Jose Mourinho used the word in each of his three press conferences after Chelsea’s defeat to Leicester City on Monday, a repetition that suggested he had made a conscious decision that that should be the message everybody took away. He has been betrayed; the players have let him down; it’s not his fault. That, of course, as Diego Torres’s biography of Mourinho makes clear, has always been Mourinho’s way: when things go wrong, he distances himself from the problem. Yet the use of the term also seemed to sum up just what has gone wrong at Stamford Bridge this season.
Perhaps once you’ve accused your players of betraying you, there really is no way back, although the likelihood is that the outburst was a symptom not a cause. Mourinho, sacked on Thursday, has left Chelsea not because he drove an irrevocable wedge between himself and the players with the use of the term, but because results and performances were dreadful, partly because the gulf between players and manager was vast.
To begin with there was the overt meaning. Mourinho said he outlined four ways in which Leicester scored goals and had worked with the players on defending against them. They had failed to do that; his work on the training ground had been betrayed.
But then there was the intriguing suggestion that Mourinho was making a covert attack on the dressing-room mole who had leaked details of his lineup before the 2-0 win over Porto last week, probably Chelsea’s best performance of the season.
In a very direct sense, somebody in the dressing room had undermined Mourinho.
And there was also the effect of the use of the term, the way it conjured up a world of paranoia and suspicion, the way it revealed the toxic state of the dressing-room atmosphere. Chelsea’s collapse this season has been extraordinary–no champion, in the 127-year history of England's top flight, has ever started a season so badly. Given the financial advantages the top clubs now enjoy, that is truly a staggering fact. Chelsea’s performance hasn’t just been worse than everything that came before; it’s been worse by a huge margin.
In truth, the decline began last season. The evidence was there, but nobody chose to see it. Chelsea limped over the finish line, its title win because of its impressive start to the season and Manchester City’s stutter in January and February. In very few games in the run in did Chelsea play well. Its defeat to a 10-man Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16 of the Champions League, despite twice taking the lead, was a huge warning sign had it been heeded.
Instead the widespread assumption as that Chelsea was fatigued, exhausted by Mourinho’s preference for sticking with a small tight-knit squad.
As the decline set in last season, it became apparent that a number of players had been alarmed by Mourinho’s reaction to Diego Costa’s stamp on Emre Can at the end of January. The offense was manifest and, although missed by the referee, Costa got a three-game ban. Rather than accepting that sanction, Mourinho railed at television pundits for highlighting the incident. Players are understood to have been embarrassed, much as Torres outlines how Real Madrid’s players were embarrassed by Mourinho’s insistence the fixture list was rigged against his club in his final season there.
Mourinho’s rant at two members of the club’s medical staff, Eva Carneiro and Jon Fearn, on the opening day of the season, which led to Carneiro, a popular dressing-room presence, leaving the club, only intensified the sense of alienation.
There have been specific incidents with at least two players. Costa has been out of sorts all season and ended up throwing his bib at Mourinho once it became apparent he wasn’t going to be coming off the bench in the 0-0 draw with Tottenham. And Eden Hazard shook off a hug from Mourinho after being substituted in the Porto game before reacting angrily to Mourinho’s apparent suggestion he should run off a hip injury against Leicester on Monday.
In that context, the suggestion the players had betrayed him sounded a lot like Mourinho saying they had stopped listening to him. If that is true, his position was untenable. Yet it’s also fair to say that this wasn’t entirely Mourinho’s fault. Hazard, Costa, Branislav Ivanovic, Cesc Faregas and Nemanja Matic all lost form simultaneously. The injury to Thibaut Courtois provoked further disruption. Mourinho clearly felt more could have been done to add to the squad, particular at center back and in central midfield. That and the decision to bring in Radamel Falcao, whose injuries and poor form have left Chelsea with minimal attacking cover, can probably be laid at Mourinho’s door.
Three times now Mourinho has reached the third season at a club: each time it has gone horribly wrong. His abrasiveness, it seems, can be tolerated only so long. Add in players losing form simultaneously and an injured goalkeeper and the result is a champion floundering desperately to stay out of the relegation zone.
There could be only one solution.