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How do you solve a problem like Mourinho? By mutual consent, if the statement Chelsea put out in the early hours of Thursday morning is to be believed, and for once the euphemism seems to have a ring of truth.
José Mourinho could no longer stand having players foisted on him and then being blamed when they failed to perform. Roman Abramovich could no longer stand the boredom of goalless draws at home to Blackburn, and so the two went their separate ways.
It is rather reminiscent of the scene in Gladiator when Maximus, the Russell Crowe character, having ruthlessly dispatched two lesser combatants, turns to a jeering crowd and asks: “Are you not entertained?” Well, no, seems to have been Abramovich’s answer.
Two Premiership titles, two League Cups, an FA Cup and two Champions League semi-finals in three seasons were not enough. Given the level of his investment, he wants more than to see his man clinically lop off heads.
It feels appropriate that Mourinho should depart immediately before tomorrow’s meeting with Manchester United, a team who have proved that success can be achieved with a cavalier approach. It was at Old Trafford, watching United play Real Madrid, that Abramovich supposedly fell in love with football.
The Huddersfield and Arsenal coach Herbert Chapman was regarded as English football’s first great pragmatist. He pioneered counter-attacking, and was responsible for turning the centre-half into a third defender. Shortly after his death in 1934, by which time Arsenal were on their way to a hat-trick of titles, a collection of his writings was published. Surprisingly, they contained a lament for the direction the game had taken, one he had helped guide. “It is no longer necessary for a team to play well. They must get goals, no matter how, and the points. The measure of their skill is, in fact, judged by their position in the league table. Thirty years ago, men went out with the fullest licence to display their arts and crafts.”
All those years ago, the argument seemed settled. It never was, and Abramovich’s disagreement with Mourinho is just the latest example of that.
When Proximo, the manager of the group of gladiators of which Maximus is a part, encourages him to take more time, to show more artistry in his fighting, Maximus points out that he has killed, and that is all he is required to do. “That’s enough for the provinces,” Proximo replies, “but not enough for Rome.”
Nor, it seems, for Roman. Perhaps in this phase of football’s evolution, in which it is no longer an expression of local pride but has become more obviously an entertainment, those arts of which Chapman spoke have become necessary again.
The question then is twofold: is Chelsea’s squad capable of the fireworks Abramovich desires, and is Avram Grant the man to set them off? Grant, the former Israel coach whose appointment as director of football helped destabilise Mourinho, had a reputation in his homeland for pragmatism, but it is safe to assume he understands his brief at Stamford Bridge will be simply to let his players play.
How willing they will be to play for him is another matter. Claude Makelele described the news of Mourinho’s departure as being like a “bomb”, and Grant must know it will be difficult to convince the squad that he is the man to defuse it.
This, anyway, is not a squad packed with entertainers. That is partly Mourinho’s doing, but there is an irony in the fact that the two players he has intimated were imposed on him – Andriy Shevchenko and Michael Ballack – are not exactly fantasistas. Both are hard-working, highly competent players noted for their supreme efficiency.
There were suggestions that Grant, who speaks Russian, might have been recruited to help Shevchenko settle, and one of the key tests for him will be whether he can find new life in the Ukrainian at 31. Shevchenko may welcome Grant’s arrival, but the bond between Mourinho and other players was real enough.
Little wonder there were beams on the faces of United players when they were questioned about Mourinho’s departure. Their stuttering start to the season as they seek an even more adventurous style has been largely overshadowed, and an emphatic result tomorrow against Chelsea would give them impetus, and could inflict serious psychological damage on the side most expected to be their closest challengers this season.
Chelsea had not begun the season well, but they have made a wobble into a crisis.