As Jose Mourinho collected his things, he couldn’t help letting go one last little dig.
“I wish you and all your families good luck and I thank you,” he told his now former squad, before adding: “Even those of you who betrayed me!”
The parting shot could have come from any of Mourinho’s last few jobs, and it sounds so like something from Chelsea in 2015, but it might actually have stung him the worst because – well – this was the first. It was the first time the Portuguese had experienced anything like this. The story comes from September 2007, and a darker-haired Mourinho’s initial departure from Stamford Bridge.
While that episode has been almost completely overshadowed by the complete collapse that took place eight years later, the 2015-16 breakdown that has fired so much of the friction between the club and their former manager in the build-up to their latest meeting this Sunday, it is arguably the undercurrents from 2007 that are more relevant. That is because they weren’t quite as staggeringly sensational, and thereby as possibly freakish, but did start several significant trends.
That 2007 departure, after all, was not just the first time Mourinho felt anything like “betrayal” from players. It was also the first time results betrayed him, and that he started to look fallible. It was the first time he began to oversee the underwhelming performances and results that have been witnessed at Manchester United, and that stand against his status as someone who always eventually wins. It was also thereby the first time Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich got rid of a manager he had specifically appointed.
All of the accepted truths about Mourinho and three-year cycles, about how his competitive intensity burns people out, about how expansive expenditure is offset by his defensive football, about Abramovich’s perceived impatience, about the Chelsea hierarchy’s insistence on limiting the power of coaches they want to make inherently dispensable – all of them – come from this.
It’s also why, for all their very public differences, Mourinho and Antonio Conte might share a laugh on Sunday were they to have a drink and share stories about Chelsea. So much from 2007 now sounds so familiar.
Those close to Mourinho have always maintained that the problems were irrelevant to his record because he had initially achieved near-impossible success only to be then faced with a near-impossible working situation.
Through his authority and ability, the Portuguese had created a brilliantly single-minded Chelsea that had won titles – including their first in 50 years – and smashed a lot of records, before facing perceived challenges to that authority on all sides. One brilliantly detailed account from Duncan Castles in 2007 tells of how Mourinho’s camp felt there was either interference or just irritating problems from a series of figures: Abramovich, chief executive Peter Kenyon, two different directors of football in Frank Arnesen and Avram Grant, and then some key players.
That still might have all been workable had Mourinho been afforded a squad he felt he could work with, but the biggest effect of all was on transfers. Again, Conte might smile knowingly here.
Mourinho had asked for certain players, only to be given completely different ones, with different profiles. He wanted a burgeoning 25-year-old Samuel Eto’o in the summer of 2006, for example, only to be bought a tired Andriy Shevchenko who was about to hit 30 and the worst form of his career. He wanted to fortify a backline that had lost William Gallas, only to eventually be forced to play Michael Essien and Paolo Ferreira in the centre for a significant 2-0 defeat to Liverpool.
The result was a newly emboldened Manchester United rising to the standards Mourinho himself had set the previous two campaigns but could no longer maintain.
Others close to the situation, but not to Mourinho, say it’s far from that simple.
“It was not only about transfers,” one figure from the time privately tells The Independent. “That’s not true. Most of the transfers he wanted, he got. It was much more complicated. You could write a book about it.”
One book has been written about similar issues at Real Madrid, titled ‘The Special One’, where Diego Torres makes the following claim: “Abramovich did not forget that between 2004 and 2007 Mourinho had tried to fill the team with players linked to Mendes and his friends. He did this with such devotion that he marginalised men such as Arjen Robben and Shevchenko, signed on the initiative of Abramovich.”
Mourinho really just began to push for more power in that way that has become a constant in his career, but this was also happening while he was losing power over his players. For the first time, he had been at a club long enough for the spell to be broken.
The “pro-Mourinho” Didier Drogba wrote in his autobiography that there were teammates against the manager – “it was hard to look certain people in the eye without wanting to flare up” – and Claude Makelele later went on record about it.
“Very early on in the 2006-07 season, Mourinho took a step back from his players,” the French midfielder said in 2009. “In that one day, the brotherhood spirit that had united us was harmed… The chairman asked the players to express themselves more freely on the pitch, but Mourinho stubbornly refused to change his methods. A relationship at the top of the club was broken and the players began to feel it. During that third complete season under his control, I was stunned to see how Mourinho forgot the value of his players and claimed all the credit for everything. To him, individuals didn’t make the team work well, his methods did. At the end Mourinho gave the impression that he felt threatened as soon as a player was in the spotlight more than him.”
These are words that have even more edge in light of the Paul Pogba situation, in light of what happened at Real Madrid and then again Chelsea. Then there were the constrained tactics Makelele mentioned, that were an issue for Abramovich and those close to him.
The real net result of this was not just Chelsea losing the 2006-07 title to United. It was, from September 2007, the side looking like losing games all the time. A previously formidable team became so fragile… so beatable. It was a drop-off in performance that raised much bigger concerns. The first three weeks of September 2007 – that saw Chelsea lose 2-0 to Aston Villa and draw at home with Blackburn Rovers and Rosenborg – were strikingly similar in flatness to the first three months of the 2015-16 campaign. The Villa defeat was seen by those close to the club as a real turning point downwards. Mourinho’s side were at once so easy to get at, but also so out of ideas. An aura had evaporated.
It is tempting to wonder whether that could have developed into a proper 2015-16 crisis. Mourinho’s record meant such a possibility wasn’t even considered at the time, nor for the next few years, as he immediately went on to such intense success at Internazionale. The next two jobs however followed a pattern that became ever more pronounced.
It is another reason why the current United situation is so engaging, even if the football is not. There have been echoes of what happened in the past, but not the second-season title, not the same sense of a team that has immediately come together.
It is similarly the experiences with Mourinho that have made the Chelsea hierarchy more cautious about giving any manager such power, and that has directly led to Conte feeling somewhat frustrated.
The Italian has had his own issues with the current squad but those close to the club say it is “nothing like a Mourinho situation”, and maintain this group of players isn’t that “spiky”. That could be seen in how they didn’t continue to collapse after consecutive three-goal defeats to Bournemouth and Watford. They rallied.
Mourinho similarly rallied after 2007. The ripples from that time, however, are still being felt.
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