“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,” is a quote mistakenly attributed to American football coach Vince Lombardi, but it could so easily be Jose Mourinho’s universal law: Winning shall be the whole of the truth. Chelsea are champions for the fourth time in 11 seasons, and the third time under Mourinho. Jose has his eighth league title in 13 seasons.
There is no doubt that Chelsea are deserving champions – on that point nobody disagrees. Mourinho’s side are the second-highest goalscorers, and they have conceded the fewest. They have won more points per game at home than any other team, and have done exactly the same away from home. They have played 3,150 league minutes, and been behind for just 152. Even if Arsenal beat Hull on Monday, Chelsea’s lead of 13 points would constitute a larger winning margin than in 28 of the last 29 seasons.
Chelsea’s achievements are not limited to the team as a whole. Diego Costa has the second-best minutes-to-goal ratio of any striker (Papiss Cisse’s is better). Cesc Fabregas has the most assists of any player in a season for a decade, has made the most passes in the league and has had the most touches of the ball. Eden Hazard has created more chances than anyone else, completed more dribbles and been fouled more times. Nemanja Matic has won more tackles than any other player. By almost every measure, Chelsea have been the dominant force.
Yet there is no doubt Chelsea’s title victory has been besmirched. In last weekend’s 16 Conclusions I mentioned the “Boring, boring, Chelsea” chants of Arsenal supporters which, in hindsight, was a mistake. I was merely using those accusations to segue into a wider point on football aesthetics, but fans in the Emirates were hardly likely to warmly applaud Chelsea’s success. Those chants simply reflected a more widespread feeling of bitterness towards Chelsea.
The accusation is that, in the big games, Chelsea have reverted to negative football. Four shots on target in two matches against Manchester City, six shots on target in two matches against Arsenal, six too against Manchester United home and away. In those six matches against the rest of the top four, Chelsea have scored six goals and conceded just three. All have been televised; an audience felt short-changed.
For some, the accusation of ‘boring’ is purely a synonym for ‘effective’. There was a long period during Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United tenure when their home fixtures became a procession. Between April 2004 and October 2011, United lost eight home league games – eight home defeats in seven-and-a-half years. The majority of those matches contained entertaining football and plenty of goals, but the formulaic nature of results reduced excitement. Certainly for the neutral, anyway.
Just as a film becomes less interesting when you know the ending, so too football loses its appeal. “If life were predictable it would cease to be life, and be without flavour,” Eleanor Roosevelt famously said (although admittedly not about the Premier League title race). There has been an inevitability to Chelsea’s title march since January.
There is also a strong element of inevitable jealousy to the criticism of Chelsea, alluded to by Kurt Zouma in midweek. “Other fans are jealous because their team is not top of the league and they want to be top of the league like everyone wants to; that’s normal,” he told Sky Sports. “Everyone wants to beat you, so for us we have to be concentrated and be focused.” No side that defends badly ever gets called boring.
Criticising the victors also allows the defeated to avoid a degree of introspection. Claiming your own team as a bastion of football ‘morality’ in comparison with Chelsea permits the gap in quality and performance to be excused. It’s a classic method of self-preservation, but something rejected by Gary Neville.
“I don’t get it at all,” Neville said after Chelsea’s 0-0 draw with Arsenal last weekend. “If we’re criticising anybody it should be the pathetic attempt at chasing them this season and putting up a fight. The last team that we should be criticising are Chelsea. They are the ones that have gone on and done the job.”
The dislike of Chelsea as a club also plays a prominent part in such discussions. If Manchester United were the most hated club in the country during the 1990s, Chelsea have taken over that mantle since their first title in 2005. They are the nouveau riche braggards, Roman Abramovich’s billions reserving guest-list entry and a VIP spot at European football’s top table. Nobody likes seeing someone skip the queue.
There may be nothing legally wrong with Chelsea’s approach, but that fails to remove the lingering sour taste their success leaves for many. Chelsea have come to personify the negative elements of commercialised football: Money as the most vital ingredient of success, ‘plastic’ supporters, stockpiling young players and a tendency to publicly eat their sour grapes. Some, or even all, of those accusations may be unfair, but I’m merely reflecting the mood. If Arsenal or Manchester City ground out results in the biggest matches in a similar manner to Chelsea, they would be praised for their resilience. See Arsenal’s result at the Etihad in January as evidence of that.
At the centre of Chelsea’s negative reputation is Mourinho, the leader of the tribe. He stands alongside John Terry as the poster boys of a modern club, a double act that you could imagine standing on stage serenading each other: “No-one likes us, we don’t care.” Made in Chelsea.
“I don’t know why Manchester City are so popular when we weren’t,” Mourinho said in February. “I don’t know why.” It is to the Portuguese’s credit that he kept a straight face throughout, for he knows exactly why.
Mourinho is a wonderful football manager, revelling in the siege mentality he creates. Every word he utters to the media is a calculated attempt to better his own situation, every jibe an attempt to unsettle his opponents. It’s not difficult to gauge why that may not endear him to opposition supporters. He is the most polarising manager in the modern era, antagonising beyond a point others would dare to tread.
Finally come the demands for style, as the ‘football is entertainment’ cliché is wheeled out. Supporters get hung up over the demand for attacking football, stemmed from our preconceived ideas over how football should be played. Growing up as children we dreamt of scoring goals, not saving them. Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Eden Hazard are the stars who will adorn posters in bedrooms. Javier Mascherano, Dani Carvajal and Cesar Azpilicueta represent the functional, not the fancy. Attack beats defence every time.
Herein lies the crucial disconnect: Football may be entertainment to those watching, but not those playing and managing. To them it is business, with winning the only goal. Your ticket price guarantees the product, but not the style. As the demand for instant gratification via success increases, only the result is king whilst the means pales into insignificance. If defending is an element of football success, it’s time to accept that it’s an inevitable part of football.
Last April, Manuel Pellegrini talked about the importance of winning the league title with style. “We have a style of play,” said the Manchester City maanger. “We are an attractive team, we score many goals and we are always thinking to score more goals. That to me has the same importance as winning the title.” That’s a bizarre assessment.
“We will try to do it in the right way,” was Brendan Rodgers’ insistence at a similar time. Suggesting a “right way” indicates that there is a wrong way, but Mourinho would remark that the winning way is the right way. Perhaps that partly explains why neither Pellegrini nor Rodgers have managed to maintain their form of last season. Both are good coaches, but are either true winners?
Above all, Mourinho is a winner. Since joining Porto in 2002, he has won 22 trophies in 705 matches, an average of one every 32 games. It’s a record bettered only Pep Guardiola in the modern era. The Spaniard’s sample size is approximately half as large, and spans two of the greatest club sides in the last 30 years.
Mourinho is angered by the criticism of Chelsea’s style because he doesn’t understand it. It fails to register with any part of his psyche that he could be criticised for doing what he is employed to do. Why would the world place any importance on style when the end goal of victory has not been achieved? Why would possession, shots on target or touches in the final third matter when football is judged only by the number of goals? Why would football teams be measured by aesthetics, as if there is some moral compass to define the success of teams? Why would the ‘right way’ and the winning way ever be mutually exclusive?
“First, have a definite, clear practical ideal; a goal, an objective,” said Greek philosopher Aristotle. “Second, have the necessary means to achieve your ends; wisdom, money, materials, and methods. Third, adjust all your means to that end.” Typical Panathinaikos fan nonsense. “Boring, boring philosophers.”
The best style is the one that is the most effective. There is no right way or wrong way when the method is nothing and the result is everything. You can choose to dislike Mourinho’s style, and many will, but something so successful cannot be demeaned. He sets up his team in the way he knows how to win. That only becomes an issue if you don’t like it. That’s your problem, not his.
Mourinho may have erred slightly when he described Chelsea as “the team that everyone else wants to be”, for he cannot speak for others. Instead, Chelsea are the team Jose Mourinho wants them to be. When they are winning titles, that’s all that matters.