Thursday, 6 February 2014

Beware The Little Horse

By Shane Thomas

Not long ago, I threw some self-indulgent shade at Chelsea re-hiring Jose Mourinho last summer. However, after their accomplished 1-0 win over Manchester City on Monday, the media narrative appears to be showing the Portugese much favour.

And it's the issue of narrative that struck me in the aftermath of the victory. Despite drawing level with Manchester City in the Premier League table, and pulling to within two points of current league leaders, Arsenal, Mourinho modestly claimed that Chelsea are nothing more than outsiders to win the title. He talks about getting Chelsea to improve slowly but steadily, and thinks bringing trophies to Stamford Bridge may have to wait.

From the man who dubbed himself "a special one" when he first arrived in England, this is a huge volte-face. Mourinho has a well-earned reputation for attaining instant success at whichever club he is coaching; is he a changed man? Building a team for the long-term, focused around a crop of promising younger players, such as Eden Hazard, Nemanja Matic, Oscar and Cesar Azpilicueta? Has Mourinho (whisper it) taken on the philosophies of his rival, and Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger?

He's gone from bemoaning the quality of his squad (back in 2007), using an analogy of shopping for eggs at the supermarket, to calling his current squad a batch of "beautiful young eggs."

Personally, I'm not buying this new narrative that Mourinho is selling[1]. I doubt he's turned into the footballing version of Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, nurturing a group of youngsters to find themselves, eschewing the nuts and bolts of the industry he works in. John Terry tearfully asseverating, "Captain, my captain" doesn't really fit, does it?

What Mourinho is doing is giving himself some cover. Knowing Chelsea owner, Roman Abramovich's penchant for firing managers who fail to win either the Premier League or the Champions League (and sometimes even that isn't enough), he is painting the narrative of Chelsea as a little horse in the title race; one that "still needs milk" and is yet to "learn how to jump".

I find the paradigm of "poor 'ickle Chelsea" somewhat hilarious. But Mourinho's comments aren't intended just to take the pressure off Chelsea, but to also put pressure on Manchester City and Arsenal. Both sides have question marks around their squads, and when the Portugese says that, "it's not our responsibility" to win the Premier League, it encourages the punditocracy to the assign that responsibility to City and/or Arsenal.

It's an astute play from Mourinho, but Arsenal and Manchester City will be foolish in the extreme to give credence to the notion of Chelsea as an underdog story. The Blues may not be at their peak yet, but if Arsenal and City spend too much energy worrying about each other, Chelsea are more than capable of pipping them both to the title in May. Don't expect the "little horse" to get tired any time soon.

Mourinho hasn't changed. He's just learned a few new tricks while he was abroad. And it may be enough to secure him his 3rd Premier League title.

[1] - Neither it appears, it the Daily Mail's, Martin Samuel.

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