If, before this season started, someone had told you two former Big 4 clubs would find themselves running out of steam and struggling to crawl back into title contention, chances are you’d have put them down as Liverpool and Arsenal.
And how wrong you’d have been.
Arsenal sit atop the Premier League standings, with Liverpool in hot pursuit. There’s renewed belief at the summits of both clubs, and that infectious optimism seems to have pervaded through the whole team structure. Contrast that with the current sick men of the Premier League: Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City. In the League table, Manchester United are in 9th, City are 5th and Chelsea are somehow back in 3rd spot
Early Warning Signs
Even accounting for the fact that it’s still early days, Chelsea and Manchester United – generally regarded as the English powerhouses of the last decade – should have been backing themselves to project a sense of continuity in the face of managerial change better than City would.
For one, Chelsea are used to changes at the helm and to winning even with the instability. But even better, returning as their new boss was the man who had ruined every other love affair for them. His successors had won the Champions League, the Premier League, the Europa and the FA between them, but Stamford Bridge was always Mourinho’s territory. He’d be picking up where he left off, pundits opined.
Manchester United, on the other hand, picked David Moyes – Sir Alex Ferguson’s heir apparent – as their next boss. The Scotsman with the agreeable personality was expected to follow Ferguson’s example, and pretty much let the Manchester United car drive itself on cruise control. How hard could it have been, right?
Second Time’s A Charm?
Mourinho’s second coming was never going to be a cakewalk. No manager’s is. The Portuguese genius finds himself in the same corner that every other Chelsea manager since 2007 has found themselves in: burdened by the legacy of a former manager. Except in this case, Mourinho is burdened by his own past at Chelsea. At that time, Chelsea were the radical new side with time and energy on their side, rushing madly at the established order. That’s where Mourinho thrives, leading the charge and tilting at windmills like those of Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool.
Today, Chelsea are the established order. The wizened elders trying to stave off the young pretenders to the throne. And Mourinho is finding it’s easier to get to the top than it is to stay there.
Blaming It On Mata
Of course, the wrangling over Mata hasn’t helped. Jose Mourinho may have a marked preference for people with a defensive dimension to their game, but Juan Mata is too good a player to leave out of the squad – even if Oscar is playing like a man possessed. With the strikers at his disposal, Mourinho might as well play Mata as the front man. Surely, he couldn’t do any worse than Torres, Ba and Eto’o have.
But to Mourinho, Juan Mata represents one of the few success stories Chelsea have had without him. A younger Jose Mourinho might have embraced him the way he did Lampard. But an older, wiser Mourinho also comes with emotional baggage: a desire to remake Chelsea in the image of 2004. A success story like Mata, but one not forged in his smelter, is therefore not worthy of the squad – even if he’s the best player in it.
So good was he that Manchester United were reportedly willing to trade Rooney for him, in a deal that everyone felt would leave the defending champions better off.
And so Mourinho hangs the lack of defensive nous around Mata’s neck, like an albatross. The truth is, if Mourinho really wanted to, he’d have found a way to give Mata a shot. But presuming Mourinho is being as fair as he can, Chelsea’s midfield has gotten so large that it’s actually suffocating the rest of the team.
A Midfield Like a Muffin Top
Like a muffin top that simply won’t go away, Chelsea’s overflowing midfield ranks have already claimed a few scalps. Victor Moses was loaned out to Liverpool, while Josh McEachran moved to Watford temporarily. Kakuta, Marin, Lukaku and Romeu round up the household names currently on loan. And now Kevin de Bruyne has finally woken up to a fact everyone’s known for a while now – his career is going nowhere.
Chelsea’s riches in the midfield department have eaten away at resources that could have been spent bolstering other sections. The overflowing stream has turned into the poisoned chalice. Apparently, you really can have too much of a good thing.
Moyes’ Ill-Advised Spring Cleaning
Manchester United’s tale has its own share of personal preferences gone awry. When David Moyes walked in, many well-wishers predicted he’d merely be a facilitator for Ferguson’s reign by remote control. Those were his well-wishers; the rest of us figured he’d be Sir Alex’s sock puppet.
Moyes wasn’t impervious to this criticism, and acted decisively. It’s one of those gambles that you have to absolutely get right. If you do, it’ll be studied as a masterstroke for years. But when you get it wrong, there will be hell to pay, as Moyes found out at Manchester United.
David Moyes effectively insisted Sir Alex take the whole Manchester United backroom staff with him, on the way out. Moyes entrusted the fate of the team and that of his own tenure at Old Trafford with the bunch at Everton. It’s understandable that a manager will prefer men he’s gone to battle with before; but discarding – with one wave of his hand – the army of men who facilitated Fergie’s terrifying grip on the domestic league, is ridiculous. And if Benfica defender Ezequiel Garay’s claims are true, then Moyes didn’t want anything to do with Ferguson’s player preference either.
Out of his depth, lost without a compass and unwilling to ask for directions, Moyes has another worry to contend with. Life at a big club – regardless of its current position – is an entirely different beast than succeeding beyond expectations at a mid-level club. Roy Hodgson might agree.