Questions about Wayne Rooney’s name are strictly off-limits with Jose Mourinho at the moment, but when the Manchester United striker is mentioned yesterday, he can at least see the funny side of it. “Forbidden word!” he shouts, in mock horror at the offending reporter, “go to the wall and turn your back for two minutes!”
There can be no answers about Rooney, but what cannot be avoided is what the Rooney situation says about the man he would potentially replace at Chelsea – indeed, the man who was the last marquee-name centre-forward. That is Fernando Torres whose mystifying slump has been a problem at Chelsea for some time. Now it is Mourinho’s problem too.
At the team’s hotel on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur yesterday, Mourinho gave his first extensive interview since his arrival at Chelsea and with the benefit of having worked with his squad for two weeks, albeit not yet Torres. He is in a better position now to discuss the squad’s strengths, and what he believes the future is for the likes of John Terry and David Luiz as well as his own status among the new group of Premier League managers.
As for Torres, the first thing that Mourinho has done is to accept the player’s limitations and try to work with the best of him “Fernando is a striker, nobody has doubts about it, but I think he's a striker more comfortable when he has space behind defenders,” Mourinho says. “He has it more difficult when opponents are very close, when opponents are compact and when he has to play in small spaces.
“He's more a player to go into a space than to play with the ball at his feet. That's something easy to understand about Fernando, so I will try to do my best.”
What can be done? Mourinho says that Romelu Lukaku, for instance, has “much more scope to be worked on, than an end product like Fernando at 29”. Asked whether Torres, who scored eight league goals last season in a total of 23, could be the player he once was again, Mourinho was open-minded.
“I think when Chelsea plays with that philosophy [creating space] he can. Against teams [who compress the play] very close and you have to play him in small spaces he will have a little bit more difficulty. At Liverpool they played much more of a ‘low block’, and he had balls to attack behind defenders. In that aspect he was a lot more comfortable. Sometimes it's easy to say a player is not performing but that might not be fair because sometimes the way you play decides if someone is more or less comfortable on the pitch.”
Asked whether, he has a striker who can perform that role, playing in tight spaces when the game is compressed, Mourinho is frank. “I would want to improve them [his current strikers] but that quality they don't have,” he says. “I will work on it with them.” There, in a nutshell, is why he wants Rooney.
It is an intriguing hour spent with Mourinho. He is used to talking about himself, but now he is in a position to talk about the players he has inherited almost six years since he left the club and the different nature of the challenge. “I cannot coach Marco van Ginkel the same way as I did Claude Makelele. I cannot coach Lukaku the same way I coached Didier Drogba. I cannot coach Frank Lampard at 35 years old the same way I was coaching him at 27. Even if many things look similar, everything is different.”
And what of Luiz, a defender with a maverick streak or a best as a midfielder? “For me, Luiz is a central defender,” he says. “Of course, I understand perfectly that he can help the team playing another position. But he's a central defender, no doubt about it. I think he has an important quality for the football we want to play, which is to build. He builds from the back and is comfortable with the ball. I think he can improve, as everybody can, and especially defensively. The potential is amazing.”
With his current squad, Mourinho sees himself much more as an educator “a bit of a coacher, a bit of a teacher”. He talks with enthusiasm about his young players’ capacity to “absorb and process” what he tells them and what he hopes is the “big space in their grey matter, lots of neurons free.”
Mourinho sees himself differently too. He warms to a theme that he is “the godfather” now Sir Alex Ferguson has gone, having helped to launch the careers of Andre Villas-Boas, Steve Clarke and Brendan Rodgers as well as Aitor Karanka, his assistant at Real Madrid, who he says will now pursue his own management career rather than join the staff at Chelsea. He even suggests he will involve himself in fewer disputes.
“I’m one of the guys with more time in football,” Mourinho says. “I won all the English competitions so maybe I have a bit more responsibility. I have that on my shoulders, so probably I have to be an example for everybody in many aspects not just the expectations of Mourinho winning. Everything - conduct, support, to be there for people when for some reason they need me.”
He remains generous and polite about David Moyes, suggesting that he must be very proud, as a Scot as well as a manager, to follow Ferguson. “One of the most difficult things in the club is to create a victory culture, where you walk through the door and you smell the success, you smell confidence, you smell self-esteem, Mourinho says.
“David is in a big club and that is a big help. Everybody knows how to win. Of course, it is up to him now. He has to coach, he has to decide who to buy, who to play, he has to train them every day.”
And what of Mourinho when he first arrived at Chelsea in 2004? He grimaces when he remembers the old training ground, those blowy old university sports pitches by Heathrow airport. “I trained at Harlington,” Mourinho says. “And the cup they had from the previous season was the Malaysian Cup they won here! Now Chelsea is a big club. If you go to Bangkok, the stadium is blue.”
Against teams [who compress the play] and you have to play him in small spaces, he will have a little bit more difficulty.
For me, Luiz is a central defender. He’s very comfortable using the ball from the back. I think he can improve ... but the potential is amazing.
He’s not safe [in terms of a new contract] ...The only thing he knows is safe is our friendship ... he has to prove himself.
I’m thinking more about using him as a right-back ... and his answer [to that] was very intelligent. He said that it doesn’t matter where he plays.