"You think [Manchester] United won the Premier League last year because they were an unbelievable team? I don't think so." Welcome back, José. "The same the year before when City won the title. Were they an extraordinary team? I don't think so." This was on the eve of the new Premier League season, Mourinho stirring things up on his return as Chelsea manager. A week later supporters up and down the country are still talking about how lucky Chelsea was to bag all three points at home to Aston Villa on Wednesday. It really is like old times.
It is still a little early to etch in to stone any pronouncements about Mourinho's Chelsea Mach II: their season is only two games old, both ties at home against opposition to whom Mourinho and his employers would not countenance losing, with Monday's trip to Old Trafford shimmering hot on the horizon. The crystal ball shall stay in the cupboard. But we can take a look at how things have stacked up so far in this second coming.
The first time around, Mourinho made Chelsea grimly difficult to beat. Though there were moments of eyeball-grabbing brilliance from the likes of Damien Duff and Arjen Robben it was Claude Makelele, stationed at the rear of midfield ready to stamp on the first glowing kindling of an opposition attack, who came to epitomize the style of play. In Mourinho's three full seasons (2004-05 to 2006-07), no team conceded fewer goals than Chelsea. Mourinho was beloved by soccer fans beyond Stamford Bridge but his team was one that often only Chelsea devotees could truly enjoy watching -- and they too must have been frustrated to see a side capable of demolishing teams stop bothering after the first or second goal.
At the end of his first season in charge, in which the team won 29 percent of matches 1-0, conceded only 15 goals and amassed more points than any team had before in winning the title, The Guardian's match report said: "José Mourinho has begun to resemble a grim reaper." One sensed the Chelsea manager would have been happy to share with Death his inevitability, if not his sense of style (Hoods? Please).
Though he rubbished the oft-made suggestion that the Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich fired him in 2007 having grown bored of the way the team played, Mourinho has said that he wants Chelsea to be considered an attacking team. "We don't want to go to a stadium and be defensive for 89 minutes, wait for a chance and then score a goal and win 1-0 and go home happy," he said at the start of this month. "That is not our philosophy."
In his first interview with Chelsea TV, he emphasized improvement and evolution over radical change. "We have to improve the team, and when I say 'improve the team' people are already thinking about how many millions Chelsea are going to spend, [but] I am saying improving by work... The profile of the younger players with long-term space for improvement and development, I like very much that kind of profile."
Casting an eye over the squad that he had assembled to start the new league campaign, Mourinho said that Chelsea's style of play was almost self-evident. "You see the profile of player we have: Oscar, Hazard, [Juan] Mata, [Kevin] de Bruyne, André Schürrle. We can't play physical football with these people," he said. "My players are technical players, they want the ball -- need the ball. I want to attack and try to be dominant." Dominance, of course, comes with a caveat: "when we play against good teams, we have to defend."
Evidence so far
Chelsea faced Hull City at Stamford Bridge on the opening weekend, a fixture that seemed to offer the chance to start things with a real bang (what respect is due to Hull when even their own manager looks like he's just arrived at Disney World, shaking Mourinho's hand as if it was Mickey Mouse himself?). And Chelsea dominated the first half, finding time in the opening 24 minutes to have a penalty saved and score twice. There was an impressive tempo about the team and the interplay between Hazard, Oscar and de Bruyne was full of imagination and novelty. "We've not had many periods like that for quality," said Mourinho.
Certainly the second half was not one of them. Chelsea were not in danger of being pegged back but there was no urgent desire to add to their lead. Mourinho blamed the week's sapping international duties but there was a suggestion from Lampard that Chelsea had set out to get the job done in the opening 45 minutes. "We needed to give [Hull] a feeling that after halftime, there wasn't going to be a game."
The press cogitated on what they had seen and were led to inevitable likenesses between Mourinho's Chelseas old and new. Comparisons were also made to Manchester City, who scored four past Newcastle United and looked as if they'd have kept going in to double figures -- though they were comfortably 2-0 up at halftime against 10 men, City had 12 shots at goal in the second half.
These comparisons (and the implicit worries about goal difference) were perhaps on Mourinho's mind when he spoke before Wednesday's meeting with Villa. "When you have the chance to destroy them by three, four or five, we have to do it," he said. "If you keep going in the same direction you will score, score one more, and probably score one more and kill the game."
Chelsea did no such thing against Villa, however. The connections still fizzed early on, Oscar and Hazard combining to create the opening goal, but having taken the lead Chelsea seemed want to shut things down. That's a reflection of the strength of the opposition, Villa being fresh from beating Arsenal 3-1, but also a reminder of that philosophy, in which attack and defense are the servants of dominance. Chelsea held on to the ball but passed it back and forth around the center circle. This time the Guardian report captured it thus: "pedestrian and soporific."
Mourinho has consistently promised one signing: a striker. Wayne Rooney, specifically, though he will wait until after Monday's match to make a third and final bid. Suits at United say they are determined to hold on to the player, and Mourinho has gone from saying it is "Rooney or bust" to apparently having a "Plan B and a Plan C." One of those appears to be Samuel Eto'o.
It is good to see Romelu Lukaku finally with a Chelsea shirt on his back, but for Mourinho it means his most authoritative striker is 20 years old; he'll want to add another experienced player who can ruthlessly exploit the abundant supply from what should be a fantastically creative midfield (let's not forget, even the supposedly conservative central pairing will often be Frank Lampard and Ramires; neither is a Makelele type and they both got forward last week).
Against United, though, it is likely that we'll see a more defensive player (perhaps Marco van Ginkel) partnered with one of Lampard or Ramires. David Moyes' side was clinical against Swansea City last weekend and even if Chelsea dominate possession again, United have Michael Carrick capable of springing a lightning fast counterattack. Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck roam between the lines.
Asked about the game, the United defender Jonny Evans recalled last season's Champions League meeting with Mourinho's Real Madrid, who pressed hard. "It was a very high tempo game, and I am sure he will be wanting Chelsea to play the same." It would be an impressive marker to set down at this stage -- but Mourinho'll take "pedestrian and soporific" if it means gaining an early advantage over one of the two others teams most likely to challenge for the title. Abramovich wants good soccer, but first and foremost he wants winning soccer.