The next man at Stamford Bridge had better watch his back
Published 18/12/2015 | 02:30
Jose Mourinho first learnt about player power in his time as assistant coach at Barcelona, when the stars were tiring of manager Louis van Gaal, and at least one household name would tell him: "Keep that guy (Van Gaal) away from me."
In that early phase of absorbing every lesson, first from Bobby Robson and then Van Gaal, Mourinho became a go-between and diplomat between head coach and dressing-room. He saw the power of superstar players to make or break managers and put that knowledge to use in his own leading roles at Porto, Chelsea and Inter Milan.
"Watch Jose's players when they score," Alex Ferguson once said. "They all run over to celebrate with him because they adore him."
That skill - the ability to keep the most influential footballers onside - deserted Mourinho at Real Madrid and then again at Chelsea.
His first departure from Stamford Bridge was caused more by political friction between manager and board.
This time, his increasingly confrontational style rebounded on him with a group of players who, though less illustrious than Real Madrid's galacticos, have a long tradition of undermining managers through the brutally simple dynamic of bad results.
Luiz Felipe 'Big Phil' Scolari, Andre Villas-Boas and Rafael Benitez are among those who could shed light on the unique pressures of keeping a Chelsea squad where you can see it, ideally with wing mirrors.
By any measure it feels surreal that, in May, Mourinho was named manager of the season after winning the Premier League title by eight points. The reward was a new four-year contract keeping him at Stamford Bridge until 2019.
Managerial dynasties had eluded Chelsea, where Roman Abramovich's finger has always twitched on the trigger. But Mourinho's second reign seemed to be ushering in a new age of continuity and stability.
The maelstrom between now and then exceeds anything experienced by Scolari, a World Cup-winning coach ill-suited to the Premier League, or Villas-Boas, an academic and Mourinho protege promoted too quickly.
The reasons for their downfalls were not hard to see. Both times - and as always - a critical factor in Abramovich's decision was the apparent switching-off of senior players; a creeping hostility which only ever produces one result at the club's Cobham training ground. A whoosh of tyres along leafy Surrey lanes announces the ejection of another manager who thought he could tame the self-appointed dressing-room cabinet.
In the past it was said to be John Terry, Frank Lampard, Petr Cech and Didier Drogba who called the shots with Abramovich (there is no evidence that any specifically asked for a manager to be sacked). Now, the weapon is disengagement, or "capitulation," as Alan Shearer called it. There is simply no possibility of defending Premier League champions losing nine of 16 fixtures unless the commitment of the players has dropped.
Even Chelsea's farewell statement calls Mourinho "the most successful manager in our 110-year history". And on October 3, Abramovich gave him a vote of confidence: not the kind of language the inscrutable oligarch normally employs.
Chelsea's owner has booted many managers aside without seeming to hurt much (the sacking of Carlo Ancelotti was an insult and a folly). This time, though, he delayed the bullet until there was clear evidence that Mourinho was past the point of no return with this squad. The manager's accusation of "betrayal" at Leicester was a signal to the board that he no longer trusted some of these players.
Anyone scouring DVDs for signs of alienation might want to examine the moods of Eden Hazard, Diego Costa, Branislav Ivanovic, Oscar, Cesc Fabregas and Terry. Hazard's loss of potency has been particularly saddening and maddening. There was meant to be an almost paternal bond between the two that would lift Hazard into world football's highest echelon.
Last year, Mourinho said of his Belgian buzz-saw: "I love the kid. He will always have my support. Our relationship is at a point where I can tell him anything. He knows I like him a lot."
During the same discussion, though, Mourinho betrayed a preference for his first Chelsea side.
"I think the team of 2005 had one plus in relation to this team, which was killer instinct," he said.
"Every time we could kill matches, we killed matches. I don't remember matches where we had the opponent and didn't kill. It was a team that never gave a chance to the opponent to survive. This team is not there."
Even after last season's title win there was never a convincing sense that Mourinho admired this Chelsea side the way he did the Blues of 2005 or his Champions League-winning Inter Milan team.
A rupture over the summer - and probably over the vindictive treatment of Dr Eva Carneiro - exposed the essential weakness of the relationship between Mourinho and this group. And as we know, deterioration, at Chelsea, never happens at a stately pace.
Abramovich's default mode is to never back his manager ahead of his players. He takes the easy route of firing the figurehead, thus empowering the players to feel that getting shot of a manager who antagonises them is always a simple business.
This is the wrong type of power to put in the wrong hands - and the next man in had better watch his back. (© Daily Telegraph, London)