As Chelsea picked up the most bittersweet three points in their recent history against Sunderland last Saturday, the bemused and belligerent Stamford Bridge support made no secret of which side they are on.
Having torturously endured every second of the most unprecedented decline ever witnessed in the Premier League, watching Chelsea return to winning ways should have been all that really mattered last weekend.
Counter-intuitively, however, the dominance of the Blues’ performance, netting twice in the first 15 minutes and controlling the match from then on, left a sour taste as the shadow of Jose Mourinho’s departure just two days prior still lingered over the west London club.
The Chelsea fan base rarely turn on individuals – they stuck it out with Fernando Torres for the vast majority of his fruitless four-and-a-half-year spell – but few were surprised by the chorus of raucous jeers meeting Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas’ names pre-kickoff and once again upon being substituted in the second half.
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The Blues have lost the most successful manager in their history and indeed, one of the most successful managers of football’s modern era, whose besieged mentality embodied the experience of the supports since their club was transformed into a European superpower by Roman Abramovich’s oil billions.
The players have much to answer for. Most particularly; how can they go from looking so lifeless and lost under Mourinho on Monday night to producing their most convincing win of the season the following Saturday?
It’s not as if caretaker Steve Holland was able to reinvent the wheel on the training ground during the one day between Mourinho’s sacking and Sunderland’s visit to Stamford Bridge, and it’s not as if he made major changes to the starting Xi. Barring the injured Eden Hazard, the only self-imposed change was Fabregas’ reinstatement in midfield over Ramires.
The 3-1 win over Sunderland only created further conspiratorial implications. Did the players eventually just give up under Mourinho? Did they actively down tools knowing it would soon enough cost him the job? Were they performing poorly on purpose this entire time?
Regardless of how their relationships with and opinions of Mourinho may have changed over the course of the last few months, the immeasurable gulf in performance for a group of players earning between £100k and £200k per week at a club as big as Chelsea is inexcusable in its lack of professionalism.
Players at this level should be experienced, proud and self-motivated enough to perform to their own standards, irrespective of how their manager is behaving.
Their own displays against Sunderland have condemned certain players in the eyes of many. Yet, there are two sides to every story and whether Blues’ pro-Mourinho supporters are willing to accept it or not, the vast improvements shown on Saturday were equally condemning of the now-unemployed Portuguese.
We will never know the full truth of what happened behind the scenes at Stamford Bridge from these last few months, but judging by Mourinho’s insufferable mood in the public eye, it was not a particularly joyful place.
The 52-year-old made examples of key players – most particularly John Terry and Nemanja Matic – through substitutions, blasted pretty much all of his squad in the media at one point or another and by the end of his reign began mumbling about ‘betrayal’, a ‘mole in the camp’, a ‘few bad apples’ along with a whole host of other paranoid accusations.
So one can only speculate what kind of insidious rants took place behind the comfort of closed doors, getting louder and more outrageous as the season went on.
But the real question is, what does it take for a group of such vastly experienced and successful players to become so disillusioned, apathetic and if Mourinho’s words are to be believed, treacherous?
Chelsea’s players have stepped in before – they were essentially making all of the key decisions under Avram Grant and to a lesser extent Roberto Di Matteo – so why not this time, knowing Mourinho’s methods were sending them along a downward spiral?
One explanation is that the characters of Mourinho’s second Chelsea concoction are significantly less commendable than his first. The other is that the Portuguese has handled the situation so poorly over the last few months that even his closest allies in the squad ended up turning against him.
It is a reality Chelsea fans may struggle to accept and many will argue that unless Mourinho has been regularly fornicating with multiple female relatives of his players, there is still no excuse for how many have behaved. But to simply blame the players would be a superficial, biased and simplistic analysis to say the least.
Make no mistake about it, the Blues’ tribulations this season cast serious doubts over the Portuguese’s ability to manage modern players over a long period. As much as the players deserve criticism for showing a lack of individual responsibility, questions must be asked of how ‘the Special One’ allowed such a toxic environment to develop and what motivated them to effectively give up on him.
The phrase ‘lost the dressing room’ has become so cliched that it’s almost lost all meaning. But it was abundantly clear on Sunday that Mourinho had lost his, and that the players feel much better off without him. To put that solely down to the attitudes of the players would be nothing short of scapegoating.