Thursday 21 November 2019

Hooked on playing a dangerous game

The chaos Mourinho thrives on is damaging Chelsea's football and draining his players, writes Dion Fanning

Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho is hooked on playing a dangerous game
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho is hooked on playing a dangerous game

Dion Fanning

When you encourage anarchy, you shouldn't be surprised if you lose control. Anarchy has appeared to be the goal for Jose Mourinho in recent months and once it was achieved against PSG last Wednesday night, Chelsea had no other ideas.

Gary Neville was right when he said that surrounding the referee has been the way to get things done in football for many years, but few sides have been as single-minded as Mourinho's in believing that disruption was the only thing they had to get done. If the Manchester United side Neville played in used intimidation as a platform, on Wednesday night Chelsea considered it to be the project itself.

When Zlatan Ibrahimovic was sent off, the Chelsea players seemed to think that they had achieved what they had turned up to do, unaware that there was still a game to play and that PSG were not obliged to play as Chelsea would in those circumstances.

When PSG took the game to Chelsea, Mourinho's side had no answers, believing that the questions were at an end once the Dutch referee, Bjorn Kuipers, helped move the game towards the anarchic state they desired.

On Friday, Mourinho was able to take cover behind his attacks on Jamie Carragher and Graeme Souness, a comfortable position for him in the short-term, but one that gives no indication of where he will go from there.

This weekend, Carragher repeated his claim that Mourinho's sides will never be loved, and few would dispute that. Mourinho will happily deal with these arguments if they become a debate about his legacy, about who is loved and, maybe even, what is love.

Yet there is a danger in entering this territory, and it is a danger that Mourinho has dealt with more successfully at Stamford Bridge in the two years since he returned to the club than in the final months of his first era.

There is one man at Chelsea who might like to know what love is, who has craved a certain majesty from his teams and who might lament that a side that possesses Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas has shaped itself in the image of Diego Costa, more precisely the image of Diego Costa pounding the ground in frustration, forever.

Roman Abramovich might have more pressing problems at the moment. Last week, the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny told the Financial Times that the West should impose travel bans on oligarchs like Abramovich who are seen as loyal to Vladimir Putin.

"Alisher Usmanov (Arsenal's second largest shareholder), Abramovich and their families - if they can't get to their residences in London or in Switzerland, that will make a difference," Navalny said on release from prison after serving 15 days in jail for handing out leaflets about a protest on the metro.

In this context, Abramovich might not be too enraged by what he is watching at Stamford Bridge - indeed, he might simply be happy that he can watch football at all. But Mourinho's approach this season is inimical to what Abramovich is said to want from a football team, especially during the time when he was building a squad that would woo Pep Guardiola.

When he appointed Mourinho again, giving the supporters what they wanted after the mutinous reaction to Benitez, that dream was over. Instead, another dream was sold. Mourinho might have preferred the Manchester United job, but he insisted that there was only one place from him in English football, and that was a return to Chelsea (a couple of weeks ago, he repeated his desire to stay at the club, but he added that if he did leave, he would manage another English side).

Chelsea have, so far, provided the perfect working conditions for Mourinho - he is not surrounded by enemies, as he was at Real Madrid. He left that club with his reputation damaged. He was used to making enemies, but he had usually been able to rely on the most powerful playing figures at a club for some support.

But Real Madrid were bigger than Mourinho, a line that is trotted out by everyone about every club, but is often not the case. When he arrived at Chelsea in 2004, it wasn't true, and it was important that it wasn't true. The club had Abramovich's money, but they needed a unifying figure, something Manchester City, for example, have lacked. In 2004, Mourinho was happy to be that all-powerful figure.

When the manager returned to Stamford Bridge in 2013, John Terry, one of the most powerful figures at the club, had been marginalised by Rafa Benitez, but Mourinho brought him to the centre once again. Other important figures, such as Juan Mata and David Luiz, who might have been more questioning of Mourinho's methods, were moved on. Mourinho could work as he always desired. If anybody wanted another way, they had been silenced by the absence of alternatives.

This season, Mourinho will be able to point to success. Manchester City are too enfeebled to make a sustained challenge. Chelsea will win the Premier League, and Mourinho will again claim that his methods have been justified by results. However, Chelsea's failure in Europe might be more worrying. Last year they reached the semi-finals with a weaker squad, and while Mourinho could trot out his line that they had gone out without losing a game and marvelling at the way knockout games can throw up crazy results, Chelsea's attitude on Wednesday night was in keeping with the reductive way they have approached matches since January.

Last week, Mourinho also stated that Chelsea will win together and they will lose together, putting himself forward as the principled loyalist who won't be swayed during the bad times, unlike the media. "The nature of your job is to go with the wind," he told reporters. "The wind blows to that side, you go to that side. I'm not like that with my players. I like my players and trust my players when I win and lose. I cannot be like the wind. I support my players. We win together and lose together."

For now, Mourinho will be able to use the distraction of a media battle with Souness and Carragher. This is Mourinho at his most elemental: paranoid and armed with proof that there are people out to get him. But the more interesting question is, where does he go from here? He has diminished Chelsea this season because of his methods, particularly his search for victimhood. Chelsea played on Wednesday like a team that could give no more, and all they had to give was mean and lowdown.

Has Mourinho anything more to offer or is his career now based on nothing but the attritional pursuit of victory and the eternal search for enemies? Although not necessarily in that order.

In the autumn, his side looked like they had found a balance between flair and the responsibility he demands, but Mourinho has asked so much of these same players. If they are exhausted, then he is responsible, but that is a failing that can be overcome. Other weaknesses could be more damaging. The enemies are outside the club for now, but, in time, last week may be seen as not just an exit but a strategic defeat.

Mourinho put on a noble act last Friday of backing his players, but he had no choice. The performance against PSG was a direct consequence of his methods. It is the players who probably need to be saying, "We win together and we lose together", not Mourinho.

According to Diego Torres, Mourinho decided in his early days at Madrid that once he imposed defensive solidity, he would allow the natural talent of the most talented squad he had worked with to do the rest.

In a friendly in August 2010 he told them to "occupy space however you want to". At half-time Madrid were losing 1-0, and Mourinho wasn't happy. Torres wrote in The Special One, that it had been 45 minutes "of complete chaos". Mourinho then delivered a different message, according to Torres. "This is anarchy," he said, "you can't all just do what you want".

Where there is anarchy, anything can happen. Mourinho's career has been built on not letting it loose upon the world. Last Wednesday was an example of the damage it can cause. The shadows may yet offer up something more than envy.

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