Shades of the old regime discernible as Chelsea bear Mourinho’s indelible stamp
Over recent games we have seen emergence of a new, mean Chelsea who prioritise results by any means necessary
Some of us had wondered whether Jose Mourinho was really all that interested in Chelsea the second time around. Their form over the Christmas period shows that he’s back. Ominously for the other sides chasing the title, this Chelsea team is finally showing signs of Mourinho’s influence.
Earlier in December Mourinho seemed angst-ridden, lamenting his side’s apparent reluctance to “kill” opponents. In the last few games we’ve seen the emergence of a new, mean Chelsea.
Their magnificently dour performance at Arsenal last Monday was Mourinho telling the club: forget everything you’ve been saying about wanting to see attractive football. As long as I’m here, I’m going to do things my way, which means winning – or not losing – by any means necessary. The 1-0 St Stephen’s Day win against Swansea was, from Mourinho’s perspective, delightfully scrappy and satisfying.
It is not just the results that showcase Chelsea’s new ruthlessness, but the team’s attitude on the field. Jon Obi Mikel’s challenge against Mikel Arteta last week was an example of what Mourinho would consider a winner’s edge. Yesterday, Samuel Eto’o put in a crude reducer on Jordan Henderson inside two minutes.
Mourinho was happy to take the credit for that one. “I criticise Samuel internally a lot because of his difficulty to adapt to what the Premier League is in physicality, but if he had a tackle deserving a card, it is my fault, because I am asking him to adapt his game.”
The manager’s approach to the match had been tactically perfect. Mourinho was able to send out a team with four players who hadn’t started Chelsea’s last match, whereas Brendan Rodgers felt he could make only one change to his team.
Chelsea won the game in the first half with a high-tempo onslaught that Liverpool could not live with.
The lucky goal Liverpool scored after three minutes made the result seem closer than it really was. Once their lead had been established, Chelsea switched to the counter-attack and challenged Liverpool to break them down. Physically and mentally fatigued, Liverpool could not find the yard of space that might have made the difference.
Ivanovic, Lampard, Allen and Sakho all limped out of the game with muscle injuries, which can be attributed to the heavy Christmas schedule. Such attrition used to add a kind of Grand National randomness to the festive results. These days it favours clubs like Chelsea who can afford to replace quality with quality. They could send on Ashley Cole for Ivanovic. When Liverpool lost Joe Allen, Brendan Rodgers sent on the 19-year old debutant Brad Smith, who stumbled through a nightmare.
It was a curious decision by Rodgers to choose Smith ahead of more experienced substitutes like Kolo Toure, Luis Alberto, Iago Aspas and Aly Cissokho. It says much about his confidence in the players signed by Liverpool’s “transfer committee” last summer. Rodgers said later that he has a responsibility to give young players a chance, that Smith has a big future in the game, and that “today was a good day for him”.
But a game of that intensity was no place for a 19-year-old making his first senior appearance.
Liverpool, to their credit, persevered with a kind of desperate enterprise and could have equalised had Howard Webb penalised Samuel Eto’o’s obvious penalty-box foul on Suarez. Mourinho’s take on the incident was a good example of what makes him a superior manager. If everybody expects him to be on the defensive, that’s when he attacks.
Mourinho told Sky that Suarez should have got a yellow card for diving. The claim was so outlandish that Geoff Shreeves didn’t get it, and Mourinho had to expand. “I hate players who are trying to provocate these situations,” he added. It was a glorious display of hypocrisy from a man who never seems more alive than at these moments.
Brendan Rodgers talked before the match about how much he had learned from working with Mourinho. His comments about Webb’s performance also contained the element of surprise. “Howard was excellent today,” deadpanned Rodgers, who went on to repeat the claim in the press conference in a more tongue-in-cheek way.
Rodgers’ restraint means he won’t be getting another letter from the FA, who asked him to explain his comments about Lee Mason after Liverpool’s defeat to Manchester City. But Mourinho has never cared about FA punishments. In the 2009-10 season, he was sent off three times. He still has never reined in his behaviour, and he spends much of every game pestering the officials. When you see his teams getting the benefit of the doubt in key moments, as Mikel did against Arsenal and Eto’o did yesterday, you understand why he thinks it’s worth his while.
Maybe Rodgers hopes people will admire his dignity – or perhaps he was reluctant to provoke Mourinho into turning his fire on Liverpool in a serious way. As long as Liverpool stay below Chelsea in the table, he needn’t worry about that.