James Lawton: Ruthlessness and efficiency guarantee Mourinho trophies but not lasting glory

He is the reason for both their success and their now raging unpopularity
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Despite all the trails of rancour he has put down this season, the petulance, the lack of any natural sportsmanship and the graceless self-advertising, which has inevitably been included in his latest brittle charm offensive, there is still one unassailable claim to be made on behalf of Jose Mourinho.

The point flies beyond clear signs of new progress at Arsenal and Liverpool, and yesterday's reaffirmation of the authority Wayne Rooney brings to the stuttering cause of Manchester United. It is that Mourinho has been as good as his belligerent, self-anointed word. He has once again produced the best team in England.

Of course, he has had the means, so much more of them than any of his rivals and there have been times when he has brandished them as repellently as a ruinously spoilt boy.

But then that basic statement about his team's merit, its competitive discipline and consistency, probably needs to be underlined with special force in another week when the primacy of Chelsea in domestic football is again in danger of being overshadowed by Arsenal's brilliant charge for Champions' League glory.

So Chelsea were ushered out of Europe by the coruscating if not, ultimately, entirely convincing Barcelona. It doesn't matter. Arsenal may well be overtaken by the same fate, against a Villarreal masterminded by the superb playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme, in the semi-finals, or maybe by Mourinho's nemesis, Barça, in the final, but what can't be disputed is that it is in the Premiership where an English team must prove themselves. It is there that they have to establish they have the character and the talent to go the distance, all the time answering questions about their depth of professionalism and their resolve.

Liverpool's success in the Champions' League last season was astonishing, unforgettable, but it persuaded no one, and least of all their redoubtable coach Rafa Benitez, that they were in position to challenge Chelsea seriously in a new campaign. The same will be true of Arsenal if they upset the European odds this season - and Manchester United if Sir Alex Ferguson finds himself able to strengthen the wasteland of his midfield significantly.

It leaves us with the extreme paradox of Mourinho. He is the reason for both Chelsea's success and their now raging unpopularity.

It is never likely to change. While Chelsea negotiate a mega salary for the German star, Michael Ballack, and Mourinho plainly has the facility to throw another £50m or £60m into the transfer market, maybe with the jettisoning of such as the unfortunate Shaun Wright-Phillips, the coach's policy appears to be set in stone. Categorising it is simple enough: success not through the seamless development of the quality and adventure of their play - as Don Revie's Leeds United, like Chelsea deeply reviled in their formative stages, eventually won the respect of even the most grudging of serious football analysts - but by the accumulation of known strength.

Mourinho's move for Ballack is the perfect example. He is not a player of any kind of football fantasy: he is a strong, functional operator in advanced midfield positions, another Frank Lampard if you like, and if Mourinho did have any serious intention of lightening, even beautifying the product, he would of course be besieging a Riquelme, if not a Ronaldinho or Lionel Messi.

The lack of such an initiative tells you a lot of what you need to know about Mourinho's football persona. He has a trick, and it is an extremely good one, but it is not subject to modification or refinement. If he signed a Ronaldinho, or a Thierry Henry, he would be obliged to surrender some of his mystique at the head of the team; tearing up his game plan, as he did with such toe-curling effect at Fulham recently, would be rendered even more absurd if it was done in the presence of game-changing players of self-evident genius. Mourinho wants to hog the genius department: in this way he can make a virtue of his self-glorification, justify his excesses of ego.

Consider, for a moment, the meaning of paying roughly £72m for Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, and Wright-Phillips. All of them are players of certain talent, but none enters the airspace of an Andrei Shevchenko or a Messi and, still less, a Riquelme. They are controllable players and if Mourinho deserves great credit for the development of such as Lampard, John Terry and, not least, Joe Cole, what can you say of his stewardship of the three mega buys?

Wright-Phillips at times suggests he is midway through a football version of a nervous breakdown, so shorn is he of the old, splendid simplicities of the game he played for Manchester City. Essien is a great physical presence, like Drogba; both of them, however, have been apparently completely unchecked in their portrayal of the ugly face of today's game. The consequence was that, whatever happened yesterday, the inevitability of Mourinho's latest title triumph was bound to be accompanied by a wagonload of ambivalence.

It was, unavoidably, an overwhelming case of giving to the "Special One" not an ounce more than his due. The coach, and the Stamford Bridge public relations department, will surely have complaints, but their attitudes cannot be seen as conspicuously strange when it seems that whenever he decides to reappear in public, gratuitously sneering at his rivals or jokily philosophising on bird flu and the trophy expectations of his six-year-old son, a blanket of forgiveness in much of the media tends to drop over the cheapness of so much of his preceding public performance. It is a deeply unattractive process but it will be maintained as long as Mourinho fulfils his central function of winning games.

Maybe eventually Mourinho's regime will come under some ultimate judgement but we can be sure that it will not come from those who inhabit the world of football for its possibilities of beauty and artistry and, by way of a rare bonus today, grace under the harshest competitive pressure. That verdict, as we suggested here recently, will have to come from the patron of Mourinho's Chelsea, Roman Abramovich. He will have to decide if he will be content with a future of success guaranteed by Mourinho's strengths as a motivator or an organiser, but a triumph of the kind which can be appreciated, if hardly loved, only by the club's own following.

He has seen the kind of passions which can be released when a team is in the hands of a Frank Rijkaard at Barcelona, or a Ferguson, Arsène Wenger or Benitez. Mourinho doesn't, and you have to suspect he never will, provoke that kind of reaction. His creed is the old one of the gridiron coach Vince Lombardi: winning isn't the important thing, it's the only thing.

How else could he generate such contorted reactions to the reality that Barcelona play a different, much more satisfying football than his own? How could he not speak out against the cheating of Drogba, Essien and Arjen Robben? How else could he so unswervingly proclaim his belief that winning excuses everything, a statement that was implicit even in his smearing of the good name of a referee at the cost of admitting that he had lied? It may have been a fiction that Chelsea kept their pitch in the condition of a ploughed field so long merely to neutralise the superior skills of Barça, but it was significant that the view could be so widely and easily held.

These are not the offshoots of glory and, indeed, Abramovich may well come to wonder if they represent too high a price for his dividend of ruling English football. In the mean time, though, Mourinho cannot be faulted in his central purpose. He has done what he always promised; he has made Chelsea winners of the most formidable kind.

They are a team imbued with self-belief, and if some recent pratfalls encouraged doubts, they have been resolved in a now familiar way. The response to the crisis of going a goal and a man down in the recent game against West Ham, a team who have made impressive strides of their own this season, was quite withering.

It was then, of course, that Mourinho emerged from his brief, smouldering hibernation. He was returning to claim the stage, as he will always do. It is the right of conquest bestowed by the best team in English football, the one he has built and shaped, and no one can dispute the degree of his triumph. This doesn't mean, however, that anyone is obliged to throw flowers in the air.

Comments