beyond the reigning champions, Mourinho was sacked. It may seem unfair to dismiss any manager after losing to soon-to-be champions, especially champions as miraculous as Leicester City. But in truth, Mourinho can have no qualms; more than any other manager, he played a crucial role in creating that space for the Foxes to occupy at the top of the Premier League. He inspired crisis at Chelsea and in poetic irony, it was his one-time predecessor who took advantage. Leicester 2-1 Chelsea wasn’t the showdown; it was the inevitable execution.
From that moment on, Chelsea’s season took an upward trajectory. They didn’t lose again until April, and only three times more before the campaign came to a close, eventually finishing in tenth – the kind of final standing Leicester could only have dreamed of at the start of the season. Chelsea did, however, eventually claim some justice of their own, playing the final hand in the title race in the unforgettable battle of Stamford Bridge. As much as that was about stopping arch rivals Tottenham, it was also an acknowledgement to Leicester, the team that achieved the unthinkable, the team that had tamed them six months earlier. At that point, however, Mourinho could only be a spectator.