On their worst opening run of form since 1988, reigning champions Chelsea are presently not far from the foot of the table, with three defeats in five games. Jose Mourinho insists his methods will pull the club through, but could they be part of the problem?
Mourinho is no lover of improvisation. On the pitch, he wants to see 11 automatons – all perfectly drilled in his flip-chart exercises. Think of the players he has criticised or jettisoned for failing to track back – from Joe Cole to Juan Mata. Think of the defenders who incurred his wrath because they failed to do things just the way he wanted – from Asier Del Horno to Tal Ben Haim.
Players, when asked, talk of him as a hard taskmaster – who knows exactly how he wants things done, and is unforgiving on those who demur from the plan.
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Witness Thibaut Courtois – lobbed from 60 yards by Charlie Adam earlier this year, but who then immediately retook his posting way beyond the edge of the penalty box. Or this season's much maligned Branislav Ivanovic, who continues to back away from attacking forwards, his arms fastened behind his back.
Branislav Ivanovic gets booked for Chelsea
Image credit: Reuters
These players don't do these things because they are stupid, or reckless or cavalier – they do them because, over thousands of hours at Cobham, Mourinho has ingrained it in their psyche. Every man who pulls on the shirt for Chelsea is expected to do exactly what Mourinho has trained them to do, in any given situation, or they risk his not insubstantial displeasure. Even in his own ploys, there is little room for manoeuvre.
The classic Mourinho switch when chasing a game – full-back off, forward on, get a goal or two, forward off, defender on – became something of a trademark. If there is an obvious reason and record for that one, another newer ploy is slightly less understandable: bring on Radamel Falcao when defending a corner.
In the second of Chelsea's three defeats this season, against Crystal Palace, it resulted in the Eagles' winning goal. Again it happened at Goodison Park on Saturday – and perhaps the fact that Chelsea did not concede straightaway proves, in Mourinho's mind, that there is not madness in the method.
What is the point of all this? That Mourinho has, through his stubborn dedication to his practised methods, become predictable in what he says and does.
Awaiting his arrival for the post-match press conference at Everton, I chatted with a colleague over who he might blame this time – as it is never Chelsea's fault when they lose under Mourinho. I suggested it was about Bird Flu Time in the cycle of events – referencing the comments he made putting into context what real pressure meant in April 2006. Sure enough, and less than 10 minutes later, he was sat in front of us saying football management was not a pressure job: “I think the refugees are under big pressure.”
But, if the method is tired and predictable, Mourinho will be happy to point out that it generally works. Look at the medals he has flung into the crowd over the last decade and a half.
One of the problems right now seems to be, as with that press conference, those whose job it is to watch him have managed to accurately predict what is coming next. That is a problem for a manager whose success is to a significant extent based upon well drilled routine. It may seem odd to say it about one who is so known for his ability to turn a game, but is he running out of well worked cliches to produce the right results?
If Mourinho is to believed, he is a long way short of done with Chelsea. And Chelsea are a long way short of done with him. But with questions being raised about his recurring 'third season syndrome', and Chelsea's dreadful form backing that up, perhaps it is time for one of the world's top coaches to refresh his ideas about the game.
Dan Levene - @danlevene
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