Monday, 21 December 2015

No Mour I Love Yous

Another season and another Chelsea manager gets the chop.  Another Chelsea manager gets the sack after the players refuse to play for him.

Just seems like those two statements could be from any of the past ten years in English football but there are some surprising factors to the story this week.  Not least that the once untouchable, almost demi-Godlike Jose Mourinho would go the same way of Carlo Ancelotti and Phil Scolari as stories of the players not playing for the manager anymore, began to do the rounds.

This was Mourinho’s second spell as manager at Stamford Bridge with his first one bringing six trophies in three seasons, the second one had not been as prolific yet still he delivered the Premier League title for the third time. 

Back in May Chelsea were crowned Premier League Champions for the fourth time in their history and the fifth time they have been Champions of England.  They won the league by eight points and looked odds-on to retain it again this season, albeit fending off a sterner challenge from Manchester City.  Yet here we are barely five months of football later and the Champions have jettisoned their most successful manager.  So what has gone wrong?

There doesn’t seem to be any one factor which has contributed to this, but what certainly can’t be denied is Chelsea have not been unlucky.

When comparing with other big clubs who have sacked managers in the last couple of seasons, Brendan Rodgers and David Moyes for example, you can point to them having suffered some bad luck.  Of course you can also point to many of their problems being self-inflicted.  But Chelsea haven’t really had many injuries in the past five months, they haven’t been victim to many poor refereeing decisions.  They haven’t had some of their best players just decide to leave or retire.  What they do seem to have is a vast number of players either alarmingly losing form or just finding it impossible to get themselves going this season, or they just decided they didn’t want Jose in charge anymore.

People have pointed to things going wrong right from pre-season.  It was suggested the players didn’t have a proper build-up to the season with the club preferring to fly them all over the world to add more shirt sales than preparing the players to be the first club to retain the title for seven years.  They were also called back to pre-season training a little later than usual owing to many of them needing a longer rest.

Then on the opening day of the season Mourinho had a spat with club doctor, Eva Caneiro when the Portuguese objected to her going onto the pitch to administer treatment to Eden Hazard.  This always seemed a strange episode and looking back perhaps started the downhill slide which eventually lead to his demise.

Chelsea were struggling to see off a Swansea team at home and things were compounded by the sending off of their keeper, Thibaut Courtois.  Hazard went down under a challenge and immediately Caneiro and physio, Jon Fearn, went to assist.  As Hazard was treated on the pitch he was then obliged to walk to the touchline and wait for the referee to allow him back on.  This meant Chelsea were down to nine men and this seems to be what incensed Mourinho.  The club backed their manager, Caneiro was demoted and made her way to her lawyers, and the spectre of Hazard being injured was to re-emerge this week to haunt Mourinho.

After dropping points at home to Swansea, they were then well beaten at Manchester City and their first win of the season (at West Brom) was soon expunged by defeats at home to Palace and away to Everton.  By the time Southampton came to Stamford Bridge and came away with all three points, the Champions had lost four of their opening eight fixtures.  Within this sequence was an impressive win over Arsenal where they finally showed the form of last season.

But consecutive defeats to West Ham, Liverpool and Stoke City just compounded the misery.  At home to Liverpool they took an early lead but were ultimately swept aside showing defensive frailties unheard of from a Mourinho side.  What did for Jose in the end were back-to-back league defeats to Bournemouth and Leicester City.

Mourinho’s record at Stamford Bridge this season has taken a real pounding.  He went seventy-seven games without losing at home as Chelsea manager before Sunderland prevailed in April 2014.  But thirteen points from a possible twenty-seven at home just hasn’t been good enough for the owner, and with just one win away from home this is what sat them just above the relegation zone.

We may never know why many players, who were excellent last season, have suffered such a slump in form but the likes of Azpilacueta, one of the best defenders in the league, Hazard, footballer of the year last season, Ivanovic, Costa, Fabregas and Oscar have just been woeful.  On Monday night at Leicester, Hazard went down under a challenge from Jamie Vardy and received treatment.  Mourinho tried to get him back on the pitch but the player took one step and then shrugged his shoulders and flounced off.  Mourinho’s comments at the end of the game suggested he was not best pleased with this behaviour.

That post-match interview ultimately put the nails in the coffin as Mourinho chose to criticise his players rather than desperately try and defend them.  He had tried to criticise them earlier in the season, even dropping Matic, Terry and one or two others, but had recently sought to build them up.  He appeared to lose patience as he accused them of ignoring his pre-match tactics.

I think there’s far too much fuss made of whether a manager should criticise his players or not.  For a player who seeks to share no responsibility in a defeat, he may clearly object to any negativity towards him.  But a player has to be able to take criticism of his performance, however it is offered.  There are plenty of opportunities for a manager to back his players, but if he cannot ever make his disappointment known then he is making a rod for his own back where some players believe they are above criticism, and therefore do not have to play to their best in every match.  Players need to be treated differently by managers and who are we to suggest that the manager does not understand how his players’ minds work?

But if a player is to take his manager’s criticism and decide not to bother playing for him, then his sulking is letting down himself, his teammates, the club and their supporters just because he wants to spite the manager.  It’s a measure of the power players have these days they can afford to risk the fortunes of their club in order to force the owners into making a managerial change, knowing their future at that same club may pass unaffected.

But have the Chelsea players underestimated their position with the fans?  From the reaction at the first game of post-Mourinho Chelsea mark two, it would appear they have.  The supporters seem pretty clear in who is to blame, singling out Ivanovic, Costa and Hazard.  Diego Costa was booed off when substituted and no doubt some of the cheers for Ivanovic scoring the first goal were ironic.

As I mentioned at the start of this piece, Chelsea players have form where this is concerned and previously the fans have always backed them.  But it appears they have over-egged their popularity one time too many.

The club have moved quickly to appoint a stop-gap with Guus Hiddink returning to Stamford Bridge for his second spell after he held that position in 2009 after the players decided they’d had enough of Scolari.  He lost just one match during his four month spell and oversaw an FA Cup victory.  Ultimately, Chelsea will need to find a permanent replacement with Pep Guardiola and Diego Simeone being mentioned.  Much may depend on the freedom a new man is given, but he would be taking over a squad much unchanged from that which lifted the Premier League title in May.

It could be an interesting end to the season if Chelsea find themselves still embroiled in a relegation battle.  Clubs who have come through the battle successfully often point to team spirit being an important factor.  But if some players still hold resentment in Mourinho being ousted by other players then when the pressure reaches boiling point it will be interesting to see whether they stick together or start ripping each other apart.

I expect Chelsea to get themselves out of the mess they’re in and where I said you couldn’t point to them being unlucky, this would now be to their advantage.  It may sound simple but all they need to do is play as they can and they should gain enough points to fight off any threat of relegation, but European qualification for next season looks impossible, unless they can win the Champions League.

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