Chelsea Head To Head: Make or break for Mourinho?
After a slew of offseason moves, the pressure is on Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho to deliver a title in 2014-15. ESPN FC Chelsea bloggers Phil Lythell and Mark Worrall debate how the Special One will fare in Year 2.
If Jose Mourinho doesn't win the Premier League title with Chelsea next season should he be sacked?
Phil Lythell: Given Roman Abramovich's historical impatience and the fact he has already granted Mourinho a season's grace without a trophy, the logical answer would suggest he would be relieved of his duties. Whether he should, though, will reside in the context of any perceived failure.
Should Chelsea experience the type of season that Manchester United did last campaign, then there is absolutely no chance of him being retained. Regression or even a lack of progression would be a huge concern and it would suggest that his magic had waned, at least in regard to Chelsea. However, were Mourinho to be pipped to the title by a narrow margin while claiming some silverware in the process then he will have earned another shot at it as long as the football on display was sufficiently entertaining. Plus, if he manages to win the Champions League, any failings domestically would be rendered virtually obsolete.
Mark Worrall: In one angry word: NO! The reality, however, is that if Mourinho fails to deliver a major trophy, with the Premier League being the primary objective -- unless Chelsea's munificent owner Roman Abramovich has changed his mindset, which historically has not been noted for patience -- then opinion will count for little. It won't be a question of "should he be sacked?" -- he will be sacked.
When Mourinho returned to Stamford Bridge amid much fanfare last summer, media briefings pointed to the forthcoming campaign being a "season of transition" -- the reality turned out to be a season of frustration. Chelsea dominated their title rivals, taking maximum points from eventual champions Manchester City and runners-up Liverpool, but faltered against the also-rans, with the home loss to then-basement-side Sunderland. It was a stunning reminder of the trait referred to as "glorious unpredictability" that is a part of the London club's DNA.
The truth is, last season the Premier League was there for Chelsea's taking. Had Mourinho delivered the title in his first season back in the SW6 hot seat, the pressure would have been off and the current topic of conversation would not be of his job being at risk but about developing the squad so it can compete on all fronts. The latter should remain the case even if the 2014-15 campaign ends without the Blues winning the league.
Mourinho said his squad lacked experience last season and he complained about his striking options. Surely, considering the signings made, he can't use these excuses again?
PL: The purchases made by Chelsea and sanctioned by Mourinho have all been aimed at adding experience to the squad, which hints rather unashamedly at a sustained assault on all major trophies next season. Although there has been talk about a long-term project since his return to the club, at Chelsea there is also a fundamental requirement for a degree of short-term success and Mourinho knows he must deliver to safeguard the club's reputation as well as to maintain his own personal legend.
Mourinho had a fair point when talking about his squad's lack of familiarity with the big occasion last season. In comparison to eventual champions Manchester City, his squad had nowhere near their depth of winning experience. Now with Eden Hazard and Oscar having two years of English football under their belts, that pair will have little excuse should they not rise to the occasion while Cesar Azpilicueta, Willian and others should all be sufficiently battle-hardened. The real challenge will be for the manager to integrate his new signings into a solid unit and decide how best to accommodate his best players into a coherent and balanced system.
MW: Mourinho lamenting the profligacy of his strikers and referring to his team as a "little horse" when attempting to defuse the pressure of the title race with City and Liverpool was simply a case of being welcomed back to the wonderful world of Jose. We'd missed that. Personality! Wit! A shining beacon in a sea of grey. Whatever happens next season, expect more analogies and anecdotes from the wily Portuguese, but the arrival of players of the caliber of Filipe Luis, Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa suggest these may have a different focus.
Mourinho knows the score. He knows all about the pressures that come with being the Chelsea manager -- he's been there, seen it and done it once before.
"I have great belief in [the players] and I think next season we can start day one, and we can say without any kind of fears that we are there not to fight for the title, but to win it," he said at the Blues' player of the season awards. Yes, there will be excuses when things occasionally go awry and maybe this time around we may see Mourinho stopping the buck at himself rather than passing it on to others. It will be difficult not to.
Mourinho's tactics and style of play have been questioned. Has the criticism been fair?
PL: Absolutely not. The criticism he received last season was not just unfair, it was wilfully ignorant. Chelsea began last season seeking to play a progressive, expansive game and their matches were thoroughly entertaining during the early months. The problem the team had was an imbalance between defence and attack that saw too many goals shipped in the quest for an eye-catching victory with the final straw coming in the 3-2 defeat at Stoke City in December.
Without the necessary tools in the squad to make that approach work, Mourinho decided against pursuing the policy of elegant failure as so often employed by Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger and instead installed some much-needed pragmatism. His stance was more than vindicated with a draw at a then-rampant Arsenal and a win at Manchester City, one which could have been secured by a much wider margin considering how often the hosts' woodwork was struck. Even so, Chelsea hardly parked the bus every week as the home thumpings of Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United will attest.
Of course, Mourinho did not always get it right as shown by his changes in the home leg of the Champions League semifinal against Atletico Madrid, but even the Special One makes mistakes now and then.
MW: By and large, the criticism of Mourinho is neither fair nor justified. Modern football managers are cursed if they do and, with the exception of the seemingly bullet-proof Arsene Wenger, cursed if they don't -- with Mourinho, the perceived enfant terrible, cursed more often than not.
Last season, the Portuguese was feted as a tactical genius when masterminding a 1-0 victory over Manchester City at the Etihad and subsequently setting up his team to destroy Wenger's Arsenal at Stamford Bridge 6-0. Yet for voicing his frustration at Sam Allardyce's West Ham side when musing that they played 19th-century football following a frustrating 0-0 home draw, Mourinho was subsequently pilloried when he opted for a counterattacking style of play to earn a result against title hopefuls Liverpool at Anfield. According to Reds manager Brendan Rodgers, Chelsea parked not one, but two buses that day -- but what Rodgers failed to mention is that Mourinho's men managed to get off both buses and score a brace of goals without reply. That's the name of the game, isn't it? Winning?
Chelsea stalwarts Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole have been moved on by Mourinho this summer. Was this the right time for them to leave?
PL: When you are talking about legends such as Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole, then there is never really a right time to leave unless, of course, they could have emulated Didier Drogba and won the Champions League with their very last touch. Having said that, it would have been painful to see such club titans constantly warming the bench only to then be wheeled out for a Capital One Cup match.
Both Lampard and Cole still have much to offer, though perhaps not at the level of consistency required by Mourinho. With that in mind, the only sensible thing for each of them was to leave with the eternal gratitude of everyone at Chelsea and embark on the next stage of their life. The one real disappointment has been the lack of a proper farewell, so hopefully the club will do the right thing and host a charity testimonial in their honour.
MW: The departure of Lampard and Cole was inevitable. Chelsea have a sell-by-date policy for their players, and both men had unfortunately reached a stage in their careers where first-team opportunities were becoming restricted.
Lampard, who many supporters believe to be the best player ever to play for the club, extended his record as the Blues' leading goal scorer, but was used sparingly by Mourinho. Meanwhile, Cole had fallen behind Cesar Azpilicueta, naturally a right-back, in the left-back pecking order. All good things come to an end and, fortunately, both players were released in a dignified manner as befitting their status as bona-fide club legends.
Which of the big-name signings made so far are you most looking forward to seeing play in a Chelsea shirt?
PL: Out of all the new arrivals to date, Diego Costa is the one that could make the biggest difference. Of course, just because he was prolific at Atletico Madrid doesn't mean he will start banging the goals in as soon as he touches down in England, though he certainly has something that Chelsea have lacked recently.
Should he display the same marksmanship as he displayed in Spain, then the Blues will have a great chance of getting their hands back on the Premier League title, though his other assets will be just as important. Costa loves running the channels even in a lost cause and his determination is likely to make him a crowd favourite very quickly. His penchant for winding up the opposition is also guaranteed to find him disliked by rival fans across the land, which will only endear him to the Stamford Bridge faithful all the more. It won't be dull.
MW: Last season, Diego Costa, Filipe Luis and Thibaut Courtois -- who, despite already being a Chelsea player, will seem like a new signing -- were pivotal in Atletico Madrid's La Liga triumph. They were also very visible to Blues supporters, notably in Los Rojiblancos' Champions League semifinal success over the London club. All three are a perfect fit for Mourinho's template with Luis and, specifically, Costa addressing perceived squad deficiencies.
The acquisition of Cesc Fabregas from Barcelona, however, is the signing that has so far caught my eye, principally because it was unheralded. The former Arsenal man is a proven Premier League star whom at 27 years of age is at the peak of his powers.
"Cesc is a great player that gives a new dimension to our team," said Mourinho following the Spaniard's arrival at the Bridge. "He's different from Matic, Ramires and Oscar. With him we have a comprehensive central midfield. I wanted a midfielder with a certain style and now I have him."
It's hard to disagree with Mourinho. With the capability to create and score goals in the manner of Lampard, Fabregas could well turn out to be the shrewdest summer signing of them all.