Wednesday 29 January 2020

Orchestrator Fabregas gives Mourinho chance to finally win with style

Now at the heart of Chelsea's midfield, Cesc Fabregas is threatening to pick up where he left off in his best years at Arsenal. Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Now at the heart of Chelsea's midfield, Cesc Fabregas is threatening to pick up where he left off in his best years at Arsenal. Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Paul Hayward

When we hang labels on managers, the board round Jose Mourinho's neck tends to say: pragmatic, functional, ruthless, meticulous, realistic, clean-sheet obsessed. No one has ever reached for a paint brush to add "romantic".

Mourinho's grand tour of Europe has brought him full circle to the club where he first proved that coaching Porto to a Champions League title was no fluke. At the start of his second season back, Chelsea produced the most striking performance of the opening weekend, with Cesc Fabregas now in charge of the rhythm section and threatening to pick up where he left off in his best years at Arsenal.

To form any hard judgment after one round of games would be laughable. A Monday-night win at a newly promoted club is not a script for a 38-game campaign. Yet Fabregas was already widely tipped to be one of the most influential signings of the summer; and there is much to like about the tale of both him and Mourinho returning to find salvation in England after unsatisfying spells in Spain.

The great homecoming for Fabregas was meant to be Barcelona. Mourinho's coronation as the top coach in Europe and man who completed a hallowed decima of Champions League titles was meant to come at Real Madrid.

Instead it could yet be England where these two former Clasico enemies create their masterworks.

It was at Stamford Bridge in his first reign where Mourinho displayed his true tactical acumen, team-building skills and gift for handling stars. Not once in his travels since has anyone accused him of art for art's sake, or of seeing management as an attempt to write a masterpiece.

Fabregas, though, was a signing based on fluidity, panache and spatial awareness as well as toughness of character. He is one of the few in today's top tier capable of running not just his own department but a whole game.

Most top coaches answer to an urge to construct a side of universally acknowledged brilliance. Arsene Wenger's 'Invincibles' and Manchester United's Treble-winning side of 1999 cannot be dislodged from history. They are landmarks in the evolution of the game. Though Mourinho has put together many formidable trophy-winning sides, at Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid, he, and not his teams, are always the story.

Last season was all about his willingness to go along with the brief he inherited: more ambition, more entertainment. By December he had found his justification for dumping these abstractions. The first time Chelsea conceded three goals in a game it should have been obvious that he would seize his chance to return to the old conservatism.

But he had another trick: constant grumbling about the quality and depth of his squad. He talked like a man who had been asked to conquer Everest in flip-flops. It was his thankless task, he suggested, to poke and prod a team without an A-list striker in pursuit of Manchester City and Liverpool.

And he almost pulled it off, until the team he had accused of not being up to the job played into his hands by dropping too many points in springtime.

The summer brought two of the most impressive and sensible buys: Diego Costa, a finisher and barnstormer, and Fabregas to link midfield and attack.

A central midfield of Fabregas and Nemanja Matic is a substantial upgrade on, say, John Obi Mikel, Ramires and an ageing Frank Lampard. In goal, Chelsea have pulled off the miracle of finding (at no extra cost) a keeper capable of relegating Petr Cech to the bench.

The return of Thibaut Courtois from his loan spell at Atletico Madrid is a spectacular windfall.

The Burnley game suggested serendipity all round: a brilliant new goalkeeper, the ideal striker and the perfect midfield orchestrator, who knows the Premier League. Chelsea fans will be rightly protective of their Champions League-winning side and the teams Mourinho assembled to end a 50-year wait for the English title. But, logically, why should he stop at trophies? Why should he shut down games at 2-0 when he has the ammunition to win them 5-0? Why should he bulldoze a path to the title when he has players who can dance their way there: Eden Hazard, Willian, Andre Schurrle and Fabregas, who could never get round the stardust problem of Xavi and Andres Iniesta at Barcelona?

Because haunting the many floors of his brain is the belief that football is an exercise in power, not beauty, and that winning is power. But with this new side Mourinho is displaying his highly developed knowledge of how successful teams work. He saw what was missing and went shopping for it.

The next time we call him an anti-football manager we will have to qualify it by saying he bought Cesc Fabregas in this transfer window: a creator, not a destroyer. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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