Thursday, 28 May 2015

Chelsea's Foundation Of Steel

By Shane Thomas

Remember Jose Mourinho's "little horse" press conference from last season? After beating eventual champions, Manchester City, he claimed his team were ill-equipped to make a challenge for the Premier League. The press understandably lapped up the pithy soundbite, but that wasn't the most significant utterance from the Portugese. "Next season..." he declared - continuing the equine metaphor - "...we can race."
Mourinho knew. He knew the second he returned to Stamford Bridge that his squad was far too unbalanced to be champions. Like Test matches in cricket, a domestic league campaign is the ultimate trial - if not the most prestigious prize - of a club's measure on the pitch.

The reason we play over 10 months is to insulate against vagaries such as fluctuating form, injuries, and vicissitudes of luck. They can be factors in a side winning a cup, or the Champions League, but not a league championship. You can't fluke that. There's a reason why Mourinho could guide his charges to victory at the Etihad in 2013/14, but then lose to sides like Crystal Palace and Sunderland.

Gary Neville recently gave a sagacious breakdown of how Mourinho has developed Chelsea from a top four side, into the cream of the crop. However, there was a key area that Neville omitted to mention[1]. While Mourinho and his players have received merited praise for their success in winning the Premier League and the League Cup, they shouldn't get all the credit.

The upgrade of Chelsea's squad wouldn't have been possible without the Chelsea executive board, particularly Marina Granovskaia[2], who works in tandem with technical director, Michael Emenalo[3]. Their astonishing ability to sell players for what should be way above their market value allowed Mourinho to regenerate Chelsea's squad, while comfortably remaining inside the Financial Fair Play regulations. Without Granovskaia and Emenalo's business savvy, Chelsea would have been stuck with an ageing squad, lacking the sufficient quality to be England's best.

Not only have they given Mourinho the platform to win Chelsea's 4th league title in a decade, but they're also a pivotal bulwark between the manager and owner, Roman Abramovich. In Mourinho's initial spell at Stamford Bridge, his relationship with Abramovich became acidic, which led to the Portugese's departure.

It was an ongoing pattern with Mourinho; Swiftly attain success, but annoy so many people in doing so that your position becomes untenable. This reached its nadir during his time managing Real Madrid, where Mourinho ended up as an island unto himself.

He hasn't changed his divisive persona, but this timehe has no excuses to start fires in his own club. The internecine warfare at Chelsea has stopped. Mourinho still has the latitude to be scabrous with his soundbites, as long as they're aimed away from Stamford Bridge. He's now inside the tent pissing out, when in his previous spell he was inside the tent, but pissing everywhere.

His explosive behaviour as a manager led me to think his return to Chelsea would be a frenzied mess. It's clear that - for now - I was very much mistaken. Because this time there is a clear delineation of the responsibilities expected from all the club's staff, from players to executives.

Abramovich was a complete novice in the football world back in 2005, and gave Mourinho far too much licence to run the show at Stamford Bridge. A decade on, the Russian now knows enough to have a clear idea in how he wants Chelsea to conduct their business, and delegates accordingly. This not only results in a more stable club, but ensures that Chelsea are in a position to have sustained success, even after Mourinho eventually leaves again.

The reductive football discourse in this country means that our analysis of Chelsea's success has caused Granovskaia and Emenalo to be overlooked. So let me break down their contribution into simpler terms.

The goals of Diego Costa, and the verve of Cesc Fabregas & Eden Hazard relies on the foundation of steel provided by the likes of Nemanja Matic, and the revived - and ever unrepentant - John Terry.

That's who Granovskaia and Emenalo are. Mourinho may get the spotlight, but it's those two in the background who are Chelsea's foundation of steel.


- A quick fun addendum. Over the past year, I've noticed a curious thing among some footballers. The same way you have Coke and Diet Coke, there are some footballers that are a denuded version of a more celebrated player. Similar in style, but less so in effectiveness. A "he plays just like... but not as good" type of player.

Got it? No? Well, tough. Because I'm going to begin. We'll start with Arjen Robben. Ever seen Andros Townsend play? Well, his style is just like Robben's... but not as good. The same goes for Thomas Muller and Steven Naismith.

I'll periodically add to the list when I think of a few more.

[1] - Or maybe he ran out of time in the segment.

[2] - Along with physio, Eva Carneiro, are Chelsea the Premier League's best example of employing women in prominent positions? Although, there's not exactly a high bar in that regard.

[3] - Who was largely depicted as a clown by the British press when he first came to Chelsea.

Part of this piece was published on Think Football.

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