Few would dispute that Jose Mourinho is one of the top managers in world football. He’s won titles in the Primeira Liga, the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A as well as the Champions League twice, all at the relatively tender age of just 52. Yet, when results don’t go the Portuguese’s way, the world around him has a knack of spiralling out of control.
We saw it during the end of his first spell at Stamford Bridge; a slow start to the season followed by a bust-up with Roman Abramovich, public criticism of the club’s summer transfer activity and resultantly, an abrupt departure by mutual consent in September 2008; and Mourinho’s manner of pointing the finger has manifested once again amid the lukewarm beginnings to the Blues’ title defence.
Indeed, before the Premier League’s opening weekend had even drawn to a close, the Chelsea boss had already accused club doctor Eva Carniero of malpractice following a 2-2 draw with Swansea City, subsequently dropping her for the Blues’ 3-0 defeat to Manchester City and leaving the tabloids to autopsy her private life with unsurprisingly inaccurate, sexualised sensationalism.
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Since then, Mourinho’s turned his accusative finger to a more direct source of Chelsea’s woes – the players.
He’s refused to commit management’s cardinal sin of publicly naming and shaming – safeguarding himself with the pronoun ‘we’ and terms like ‘three or four players’ – but John Terry’s half-time substitution at the Etihad, the first time he’s been hauled off by Mourinho in 177 starts, said far more than words ever could, whilst even Forrest Gump could read between the lines of Branislav Ivanovic’s dismal performance against Crystal Palace and the Chelsea boss declaring “I blame myself for not changing one of them, I kept him in the game for 90 minutes and when I made the third change I realised I needed a fourth,” after Saturday’s 2-1 defeat.
Admittedly, Mourinho must be tempted by the idea of publicly declaring the individuals frustrating him most this season, especially those within Chelsea’s bottom-to-middle third – the Blues’ defensive performances this year and last are almost incomparable, despite the personnel and philosophy remaining largely identical.
Chelsea finished last term with the fewest goals conceded, the most clean sheets, the second-fewest defensive errors leading to a goal and the sixth-fewest shots conceded per match throughout the division. This season, they’ve conceded the second most goals, the sixth-most shots per match, committed the third-most errors leading to a goal and are still waiting upon their first clean sheet after four Premier League fixtures.
The two set of statistics are so far polarised that they’re almost symmetrical, a positive-negative reflection of each other. Likewise, Ivanovic’s decline over the summer is particularly noticeable; last season he was the PFA Team of the Year’s right back, this term he’s been dribbled past more times (8) than any defender in the Premier League.
But who does the blame game truly service apart from Mourinho? Whilst it exonerates himself from as much guilt as possible, it heaps only more pressure on a group of players fully aware that they’re underperforming. Episodes of strife require togetherness – whether you’re fighting relegation or for the title – but Mourinho’s dialogue so far this season has been predominantly divisive, splitting the squad, his captain and even Chelsea’s support staff.
Of course, making an example of someone is hardly an uncommon practice in the management world, footballing or otherwise. Perhaps Mourinho hoped his condemnation of Carniero would kick others into gear; perhaps he thought substituting John Terry would quash complacency, the subliminal message being that even a club legend who made his debut in a different millennium isn’t immune from being dropped.
But four games and just one win into the new Premier League campaign, and neither ploy has had the desired effect – in fact, it’s exacerbated Chelsea’s problems. I fear the same for Mourinho’s chastising comments after the 2-1 defeat to Palace; “Two or three of them, their individual performance were far from good,” will only create further speculation in the media and uncertainty throughout the squad. It’s almost as if he’s inviting even more criticism of his players, knowing full well that the tabloids will lap up his every word and provide the scathing public analysis he’s not allowed to.
They may be highly paid professionals, they may – in the instances of Ivanovic and Terry particularly – cut the image of almost emotionless hard men, but footballers occasionally need a bit of love too, especially when the rest of the world is seemingly against them.
The longer Mourinho’s blame game goes on, however, the harder it becomes for him to return to being Mr. Nice Guy. A month of moody Mourinho has already been insufferable and destructive enough; another few weeks and the Chelsea boss could cause irreparable damage.
The international break provides a much-needed cooling off period; but whether the protective, loyal and upbeat Mourinho Chelsea’s players need returns after, remains to be seen.