There are many differences between David Moyes’ torrid ten months at Manchester United and Chelsea’s almost inexplicable decline under Jose Mourinho, yet the consequences are the same – an imperious Premier League club losing its ‘fear factor’.
Indeed, Moyes inherited an ageing team and inevitably wilted in the shadow of his predecessor, Sir Alex Ferguson, who waltzed his way to the Premier League title the year prior. Mourinho has also failed to master the challenge of launching the English top flight’s first successful title defence since 2009, but he boasts a squad of his own choosing, cast in his own image, and has become a victim of his own success rather than somebody else’s.
But Mourinho now finds himself sharing a similar experience with Moyes; quite simply that, when things start going wrong at a major Premier League club, they can turn from bad to worse to cataclysmic in an incredibly short space of time. And once you fall in the category of the latter, it’s almost impossible to reclaim the status of old.
Moyes’ United actually finished fourth in the Premier League’s away table during the 2013/14 season, but home form corroded the club’s patience. Under Sir Alex Ferguson, Old Trafford was a fortress, but Moyes won just three of his first eight games there, also losing three and drawing two. The rest of the Premier League soon realised psychological momentum at Old Trafford suddenly belonged to the visitors – a consequence of the disparity between results and expectation.
West Brom’s historic win at Old Trafford was the most significant. It proved that even the Premier League’s rank and file could claim a scalp against uncertain Premier League champions in their own manor – a prize every team in the division naturally craved. By the time the Scot was finally put out of his misery in April 2014, United had claimed just 24 points out of a possible 48 at Old Trafford. The season prior, they’d claimed 48 out of a possible 57.
No question, Old Trafford lost its fear factor under Moyes; a confirmation that momentum swings more violently in the Premier League than any other top flight in world football. Those first few results snowballed into an avalanche that eventually engulfed the former Everton gaffer and several of United’s senior players, who were swiftly moved on by Louis van Gaal in summer 2014.
Chelsea now find themselves dwindling under similar yet more extreme circumstances, not limited to the confines of Stamford Bridge. It doesn’t explain why the Blues started the season so poorly but does shed light on how they’ve ended up in 16th place, just three points above the relegation zone, after twelve games.
Despite the monolithic difference in results, Chelsea’s performances this season haven’t been so different to the final six months of their title campaign. Regardless of what certain score lines have suggested, only against Manchester City were the west Londoners truly beaten all ends up. They’ve scored once in ten and twice in five of their twelve league fixtures this season; during the second half of last term, that was probably enough eke a win – or at the very least a draw – in most instances.
But the club’s poor start changed perceptions of Chelsea as an almost invincible side, losing as many Premier League games as last season in their first five outings, and in a similar manner to Moyes’ United, psychological advantage swung to the opposition.
Rarely dominating sides in the same manner as Arsenal or Manchester City, the Blues’ more cautious style of play has only exacerbated the problem. Last season, it was a sign of confidence in their own efficiency, assured of claiming victory without employing open football; this season, it’s become a sign of their frailties and their increasing uncertainty.
Rather than it seeming inevitable Chelsea will win close-knit encounters, it now seems inevitable they’ll lose – a feeling that surely swelled in the stomachs of most Blues fans as Marko Arnautovic scored Stoke City’s first and only goal on Saturday. Last season, however, Chelsea’s performance against the Potters would probably have been enough to claim all three points purely through reputation.
Resultantly, Chelsea now find themselves in a world of paradoxes, where every event only seems to further boost the confidence of the opposition. When the Blues go a goal down, they’re suddenly faced with an onslaught of attacking football; when the Blues go a goal up, their urge to contain invites pressure and goads on the other team; when the scores are level, their opponents are assured of eventually breaking the deadlock. It seems there is no situation during the course of ninety minutes that actually gives Chelsea the psychological upper hand.
Of course, one win could change everything, but every underwhelming result further eats away at the ‘fear factor’ Chelsea once posed. As Moyes discovered at Manchester United, once the fear factor is gone, it’s almost impossible to recreate. And as Moyes also discovered, losing the fear factor can eventually lead you to the dole office.