Miguel Delaney: Future up for grabs in Special One's return to happy hunting ground
Mourinho and Conte both know three points today will be vindication of their methodology
In the dressing room at Anfield on Monday, the immediate feeling among the Manchester United squad was that the performance against Liverpool could be a key moment. It was a 0-0 that might have bored most, but it emboldened Jose Mourinho's players. They were satisfied with the resilience shown in keeping a free-scoring Liverpool so quiet, as well as the conviction in so completely following the manager's tactical plan. They may not have really threatened victory but, after a rocky few weeks, the belief is they can now build on that; that the foundation is solid again.
It was a feeling that completely eluded Mourinho in his dismal last months at Chelsea. He just couldn't get that response from his title-winning squad and at one point was heard to exasperate he'd tried everything, but nothing worked.
Despite all that has been said about that torrid Chelsea 2015-'16 season, it is still a collapse that is difficult to fully comprehend or fully appreciate the scale of. There has simply never been a collective breakdown like it, either by title-winning major clubs or by any other major managers.
It was a perfect storm, primarily caused by Mourinho's abrasive man-management. The root of it was actually in 2014-'15, when players realised that he really did "obsessively" care when going on public rants about referees and pundits, and they weren't just deflections. It broke a psychological hold over the team, allowing every minor problem to escalate into something bigger.
Both Mourinho and Antonio Conte naturally attempted to respectfully dismiss all that as the past on Friday, but it still throws up so many questions about the future, that today's game at Stamford Bridge crystallises.
How damaged was the Portuguese as a manager by that failure, and will it affect him building a successful side at United? How damaged were Chelsea by his exit, and how long will it take Conte to clear the wreckage of last season and build something different? How will Mourinho be received at Stamford Bridge, now that he makes his return?
The United manager didn't try any games in the build-up, and played it straight.
"Connections start before titles are won, but it is success that brings empathy between the supporters and managers that makes that connection become really strong," Mourinho explained. "Chelsea have won four Premier League titles in their history. Three of them were won with me and the other one was won by the team I left behind. I took them to Wembley, to Cardiff, to cup finals. So there is a connection based on empathy, but built on success. In the end at Chelsea, when the last two or three months of my time were a period of bad results, the fans kept that empathy and remembered our relationship. That is something I don't forget, and will always be grateful for."
It is actually set to be a day of remembrance in a more solemn sense at Stamford Bridge, with the club marking the 20th anniversary of former vice-chairman Matthew Harding's tragic death. While he will naturally be honoured by the entire home crowd, there has been some debate over whether the recognition of Mourinho will be anywhere near as widespread. Time has passed since the Chelsea players were booed in the immediate aftermath of the Portuguese's departure, and feelings have changed.
Iain Rodger of club fanzine cfcuk still feels Mourinho will get a "tremendous reception".
"Those fans who went off him completely must have short memories," Rodger says. "He is the greatest manager in Chelsea's history. All the way up to Christmas last season, we were desperately hoping it would work out. However, pragmatism kicked in. I think there was a sadness among Chelsea fans but an acceptance it kind of was time to go. There will be some show of affection when he does emerge."
Opinion of Mourinho among the squad and staff is more split. There are some players who sources say still "hate him", and will be driven to win today. That may add even more of an edge, but it also makes a big difference to Chelsea in the long term. It means that, for the first time in a decade, the squad is not psychologically or tactically beholden to Mourinho. Conte will not face the instinctive resistance to a new way that André Villas-Boas did. With the hold broken, the squad are finally open to something else. As to whether they are fully ready for something else is another matter.
It is not like Mourinho is returning to a team magically restored and prepared to further highlight his stunted start at Old Trafford, after all. Conte reiterated on Friday that last season is still "in the minds of the players", and one of the biggest residual effects of that is how much confidence is further eroded with any setback. That is why it was so important not to let those defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal develop into a proper period of doubt, and why Conte needed to quickly find a formation to fit his team.
The indications are he might have something workable with a three-man defence that would previously have been resisted by the squad, but has become routine in Conte's career. He is now a pioneer for the revived system. The irony is that he has always preferred four at the back, even writing his thesis at Italy's Coverciano coaching school about it.
"You can start with one idea and then realise it doesn't give the right balance or offensive situation, or defensive situation - then you have to change," Conte explained. "It's important for the coach to understand the right suit for the team. Then you find the right solution. But it's not my 'preferred' system. My preferred system is the one that permits my team to win."
It is a tactical flexibility some at Chelsea felt beyond Mourinho, even if the Portuguese has always been the ultimate pragmatist in terms of how defensive he'll go to win. Conte is the opposite, and never wavers from the idea of taking the game to the opposition, but he did refer to how he expects today to be a "tactical game". Whether he means that as the typical euphemism for a 0-0 is unknown. It wouldn't be an unreasonable prediction given the United manager's willingness to spoil occasions like this.
Whatever about locking down a match, Mourinho is said to have locked himself away after the 3-1 defeat to Watford, in an attempt to figure out how to fix things. There was a lot of talk about the United manager losing the dressing room after that game in the manner he lost Chelsea's, especially with how he publicly criticised Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Luke Shaw, but that hasn't happened. Those around the Carrington training ground say the mood has been positive for a while, and fun, in contrast to the morose mood in public. The players are responding positively to Mourinho, too, as could be seen against Liverpool with the way Marcus Rashford so willingly told Paul Pogba to slow things down.
If the squad are very committed to Mourinho right now, he emphasised he is fully committed to the club.
"There is one thing that Chelsea fans can be sure of now: I am Manchester United 100 per cent. I want to win with United and make them the best, but I will always be respectful to Chelsea and it doesn't matter what happens."
If any result other than a draw happens, though, it could matter a lot to both clubs. A United win in a game like this would get the side fully back on track, potentially transforming stability to stridency. The sweet vindication of victory against his old team could also further embolden Mourinho as much as his players, potentially bringing him back to his old self. A Chelsea victory, however, would prove the effectiveness of Conte's new formation in a way wins over Hull City and Leicester City couldn't. There would also be such a psychological significance to beating the old boss, suggesting the team is ready to move on.
That is why defeat would set both back so much. It's also why this return is about the future, rather than the past.
- Chelsea v Manchester United: Sky Sports 1, 4.0