Mourinho's return may hurt the Premier League's appeal
The end of last season was a carnival of ambiguity given the retirement of the Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, the appointment of Everton's David Moyes as his successor, the sacking of Roberto Mancini by Manchester City, and the scheduled departure of Rafael Benitez from Chelsea. It was a blurring carousel, whirling around us all. In the end, all you could do was gasp and coo at the sheer magnitude of the uncertainty, the likes of which we have not seen in some time in the Premier League. We were like explorers who had spent years trudging through monotonous green jungle and then, stepping in to a clearing, discovered a gigantic, glistening temple. What the?
The thing about this temple (yes, that is the metaphor you can hear creaking. Carry on.) was that the door was cracked enticingly ajar: along with all the questions about how new managers would fit in at their clubs, who they would sign, who they'd sack, and how everything would shake out in the wash, was the welcome sense that almost anything might happen next season. (Perhaps that is an abuse of the term 'almost,' but you get the drift: when the whistle blew on the last game of the season, which team would you have put the kids' college fund on winning next year?)
I went off on my post-season break content to think that the new campaign promised a great deal, even and especially for a grump like me. But this week I read the interviews given by the Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech from his academy in Prague, and -- belatedly -- it hit me: at Chelsea, where Jose Mourinho is back, things probably are going to be what they used to be. As Cech described the returning manager's key attributes, his words took my inflated hopes for a deliriously open 2013-14 season and ran them through with a knife.
"He's a manager who'd rather lose than draw a game," Cech said. "Some would say: 'OK, if you can't win it, just don't lose it', but with him that's not the case. He's all about winning, and winning the right way."
"'Right' doesn't necessarily mean in a 'great' way, as in a nice way to watch. Sometimes you have to win a game 'ugly'. If you play against a team who are really physical you have to find the way to compete. In the Premier League, teams play different styles and it's almost impossible to play 'nice' football. The 'right way' means you are tactically prepared and use the weapons to kill your opponent. Sometimes you impose the way you can play and you play football that is beautiful to watch; sometimes it's really scrappy, but you still need to win the game to win the title. This is the right way."
This is the Mourinho way -- fearsome enough with Ferguson, Carlo Ancelotti or Pep Guardiola for company but on the virgin fields of this Premier League, he could run amok. Put another manager in charge of Chelsea and it is easy to imagine last year's top five all sustaining an interest in the title. When I said "deliriously open," remember that it is all relative; redressing the balance among just the top five is pretty radical when you consider that the gap between first and fifth at the end of the last five seasons has been an average 21 points.
When Mourinho's return was confirmed, much of the discussion focused on personality -- inevitably so, because he had seduced England on arrival in 2004, yet has suffered a Gatsby-esque loss of charm in the years since. The things that once excited us (look, he's picking another fight! What a loose cannon! What a breath of fresh air!) now look a little too much like plain belligerence. Chelsea fans were dead certain that they wanted him back, but others were not so sure.
What we should have been thinking about was just how meticulous he is, how fastidiously he constructs and assembles his teams. "The work he puts in, all the small details in terms of preparation for individual players," said Cech, explaining how Mourinho works. "He is so demanding, but everyone is on top of his game whether he is playing or not. It makes people want to work." That, rather than his almost comic grouchiness, is what makes me wonder if it's a good time to have him back.
It is hard to laud the changes at the top of the table that stem from more than a billion pounds spent from one pocket, but there has been positive change; one of the things that I have especially enjoyed about the Premier League in the last year or so has been the relative weakness of defending. Manchester United conceding 43 goals in a season? Five years ago it was 22. Reading and Southampton both scoring twice at Stamford Bridge? Chelsea only conceded six there all season when Mourinho won his first Premier League title. Arsenal beating Spurs 5-2, twice -- once in the same season as losing 4-3 to Blackburn Rovers? Bonkers. And brilliant.
It will have to end, though, with Mourinho in town.
It is not that he has always presided over the stodgiest teams around -- remember Arjen Robben and Damien Duff in 2004-05? -- rather, that his determination to win exceeds any other desires. Despite his criticism of Tottenham Hotspur, for 'parking the bus' in September 2004, Mourinho is fundamentally a pragmatist; defending the dreadful FA Cup final that brought Chelsea the trophy in 2007, he said that it was more important to enjoy victory than to enjoy the game.
Thus, his win percentages are phenomenal: 72 percent at Real Madrid, 62 percent at Internazionale, 67 percent at Chelsea, 73 percent at Porto. Mourinho is magnificent -- too good, I fear, to preserve the anticipation and unpredictability when his competitors are still feeling their way. Who can afford we'll-score-one-more-than-you soccer against this man?