Sunday, September 13, 2015

Minds over matters - the mental state of José's strugglers

I'm sitting in a cafe at Milan-Linate airport, people watching. I agree that in some countries that could qualify as a misdemeanor, but here in Italy, it is positively go-with-the-flow. 

Around me, the impeccably shod and effortlessly chic are going about their own. Small clusters of excitable locals are windmilling at each other with that entirely proprietary Italian form of sign language. It's quite possible that the topic of conversation is tonight's Milan Derby. This is a fixture that traditionally suggests more portent than it actually delivers, but then derbies often do. 

The difference, of course, is that Internazionale and Milan share the San Siro stadium, a model of local accommodation that Chelsea and Tottenham might adopt if they both move into Wembley while their respective grounds are rebuilt.

Inter was, of course, José Mourinho's first club after he walked out of Chelsea on September 20, 2007 "by mutual consent", following an indifferent start to the season that had, two days before, seen the then-defending Premier League champions draw 1-1 with Rosenborg in the Champions League in front of a Stamford Bridge crowd of just 24,973. 

It was their third successive game without a win, having previously been beaten 2-0 by Aston Villa in the domestic league and drawing 0-0 with Blackburn Rovers. Amid credible rumours of a breakdown in Mourinho's relationship with Roman Abramovich, his departure left Chelsea fifth in the table.

Today, following a similarly indifferent start to the season, Chelsea are fifth from bottom. Let's read that again: the reigning Premier League champions are, five games into the season, fifth from bottom. That's two places above the relegation zone. By tomorrow evening, they could be in the bottom three.

To add to the alarming circularity of Chelsea's situation today and that of eight years ago, I was five days into a holiday in Sicily, walking up Cefalù's La Rocca, when I received a text message saying that Mourinho had left Chelsea, a few weeks into his third season in charge. Today I'm on my way back to Sicily. Perhaps I might just switch my phone off completely for the next few days.

After yesterday's 3-1 defeat at Everton, Chelsea are in crisis. No two ways about it. And yet Mourinho's apparent serenity is a worrying reflection of the lack of any notable team improvement since the first game of the season. They have now lost three of their first five league games, with a win and a draw apiece. The worst start to a season since 1986. Put another way, by the comedian Ian Stone on Twitter: "So we have a left-wing Labour leader and Chelsea are shit. Ladies and gentlemen - welcome to the 70s."

“I am not feeling any pressure,” Mourinho, said after yesterday's game at Goodison Park, where Everton's Steven Naismith scored a hat-trick in return for the single consolation goal by Nemanja Matic. “The results are the worst results ever in my career. I am not happy but I am coping well with the situation. The priority is to keep doing what we are doing, the players are feeling enough sadness.” What about the fans?

Bluntly speaking, Mourinho's priority absolutely shouldn't be to keep on keeping on. There are no excuses to draw on, noconspiracies to blame. Chelsea's defenders are being beaten too easily, its forwards are painfully lacking confidence in front of goal, the midfield is not creating. 

Opponents have, over the last two seasons since Mourinho's return, figured Chelsea out. Defenders know what to expect of Costa and Hazard, attackers know that Ivanovich, Terry, Cahill, Azpiliqueta and even the formerly imperious Matic can be stretched. The midfield can't create. Chelsea need new tactics and a new mindset. Or, perish the thought, a new manager.

I won't buy, any more, the charge that they are tired and jaded from last season's exertions and a lack of preparation in pre-season. Not at all. Physical improvement can be worked on. It's what the club's expensively assembled Cobham training ground is for.

But the mental side of things requires a different regime, and for me it's the area that needs the most work. Because the spark plugs in Chelsea's game are just not firing properly. The win-at-all-costs mentality that won them the league back in May is painfully and starkly invisible. And it will only get worse.

"Confidence is low," Mourinho said yesterday. "It looks like everything is more difficult. The biggest concern is everything is going against us. We know we are making mistakes and every mistake, we are punished.

Football fans in general want to see action being taken, not excuses or cod philosophy. Mourinho might be a master of mind games and diversionary tactics, but now is not the time for his brand of mangled doublethink ("I am champion, the players are the champions. I don’t blame my players and I don’t blame myself. I don’t accept the results, I am responsible for the team, I am not happy with the situation and I am not happy with myself").

And yet he is defiantly sanguine. "The results are the worst in my career," Mourinho said yesterday. "They are not adapted to my quality, my status, but I am coping well with the situation. I am not feeling pressure," to which he added: "I think the refugees are under big pressure." Well deflected. Draw attention to something else.

No one, not even the most ardent fan of Bill Shankly's oft-quoted maxim, will regard the results of a football team as anything remotely close to the plight of the unfortunates fleeing Syria's living hell. But at least they have the singular determination to abandon all that they have and know to reach their objectives.

Even allowing for Mourinho's suspect English (in which "moment" has a multitude of uses), some of his proclamations recently have not instilled much confidence in anyone that his charges are being sent out with the right stuff.

"Chelsea can win the next match against Arsenal for sure," he said yesterday. "The title? I don’t know. It depends on us to improve a lot and also depends on other clubs that are at the top of us to lose matches."

Really? Five games in and we're getting the "it's out of our hands now" concession? How positively Wengeresque! In fact, the further Arsenal move above Chelsea, the more Mourinho sounds like the Frenchman.

That is not what Chelsea's players, let alone its fans, want to hear. Comments like "Even if we win every game between now and the end of season, we still depend on other results [to win the title] may be the reality, but with 33 more games to go, Chelsea need to play every game like their last, to have a winning mentality, no matter what to be, basically, who they were last term.

"I am the man for the job," Mourinho proclaimed yesterday as the first slashes of credibility lowered the odds on him getting the sack. Again. "I don't think there is better man who could come and do my job." Maybe not. But if he can't satisfy Abramovich a second time around, and after endless changes of manager since his 2007 departure, then I don't know who can. 

The man for the job Chelsea needs right now must be a supreme motivator. There's no questioning Mourinho's skills as a tactician, and certainly none as a wind-up merchant. But today there is a big question hanging over his capabilities to prepare the heads of his players, let alone their feet.

Ever since that ridiculous episode with the club doctor and physio on the opening day of the season, there has been something unsettled and niggly about Mourinho. He even cited, jokingly I think, that the laptop didn't work during yesterday's pre-match team briefing. That is not a winning mentality.

Any manager - regardless of whether they've just been promoted or have just been crowned Premier League Champions - will say that it is still early days. But for Chelsea - this Chelsea - to be on the verge of dropping into the relegation zone is nothing short of eye-watering calamity. We all agree that no one has a divine right to being in the top flight, let alone the top half of it. But even the most gnarled and acidic Chelsea hater must conceal their glee and be genuinely alarmed at how a team that won at a canter last season, should be nose-diving so abruptly as they are right now. 

"The trouble for José is that he’s never managed a losing team,” Harry Redknapp said last night. We'll he has, and we all know what happened when he did.

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