Jose Mourinho is a serial winner and master of the Premier League
LONDON -- Jose Mourinho's eyes got tighter and his mood suddenly more tenacious. It was the manager's usual Friday press conference, this time on the eve of Chelsea's April 0-0 draw with Arsenal, but he was initially doing something many would consider unusual for him.
Sitting behind a desk conspicuously placed so that the attending media must look up to him, Mourinho was trying to be magnanimous about longtime rival Arsene Wenger. Then, the offending question came, and the small room in the club's Cobham training ground felt even more claustrophobic.
Mourinho leaned forward, and gave the journalist that coldly penetrating stare that one Chelsea player claims still instills "instant fear" in the squad. He was also displaying a dynamic that was replayed many times over the season. It was one of the main reasons his team won the title, and also one of the main reasons the subject was even raised.
Mourinho was reverting to type.
Since Chelsea successfully locked out Manchester United to win 1-0 to effectively secure the title the previous Saturday, the entire week had been dominated by a philosophical discussion over the "right" way to win a league. Wenger had been asked about the topic earlier in the day and said it's "easy to defend." The comment was an honest, long-held view rather than a specific criticism of Chelsea, but Mourinho didn't see it like that. As soon as he heard those words and Wenger's name in the same sentence, he couldn't help himself.
"It's not easy," Mourinho snapped back, before inserting, knife-life, a reference to Arsenal's Champions League elimination. "If it was easy, you wouldn't lose 3-1 at home to Monaco."
This is Mourinho's nature. He is the scorpion in the famous fable with the frog, always ready to sting. It's also his nature to win, and it's equally hard not to think these more serrated aspects of his personality are a central factor in his relentlessly productive competitiveness.
Just as Mourinho got a dig in at Wenger as soon as he felt under attack, he got his team to dig in once the prospect of the title felt under threat. He reverted to his nature, but it again produced results. Chelsea's double of winning the Capital One Cup and Premier League ended Mourinho's personal three-year trophy drought, and immediately made his CV look imposing again.
He has now won eight league titles in his last 12 full seasons, and a total of 18 trophies over that time. It's quite a return, one almost matched by Chelsea's points haul. They had managed 2.37 points per game by the time they clinched the title, the second highest return in English history, after Mourinho's own Chelsea from 2004-05.
That undercuts so much of the debate over their season, but then debate is also the nature of Mourinho's entire career: His spiky personality, his principles; he divides opinion like no other manager. Yet just as this season saw his return to the top of the table, it feels like all the debates about him have hit new peaks.
It also brought out some vintage Mourinho theatricality. On the day Chelsea won the league, he referenced an Arabic proverb: "To those who say we don't deserve it, in my country we say: 'The dogs bark and the caravan goes by.'"
It's been the nature of the season.
ON THE AFTERNOON of the decisive game, Mourinho offered the campaign's defining quote. The 52-year-old certainly said more than intended after Chelsea had so tensely beaten Crystal Palace 1-0 to mathematically guarantee the title on May 3. "Today was not a game to enjoy," Mourinho began. "Today was a game to finish the job."
That he feels the need to so distinctly separate the two for such a significant match cuts to the very centre of the debate about Mourinho's career. This season seemed to emphasise that he still can't completely reconcile enjoyment with industry, or art with strategy.
Mourinho did at least finish this game in a distinctive style. Chelsea won the title -- at home, against Crystal Palace -- with six defenders on the pitch and a midfield trident of Nemanja Matic, Kurt Zouma and John Obi Mikel. The final flourish, so to speak, was bringing on second-choice full-back Filipe Luis for player-of-the-season Eden Hazard.
It all seemed a little overzealous, a little too consciously over-the-top given the circumstances. Mourinho is probably far too professional to ever do this deliberately, but it wouldn't have taken a leap to think this was the snidest possible response to his critics that Chelsea were defensive and boring.
At the same time, Mourinho has a certain justification in feeling aggrieved. It's been too easily overlooked that over the first five months of the season, Chelsea played some of the most gloriously expansive football in the Premier League. They looked like they were living up to the effective mission statement Mourinho described after August's 2-0 home win over Leicester City.
"We are showing a different style of play and we have the players," he said. "It is good to have a certain identity. We are a pass-and-move team when we have the ball. We believe in that."
The influence of surprising new signing Cesc Fabregas strengthened that belief, with the midfielder both personifying a new approach and playing the most significant role in it. That the 28-year-old had been so identifiable with the passing football of two of Mourinho's great rivals in Arsenal and Barcelona was all the more symbolic, only deepening the feeling that the manager was evolving. Chelsea were magnificent in wins over Burnley, Leicester City, Everton, Swansea City, West Brom and Tottenham Hotspur.
The season's statement goal, and the one Mourinho declared his favourite, came in the opening weekend win against Burnley, with Fabregas providing that delicious flick for Andre Schurrle's strike. The season's statement performance, then, came in mid-January with the 5-0 away to Swansea.
Mourinho described that display as "perfect." Against a side themselves renowned for their pretty possession, Chelsea repeatedly pounced to deny Swansea the ball, before using it for devastatingly slick interchanges. All of Diego Costa, Oscar, Fabregas and Hazard were sensational. It represented a collective peak in their attacking football, but one that Chelsea would find difficult to reach again.
In fact, they would start sitting back more than surging forward, and Mourinho himself went back on something else he said after the Leicester win: "We won't give up this style."
They did, but that was also down to something deeper in Mourinho's managerial DNA. Up until then, Chelsea's attacking football had been so swift and creative it almost seemed telepathic. Costa would always know what run to make when Fabregas moved to thread a pass, Hazard's spontaneous back heels always seemed to find the right man at the right pace. It seems so off-the-cuff, but that's probably because it was.
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Those around Chelsea's Cobham training ground say that Mourinho's attacking plans mainly involve trusting immensely talented players to act off intuition. Hazard was seen as the primary creator in that, and afforded an unusual level of freedom to do what he does and let everyone else play off him. That clearly works superbly when all are on full form, but can become a problem when there are dips over a 10-month season.
It is perhaps Mourinho's one grand flaw as a great manager. While his defences are so rigorously organised, the same has never really applied to his attacking preparations. He has never trained intricate attacking patterns in the way, say, Pep Guardiola has. That became painfully apparent in games when Chelsea hadn't taken an early lead, or when key players were off form, such as the poor Champions League elimination to Paris Saint-Germain. Chelsea were predictable.
That may also be down to something deeper.
While the likes of Hazard greatly enjoyed the earlier football, there was a general acceptance among the players in the final third of the season that the main squad was a bit too small and too many of them were no longer at full fitness. It needed extra elite replacements, something reflected in the use of the squad.
Mourinho had eight players he evidently felt needed to play whenever possible. Six of them made at least 28 appearances, and he only started 18 outfield players in the league before clinching the title. It is little wonder fatigue set in. Mourinho himself referenced this in late April as to why they became "more strategic, less artistic."
"Injuries and suspensions," he cited. "We progressively lost the balance of our team ... from a certain moment, Diego Costa injured, suspended; Matic suspended, injured; Fabregas injured, suspended ... when you lose crucial pieces, the team loses certain qualities."
That still doesn't explain the extent of Chelsea's pragmatism. Ultimately, Mourinho couldn't help but revert to type. It was his nature, back to his principles: get your base right, get the lead, close up shop. The bus returned to its regular parking space in front of goal, where it would become the subject of so many jokes.
But Mourinho remained on the offensive in so many other ways.
IT STARTED WITH a joke, and the playfulness that can often make Mourinho so likeable. The Chelsea manager was standing near the Stamford Bridge dressing rooms after his side's 2-0 December win over Hull City, lamenting to the press that Costa was being victimised after another booking. At that point, referee Chris Foy walked by.
"The guy is clean!" Mourinho said in mock exasperation. "The guy is clean! You have to ask Mr. Foy -- look at him! Mr. Foy! Mr. Foy! Tell the guys please. Come and tell them. Diego Costa is crying because you gave him a yellow card. He is crying in the dressing room."
Foy jokingly offered Mourinho a tissue.
Everyone laughed, but everything changed two weeks later. On New Year's Day, Mourinho again found himself facing a referee after a game but there was no laughter and the only thing being offered was acerbic commentary. He reverted. The sting came.
It was reported by the British press that, following Chelsea's 5-3 defeat at Spurs, Mourinho told Phil Dowd he was "too fat to referee." Mourinho later evaded questions on that story, but didn't deny it. "What we speak there is between us and stays there."
The problem was he was still saying so much more about referees in public. In between those two incidents, after a 1-1 draw at Southampton saw Fabregas denied a penalty, Mourinho outright claimed there was "a campaign" to influence decisions "against Chelsea."
It was an extraordinary statement that predictably ended with Mourinho being fined £25,000, but he wasn't backing down, even adding to it when he mentioned how he would certainly have been punished had he so brazenly pushed Wenger on a touchline in the way the Arsenal boss did to him in Chelsea's 2-0 October win.
He was reverting to type. It has been a common tactic for him, creating external enemies to develop a siege mentality that deepens his team's focus, going right back to his first spell at Chelsea between 2004 and 2007. It is the root of so many spats, and why he had digs at as many as five different managers this season: Wenger naturally, Manuel Pellegrini (who he so disparagingly called "Pellegrino"), Guardiola, Brendan Rodgers and even Paul Lambert. Very often, it's hard to know where the line is between necessary manipulation and unnecessary malevolence.
This referee controversy came to a head after another 1-1 draw, at home to Burnley. Mourinho had watched his team be denied another two penalties as well as have Matic sent off for reacting to a dangerous challenge from Ashley Barnes, with that coming after the Burnley forward himself could have been sent off. "This game had four crucial moments," Mourinho began, as he referenced the time the incidents happened. "Minute 30, minute 33, minute 43, minute 69."
Hours passed but Mourinho's anger didn't. The next day he appeared on Sky Sports's "Goals on Sunday" programme. "Did you apologise to Chelsea, to Diego or myself?" he asked the presenters Chris Kamara and Ben Shepherd. "I don't like the fact you start immediately, in that moment, the public judgment of the player. You gave no space to the people that have to decide, the pressure was so much."
Here, Mourinho was applying all the pressure. He was subjecting Kamara and Shepherd to the instant scrutiny that everyone from referees to journalists to his own players have experienced. That isn't mischief. It's manipulation, a key part of his management. Whatever people think of Mourinho, he does possess that natural charisma to command a situation. On Sky, Mourinho was so clearly in control.
Of course, that is what this is really all about: control. It extends to his attitude to games too. Around a month after that appearance, Mourinho uttered perhaps his truest comment of the entire season in a Daily Telegraph interview. "I agree that sometimes I can have something of Machiavelli in some of my comments, but no more than that," Mourinho said.
IT'S NO COINCIDENCE that the vast majority of those Machiavellian moments came between mid-December and mid-March. That was the only time Chelsea came anywhere close to what would classically be described as a "crisis." In that period, they dropped nine points from 27 -- their worst such spell of the season -- and got knocked out of the FA Cup by Bradford City and the Champions League by PSG.
Losing in Europe resulted in a team meeting. Chelsea had been so lacking in intensity, undone by PSG's vigour to go out 3-3 on away goals. Yet, for all the perceptions that these were showdown talks that would prove a juncture in the season, they were anything but. The meeting was short and not aggressive. Mourinho merely criticised his midfield for not following certain instructions, and pointed to the uncharacteristically poor marking on set-pieces.
At the same time, the moment marked a drop-off in performance that Mourinho had expected. He knew the team was not at its sharpest, and that the likes of Willian, Oscar and Matic were struggling with small injuries. He also knew that this was a temporary continuation of earlier problems.
The "key moment", Mourinho later admitted, was not the PSG elimination but that 5-3 defeat at White Hart Lane. That was not just an evening in which Chelsea's flaws were exposed, but also one during which Manchester City finally pulled dead level at the top of the table. It was as if, for the first time in the season, all of the assurance and senses of guarantee with Chelsea evaporated. Mourinho knew it was a critical juncture. Knew he needed to lock it down. Knew, in the end, a reversion was required.
"January 1st, London derby, heavy defeat," he said in late April. "The key was the stability after that, to keep strong and keep self-esteem high, all together, not people trying to find excuses or guilt. We all stuck together, very calm. That moment defined the stability of our group."
The meeting after the PSG game was merely to remind them how to maintain that stability. It worked. Although Chelsea would draw the very next home match 1-1 against Southampton, which was the last time they would look so vulnerable.
From there, the leaders claimed 19 points from the next 21 until they sealed the title. Five of those six wins were by a single goal -- Mourinho's team had finally solved that frustrating earlier problem of conceding late goals in crucial games. That flaw had cost them wins away to Manchester City and Manchester United, and eliminated them from the Champions League.
It felt so un-Mourinho-like, only for the team to then display his defining qualities when it mattered most. They had managed to lock up their defence.
This is the flip side to Mourinho's relative lack of sophistication with attacking football and instead points to one of his greatest qualities: that resilience he breeds in teams, the cast-iron winner's mentality. As Fabregas said, "he just loves winning ... he has some edge that goes above anyone else I have ever been with."
It took some time to get that edge back. On the eve of this season, Mourinho said he was surprised at how far the team had come since he first returned to Stamford Bridge in 2013. "In the last couple of years, Chelsea became a good team at the knockout level. In terms of competitive marathon, be strong every week, be strong every game, fight in every conditions, play in every conditions, at home, away, raining, cold, hot, sun -- I found a team that lost the ingredients you need to be champions."
According to Fabregas, "A manager that can motivate a player every three days, when you play 60 games a season, it is not easy, trust me. He knows how to manage a team, he knows how to get the best out of you."
Many know about Mourinho's capacity to get players to love him, but that is clearly not enough on its own. The other side of his personality is just as important. As that Chelsea player said, he can "instill fear" with one look. It instantly indicates the level of performance he wants.
That double-sided approach has a deeper effect over the course of the season. Those around the Chelsea team say Mourinho will use it to "play games" with his squad, especially those players he doesn't fully know. He will criticise them at moments they don't expect, or suddenly drop them at moments they don't expect.
The intention, however, is not to just manipulatively keep them on edge, but also to test them, to see whether they are mentally strong. That helps explain the ruthlessly forensic way Mourinho has so deeply changed his squad over the past two years. Of the 18-man squad involved in his first game back, the 2-0 win over Hull in August 2013, 11 are now gone.
That approach also gradually lifts the competitive baseline of the squad by simple conditioning, setting ever high standards.
It has also lifted Chelsea to the title, even if they have had to do so by locking down.
AFTER THE PALACE game, Mourinho didn't exactly look uplifted. He wasn't really smiling in his press conference. He was surly, and offered the barbs to match his appearance -- many for the critics, two for Guardiola, as he referenced those managers who choose leagues that "even the kitman" can win.
You wonder about the motivation behind that, but Mourinho had already made it clear. Just before the Palace game, he was asked what made him a winner rather than his players. The journalist even had the temerity to ask whether it was because he was bullied at school.
Mourinho finally smiled.
"You are a winner when you win," he said. "You have to win to be a winner. I have to win tomorrow. That is what football is about -- what you did is history. What you can do is what you have to fight for. I have a nice history, but if I want to keep that nice history, I stop now. My career is not about what I did, it's about what I can do. For good or for bad, the story's not over."
This is the thing. This is why the feeling of victory lasts "five minutes", then "move on." He's always looking to the next step, the next rival.
Mourinho already knows his next plans, the improvements the team needs. He is seeking more pace up front, in the guise of someone like Antoine Griezmann to counter-balance Hazard, and looking to midfielders such as Koke and, less likely, Paul Pogba to bolster the midfield but retain the balance between defensiveness and craft. More than anything, he wants to retain that mentality.
"When they have the taste of success, the big players want more. There [are] people happy with just one victory, but the big ones when they feel that taste, they want more. The big ones are not tired of winning. Sir Alex Ferguson and Paolo Maldini, and all these big people as players as managers.
"It's from day one until their last day in the game," Mourinho added. "In the game, they want to win, so I hope these people get the good taste."
Mourinho so clearly has it. It's his nature.
Miguel Delaney covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MiguelDelaney.