Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Chelsea's summer of discontent

In his early dealings with Jose Mourinho, the Chelsea director of communications, Simon Greenberg, took to reading that famous 16th-century handbook packed with advice from Renaissance Italy about acquiring power and holding on to it.

In his early dealings with Jose Mourinho, the Chelsea director of communications, Simon Greenberg, took to reading that famous 16th-century handbook packed with advice from Renaissance Italy about acquiring power and holding on to it.

It seemed like an affectation. Instead, it was simply a good idea in trying to understand a manager for whom the "status quo" is always under threat, partly through his own making. Mourinho thrives on conflict, confrontation and challenges - and love. It is an intense ride.

Some laugh - those from his home town of Setubal and who know him closely from Portugal - that it is simply part of his national heritage. He is a Portuguese man of war and it has always been thus. Others simply believe it is the fuel that helps to fire him. Still others that it is mere, dangerous arrogance.

This season football will see. When Mourinho returned to pre-season training at Chelsea's training ground in Cobham a few weeks ago he sported a severe haircut. "GI Jose" they dubbed him behind his back, though Mourinho was, initially, irked that no one asked him why he'd done it. "It's my going-to-war haircut," he eventually declared with a wicked smile.

It was a telling aside. On the face of it, Mourinho had much to savour over the last few months, reflecting on back-to-back Premiership titles at the helm of the richest club in football. In reality, it has been a summer of discontent, managing a group of unhappy players, not to mention an increasingly involved owner who is as concerned with the negatives of last season - the functional football and embarrassing exit from Europe - as the positives.

Mourinho returned determined to make changes and it was immediately clear it was not just his locks that would be shorter. "Short squad," he barked and six unsettled first-teamers were given the boot. Out went Maniche, plus the despondent Eidur Gudjohnsen and Carlton Cole, the unconvincing Asier del Horno plus Damien Duff, who was told he simply was not justifying his £70,000-a-week salary, and the homesick Hernan Crespo - the latter two with a combined transfer market loss of £29m. There would be just 16 accomplished outfield players, four youngsters and three goalkeepers. It would make for a tighter, happier ship.

Then there is a desire to attack. Peter Kenyon, Chelsea's chief executive, was much derided when he spoke before Mourinho arrived of owner Roman Abramovich's desire to see thrilling five-goal victories. But that is exactly what he does want. He has paid for fantasy football and, with his friends and associates flying in from around the world every week, he wants to see it with them as they munch on gourmet takeaways from Nobu.

First and foremost, Abramovich has taken a micro-approach. He wants to win. Two Premiership titles are wonderful (even if it is the least he expects from a £5m-a-year manager), but where is the Champions' League? Where are the glory nights in Europe's capitals? And if Mourinho's team are not to win, at least they should go down thrillingly.

Under Mourinho that has not happened. Indeed, an associate of Abramovich told The Independent that one of the most maddening sights for the club's owner was Mourinho pushing Robert Huth or John Terry up as emergency strikers, two years running, as they faced messy exits from the European Cup. "If it happens again this season, he'll be tearing his hair out," the associate said of Abramovich (although it did happen in last Sunday's Community Shield).

And so a revolution has occurred this summer and, in fairness to Mourinho, he has also recognised the need, especially as more and more Premiership teams are expected to pack their midfields and play 4-5-1. The need for attacking impetus, pace and, above all, variation in tactics and formation from the leading clubs has never been greater, especially as Mourinho feared his 4-3-3 had become predictable.

In have come some of the stellar names the owner has craved. Mourinho's mantra has been "the star is the team", but now the team have a few more twinkly names. Chief among these are Michael Ballack and, more importantly, Abramovich's friend Andrei Shevchenko. According to sources, the Ukrainian striker has even set up home very close to the Russian billionaire in central London, despite still claiming the two are not that close. No one who saw Abramovich's joyous reaction to Shevchenko's first goal for Chelsea, at the Millennium Stadium last Sunday, can be in any doubt about the sentiment attached to his arrival. He is Roman's man.

Abramovich's role this season will be fascinating. Having divested himself of virtually all his business interests, and most significantly the Sibneft oil empire, he has plenty of time on his hands and has naturally turned his attention to Chelsea. He has also become a football junkie with plasma screens in every room showing matches from around the world while he has even taken special interest in the development of his club's youth team.

"I think he has the right approach for an owner," said the Chelsea chairman, Bruce Buck. "He doesn't get involved in the day-to-day football, but he's very interested in discussing with the board and agreeing with the board and Jose who the right players are in the future."

Despite denials Abramovich certainly conducted the negotiations, and made the phone calls, over Shevchenko and has, now, become heavily involved in those concerning Ashley Cole, having also flirted with a move for Roberto Carlos.

It is not as if Abramovich is greatly interfering or as if he is telling Mourinho what to do. But he might - especially as there has, privately, been some mild irritation with the manager. After last season's turgid Champions' League group game against Anderlecht one of Abramovich's associates blithely remarked that the football was boring - and that, by the way, the manager should go and get himself a haircut.

Stamford Bridge was far from full that night and it was the same last Wednesday when Chelsea played their only pre-season friendly at home, against Celtic. And last Sunday in Cardiff the Chelsea end was sparsely populated. Such sights do not go unnoticed in the hierarchy.

Like many big clubs, Chelsea's pre-season has been disrupted by the World Cup with their players arriving in dribs and drabs or, in the case of Crespo and William Gallas, not at all. Mourinho's handling of the Gallas rebellion has not been great. He clearly underestimated the depth of the player's unhappiness, has insulted him and ascribes the problem purely to wage demands. It has added to an air of discontent within his squad.

It is easy to make too much of that. But add in Wayne Bridge's continued unrest, following on from that of Ricardo Carvalho last season and, more recently, Didier Drogba, the uncertainty over Shaun Wright-Phillips and the contract demands of John Terry and Frank Lampard - who want close to parity with the £121,000-a-week Ballack - and there are issues to be tackled.

Those include the tactics. Are Shevchenko and Drogba compatible? Can Ballack and Lampard - the latter still appearing to be sulking following the World Cup and keen to move to Spain, and Barcelona, next season - play together? Can Arjen Robben play wide in this system? Or Joe Cole? It is a jigsaw that needs to fit quickly, especially after an indifferent pre-season.

It is also unclear whether Mourinho is suited to delivering the sort of thrilling, attacking football with which Arsène Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson have made their reputations. In Portugal one coach dubbed him "Tarzan" because when he attacked he "played in the trees" - long ball. And there was evidence of that last Sunday. Indeed, some of the attacking players - such as Duff - have shrunk under Mourinho, though Joe Cole has thrived. Carlton Cole, now at West Ham, offered an interesting insight last week when he said neither Mourinho nor his staff had ever found time to coach him on a one-to-one basis. It was sink or swim. "They are different managers from different countries," he said of Mourinho and his new boss. "Alan Pardew is more involved with the lads, the banter and keeps the team ticking. Mourinho's thinking is different. He's a different coach."

If Mourinho, who signed a new five-year deal last year, sees out this season it will be the longest he has been a manager at any club. Before that the most he spent anywhere was two and a half years at Porto - mainly because he has been astonishingly successful and in demand. But there have also been walk-outs, as at Benfica, when he did not get his way. If he does not deliver the European Cup this season there may be another departure, even if he lands a third league title. Such are the expectations.

It is also what makes Mourinho's summer revolution all the more thrilling, all the more dangerous. He has been calm and jovial as the season has neared. Those who know him say it is a way of dealing with his worries, of portraying a positive front.

Mourinho has overthrown the status quo. He had to. But can Chelsea thrive? Has he gone too far? And will be there next summer?

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