‘Too little, too late’ are the words that every football fan fears. Those immortal words uttered by commentators right after a goal slice like a dagger through your heart. Goals breed joy and hope, but goals that come too late to change anything are dead on arrival – somehow no goals at all would have been better than the ‘consolation’.
It’s also what every manager fears, too. Manuel Pellegrini is currently basking in the glow of a perfect start to the season and also in a club record number of consecutive victories. 11 wins on the bounce have broken a Manchester City record that has stood for over a century and three more wins in this current streak will see City equal Arsenal’s record of 14.
The Invincible Arsenal. Yet only four of those City wins have been celebrated as being anything more than simply ‘consolation’ victories at the end of a limp season. They won their final six games last time around, but by then the season was done and dusted. What’s the point in winning the final six if the previous 32 have left you in no position to win the title?
Manchester City – the defending Champions at the time – found that out the hard way. Countless others have found it too. Chelsea will be hoping they don’t learn the same lesson this season
After a rough start to the campaign – a draw at home to Swansea and a heavy defeat at the Etihad against Manchester City themselves – Chelsea looked to be on the verge of turning things around. They went out and snapped Pedro from under the noses of Manchester United and went on to beat West Brom with a fine performance from the new man.
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Although the West Brom game saw another red card, another two goals shipped and some very glaring problems still present at Chelsea, the win seemed to show them regaining some sort of form, or at least coming out of the other side of the awful start.
And then came the Palace defeat and the debacle of deadline day.
Jose Mourinho wanted defensive cover, he failed to land Marquinhos and managed to bring in two players who were simply not on anyone’s radar. That seemed amateur – surely there was no way PSG would sell their defender given the deadline in France was on Monday and Mourinho bid on Tuesday. Selling would have given PSG no chance to replace what they’d lost. As for the successful signings, Michael Hector was loaned right back to Reading and Papy Djilobodji isn’t even included in Chelsea’s Champions League squad. It’s baffling.
And it smacks of desperation, of course. But it’s not just that Mourinho is desperate to bring in new recruits, it’s not just that he feels that he’s lacking players, it’s also that he can feel his grasp on the Premier League trophy slipping. Manchester City have been the stand out performers in the market and they’ve started the season like a runaway train. It’s exactly that combination that has those words ‘too little, too late’ ringing in Mourinho’s ears – it’s probably what PSG told him when they rejected his bid for Marquinhos a day after the French transfer window had closed.
They were also the words that haunted Sir Alex Ferguson – Gary Neville told us as much in 2012, right before City beat United to the title on goal difference. Imagine doing everything asked of you, meeting every expectation, winning as many games as you needed to win and preparing perfectly, yet still coming up short.
In that moment of sorrow and disbelief, you ask yourself about all those times you took your foot off the gas at 3-0, the times when you were 2-0 up and didn’t go for it, the times when you were 2-0 down and stopped caring. Because of those small details, Manchester United’s win on the final day against Sunderland on 13 May 2012 was simply too little, too late.
It’s the little things that will scare Mourinho too. It’s not the fact that his side have only one win and four points from four games. It’s not the fact that they lie a whole eight points behind leaders Manchester City. It’s not even the fact that his team so suddenly look like a shambles, simply a shell of their former selves.
It’s the little things that will bother him, little things like a goal difference of -3 (a goal difference of minus-anything will hurt Mourinho, really), like the fact that Chelsea have conceded nine goals already where they conceded only 15 throughout the whole of the 2004-05 campaign, or like the fact that only Sunderland have conceded more goals than the Champions. The Champions who finished last season with the best defensive record now have the second-worst defensive record in the league. It’s staggering.
It was the defence that propelled Mourinho to the title last season, but it’s nowhere to be seen this time around. Chelsea won the league by eight points last season, and they’ve given those eight points back to City already, but without the best defensive record in the league, they’re going to have to score goals in order to overhaul City.
In an era of marginal gains, small details matter a great deal in football. I am sure that Mourinho will succeed in turning his faltering team into one that makes it into some sort of title contention – he’ll fix the big things and get his team going. But because of their start, because of their leaky defence and goal difference, and because Manchester City are so on-point, if they don’t get going soon it could be too little, too late. And that, rather than failed signings and defeats, is what is keeping Jose Mourinho awake at night.