On repeated occasions this season, Jose Mourinho has rather conspicuously reminded people this is not the same Chelsea side as 2004-2006; that the old truths no longer apply.
If that earlier squad were relentless, this outfit are still no more than resilient.
That is difficult to dispute, and it is a view that may well influence this title race — but it’s equally hard to argue it would be the main factor.
The real question is whether this is still the same Jose Mourinho?
The issue is one of the reasons last Sunday’s match against Liverpool felt so significant even beyond the result.
Mourinho returned to his most irascibly mischievous, and it does not seem a coincidence that followed his team’s most assured display. Chelsea assertively swarmed back at Liverpool after Martin Skrtel’s early goal, and were full value for the 2-1 win despite the controversies the game still went through. Afterwards, Mourinho felt cocky enough to interrupt his players’ TV interview and then to speak for 25 minutes at his own press conference.
The claim that Luis Suarez should have been punished for diving was not just blinkered and self-serving. It was born of the arrogant knowledge his mere personality could divert the debate sufficiently to also alter the tone of it.
It could yet be the same in the title race.
Previously, that old assertiveness seemed to be missing. If it would be wrong to say Mourinho came across disinterested or detached in his first few months back at Stamford Bridge, there did appear to be a difference. Many in the game have argued he could have done with a rest after the ructions of Real Madrid, or that he simply remained rocked after being overlooked for the job he wanted most.
It is now known Manchester United did at least discuss the prospect of appointing Mourinho, but a majority of the board felt he would be “too difficult to control” without David Gill above him.
Diego Torres has notoriously written in the book ‘Prepare to Lose’ that Mourinho was “crushed” on finding out about David Moyes’ appointment. The Portuguese’s camp have denied the story.
Whatever about control, the Chelsea boss has seemed a little less polished. Some around Stamford Bridge have even commented on his dress sense, now that bubble jackets have replaced Hugo Boss overcoats. These are the kind of superficial fascinations that the more pantomime side of Mourinho’s personality will attract, especially when your entire career has been punctuated by soundbites.
A further problem with that is soundbites also tend to noisily distort the actual truth. For all the perceptions of Mourinho and media, there were successive weeks between 2004 and 2007 when he would pull the shutters down and refuse to speak to the press because of some perceived slight. The 2006-07 campaign saw some particularly crabby exchanges, not least the spat with Alex Ferguson about Cristiano Ronaldo’s background.
This season hasn’t descended to such depths, but has seen the exact same mix as moods. There have of course been weeks when Mourinho simply isn’t interested, when the sparkle isn’t there. There have been others when he abrasively comes out with a specific statement to make.
One occasion was at the beginning of December, when he elaborated in detail about the exact type of psychology required to win a league, and how he is trying to instil it in his squad.
This, for all the comment on the cosmetics, is the key element of his career that seems absolutely hardwired. In a season that still feels so open, Mourinho is the closest to a sure thing in management beyond Ferguson. He is capable of keeping any squad at a competitive winning level, regardless of circumstances.
Of course, that’s also down to the fact he will do almost anything to ensure they win. There were elements of that in the Liverpool game. In September, Mourinho claimed he wouldn’t play central defenders in midfield. On Sunday, that was exactly where David Luiz was positioned.
The current Chelsea have a worrying habit of playing down to the level of inferior opposition, but a more encouraging trait of rising to the stakes of any given big game.
This has been another constant in Mourinho’s career.
Back in January 2002, the young coach claimed he had taken over “the worst Porto side in 26 years” but that they would still win the league. It was a way of tempering expectations that would simultaneously allow him to amplify his own achievement, and sounds suspiciously like his repeated contrasts with 2004-07 at Stamford Bridge now.
In other words, it is vintage Mourinho, even if this is also an older Mourinho. That may not lead to a vintage season, but will undeniably see the same old competitiveness.
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