There is some heavy work to be done at Chelsea, through the winter and into the future, and Jose Mourinho is desperate to do it.
Chelsea play at Arsenal on Monday night, and have the chance to overtake them in the Premier League table, before facing Swansea City on Boxing Day and Liverpool on Sunday, both at home. But what matters most, as Mourinho tries to mould this team into title winners, is what happens in the background and on the training pitch.
The Portuguese has often been characterised as a manager of instant impact, but now he is keen to be seen differently, as a builder, a stabiliser, a long-term man. Tonight he is facing Arsène Wenger, the last long-term man left, and Mourinho spoke admiringly about “club work”; what managers do to strengthen their squads gradually.
There is much of this still to be achieved at Chelsea. They have not won the Premier League title since 2010 and since then the team has changed. While results in the league this season have been good enough, performances have not been convincing.
After Tuesday’s Capital One Cup exit to Sunderland, Mourinho said that he was giving “serious consideration” to a change of approach, a more defensive style, to help his team secure the run of victories that has been eluding them. He discussed this in his press conference on Friday, after a training session focusing only on defending. More work like that will be required for Mourinho to build the team that he wants.
Almost halfway into the season, it is clear that none of Chelsea’s strikers will score enough goals to secure the title on their own, meaning that his side will have to excel elsewhere. “We know that we don’t have the players with the qualities to be the killer who scores week after week, game after game, and to express in terms of numbers the quality of the football we are playing,” Mourinho acknowledged. “But we can improve our results having more security when we lose possession of the ball.”
Because Chelsea are not scoring goals like Manchester City or Liverpool, they will need to be the best team defensively instead. The Chelsea side from Mourinho’s first period in charge was built on clean sheets and 1-0 wins but his new team has shut out the opposition in only four of their first 16 league games this season. To fix this, he has demanded that they defend from the front, calling for more application from his band of attacking midfielders.
“One of the aspects we have to improve is the defensive work by the attacking players when the team loses the ball,” he said. “We play with a lot of people in attack. In every match we are dominant – we have official statistics which prove that clearly – and in the matches we lost we had even more possession than games we won. It’s not about the team being more ‘committed’, but people have to change their brains a little bit.”
Efficiency and hard work were two of the pillars of Mourinho’s Chelsea team between 2004 and 2007 and while he rejects comparisons, he must want this side to have the original’s machine-like quality. “Players who are comfortable with the ball at their feet also have to be comfortable working a lot for the team,” he added.
“When you play the way we are playing, producing what we’re producing, and not scoring enough goals, you open the door for that to happen. If we cannot improve our efficiency in front of goal, we have to improve at the other end when we lose possession of the ball.”
This will be a difficult process. The Chelsea squad is a disparate mix of the old Mourinho-era core and newer imports. He was understandably wary of comparing this team to his first one. “It’s not fair,” he said. “There is no way back. The other guys deserve our respect because they were unbelievable, and the new guys deserve our respect too. How can you compare a Chelsea striker with [Didier] Drogba?”
Inculcating the new team with the old title-winning qualities will take time. But Mourinho intends to stick around for a while, hoping for a new equilibrium at Stamford Bridge, based on himself.
“For the players, also, if you want to help players grow up, you do that much better with stability. Stability in ideas, philosophy, model of play, style of leadership. This all comes from stability at the highest level.
“If the club is stable at the highest level, which is obviously owners and boards and, after that, immediately comes the manager. The manager is in the second line of the hierarchy. That stability is very important.”
This is what Mourinho wants now, and while Chelsea have a way of doing things rather different from Arsenal, he would like to emulate at least some of Wenger’s longevity. Staying for the full extent of his contract would be a start, and would mean his being in this job longer than he has in any other one in his career.
“Realistically, I have four years’ contract remaining,” Mourinho said. “I hope at the end of those four years we sit, analyse the situation and that will be the point where we are both – club and me – happy to carry on or happy to separate. Realistically, my desire and my feeling is to work these four years and, after that, analyse the situation.”
Wenger, of course, has been in charge at Arsenal for more than 17 years now. Mourinho cannot quite hope to emulate that but this year he did admit a desire for at least a decade at Stamford Bridge, setting himself up for the 2026 World Cup. “I would say 12 years. I’m 51 next month. I’d say 12 years, and two to go to a World Cup with a national team.” He did not even rule out trying to take the England job but “I would prefer the Portuguese national team. England second, yes.”
It might all be politics but Mourinho went as far as possible to demonstrate his commitment to Chelsea, and to this difficult work. “Teams to be successful immediately, I had a lot of them in my hands [in the summer]. I left Real Madrid because I wanted to.”
“If I was here for financial reasons, I wouldn’t be here, getting a lot less money than I had at Real Madrid, where I had three more years on my contract. I didn’t come here because the job was easy, or because I had a team ready to attack the title, or because I was coming here for the best contract of my life. It’s the worst of my last six years.”
“I am here because I love the club, I love the project. It is a different project.”