The 200% Premier League Pre-Season: Chelsea
It says something for the levels of expectation at Stamford Bridge these days that winning a European trophy and improving on the previous season’s league position may still be considered by many within the club to be the end of a disappointing season. The club had ended the season before that as the champions of Europe, a state of affairs which was in itself indicative of the extent to which fortunes, in professional football, can stand or fall on the slimmest of margins. That win against Bayern Munich in May of last year was enough to earn Roberto di Matteo a permanent contract as the replacement for Andre Villa Boas as the club’s manager, and that the excitement of that night at the Allianz Arena was also enough to blind many to the fact that di Matteo had only led the club to a sixth placed finish in the Premier League that season, its joint-worst league finish in fifteen years.
Di Matteo, though, was a favourite amongst the fans, and when the following season continued in much the same vein as the one which had immediately preceded it – only with the Champions League miracles of the that season conspicuous only by their absence – there was outrage amongst the supporters that has seldom been seen anywhere before in the entire history of English football over a managerial appointment. From the beginning, Rafael Benitez couldn’t win. Some injudicious comments that he had made about the club whilst managing Liverpool some years ago saw to that. On the pitch, however, he stabilised the team and left its continued presence in the Champions League seldom in any doubt, whilst in Europe there was further success, this time against Benfica in Amsterdam in the Europa League.
That Benitez wouldn’t continue to manage the club beyond the end of last season was never in a great deal of doubt, especially once Jose Mourinho, who the supporters had been clamouring for since the departure of Di Matteo and the chanting of whose very name had become something of a ritual every time what passes for a crisis at a club that has won almost every trophy that can be won over the course of the last ten years or so wafted over Stamford Bridge, announced that he would not be continuing at Real Madrid beyond the end of the season. The Special One was returning, and what’s more this was The Special One version 2.0, with an apparent sense of humility having been installed into Mourinho upon taking the position. He worked the assembled crowd of journalists at his debut press conference like a veteran stand-up comedian, playing the room in a masterful display of public relations. But now that the initial excitement has worn off a little, the question is that of whether he can bridge the gap that has grown over the last couple of years between Chelsea and the two Manchester-based monoliths of the Premier League.
The answer to that question is that, since the gap between Manchester City wasn’t that massive at the end of the season, he probably can. City only finished three points above Chelsea in last season’s final Premier League table and Chelsea nine goals more than the club that finished the season just above them. If Mourinho really does have the superpowers that frequently seem to be ascribed to him, then Manchester’s duopoly at the top of the table might well be coming to an end. In the transfer market so far, all has been fairly quiet, with only Andre Schurrle, Mario van Ginkel and a back-up goalkeeper, Mark Schwartzer, having arrived at Stamford Bridge so far, whilst the volume of deadwood that has already been shipped out of the club this summer quite possibly tells the story of a club that is working hard in order to avoid the sanctions of UEFA’s incoming Financial Fair Play regulations. The list of players that have already left the club this summer reads like a list of ghosts of Christmases past, and it’s unlikely that any of them will be missed too much.
Perhaps, though, the return of Mourinho version 2.0 isn’t really about signings, tactics, or the sight of a middle-aged man alternatively pouting and then running the length of a touchline to celebrate something that he hadn’t actually done. Perhaps the return of Jose Mourinho is an appointment that is all about the psychology of modern professional football. The legend that has built up around him is that his previous spell in charge of the club was its modern golden period, and that his departure has left the club staggering from manager to manager like a drunk man on the rebound in a nightclub at two o’clock on a Sunday morning. In luring Mourinho back to the club, the supporters have the man they wanted all along, and the press do too. There seem no obvious groups – players aside, perhaps, but there have been no leaked stories of “unrest in the dressing room” yet, so there’s no reason to suggest that they would – that will not be singing from the same hymn sheet over the next few months or so. Jose is back, and all is right with the world.
If the sudden speed in tempo of the managerial merry-go-round was the Premier League’s defining story for the end of last season, Chelsea were probably the most significant beneficiaries of it all. Manchester United supporters will find out in the fullness of time just how much they end up missing Sir Alex Ferguson, whilst the departure of Roberto Mancini left Manchester City supporters wondering what direction their club may be taking for the following season. Chelsea supporters, however, never warmed to Rafael Benitez – indeed, it might be argued that they never allowed themselves to warm to Rafael Benitez – and they have got what they ultimately surely wanted all along; the man they hated has gone, and has been replaced by the man they’d loved all along. If we can expect Old Trafford and The City of Manchester Stadium to be a little nervier than usual at the start of next season, then equally we can expect Stamford Bridge to be bullishly confident, and that might turn out to be as beneficial as any pre-match team talk that Mourinho himself can offer over the course of the season.
This, then, is Chelsea’s challenge for the new season. If the gap of three points between them and Manchester City was about more than City having an off season in the year after they lifted the title, then Mourinho will be expected to deliver a greater challenge for the Premier League championship than the club has mustered since completing the double three years ago, and it seems unlikely that the sort of capitulation seen in the group stages of the Champions League will be unlikely to be tolerated by the club, either. In European competition last season, a gap opened up between the clubs of Spain, Germany and the rest which may prove difficult to bridge, but a place in the last sixteen or the last eight of the competition certainly shouldn’t be beyond a club with the resources that Chelsea enjoy, and once at that stage of the competition, as Chelsea supporters will remember all too well from the closing weeks of the 2011/12 season, the slimmest of margins can determine football matches, even at the highest level, and a little luck and a suitable game-plan can go a long way.
The return of this manager to this club at this time, however, carries a degree of attendant risk. The trigger happy culture of football club owners at this moment and the culture of entitlement and instant gratification that many football supporters seem to have lapsed into in recent years mean that any flaws in the performances of Mourinho’s team will be amplified to the point of being blinding, and should this happen, Roman Abramovich may have to try a different tack than he has with the last few Chelsea managers, all of which had more than a hint of the ‘easily expendable’ about them. These two fell out before, but they are grown men and should be pragmatic enough to understand that each bask in the other’s glory should the club achieve the success of which it is capable over the course of the coming season. As such, perhaps the most intriguing Premier League derby of the season may just be Abramovich vs Mourinho version 2.0, to be played out in the inner sanctum of Stamford Bridge, every day, hour and minute next season, live and in full detail on every news outlet imaginable.
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