No big league manager will ever get five years to build a team again – especially at Chelsea – but these are resourceful and intelligent players and the picture can change very quickly
It might sound like heresy given the unrelenting solipsism of the José-centred universe, but the most striking moment at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night had little to do with Chelsea or Mourinho. It was instead the spectacle of Basel's players in the moment of victory, a well-grooved team taking genuine pleasure in a performance of craft and unstinting energy. There were shrieks and hugs and even a low-key on-spec bundle near the touchline. Basel are in effect a kind of anti-Chelsea, a team that sets their sights on achieving beyond the sum of their parts, and for whom continuity and internal coherence are vital. They played very well, as they have previously against Manchester United and Tottenham, and Chelsea came up against a team that was ready for them, as they had at Everton (where in fairness they might also have been 4-0 up by half-time). Basel and Everton deserve some credit but it would surely be more worrying for football generally if Mourinho were able to stride back into Stamford Bridge, take a squad that he clearly feels is lacking and simply start winning every week from a standing start. Football remains relentlessly competitive, and still resistant to being pushed around. This may or may not end up as a crisis for Chelsea. But it is also a sign of wider footballing health.
The eggs business: yes, Chelsea's average age against Basel was 28, with a combined 693 international caps between them plus every single major prize it is possible to win in football. But what Mourinho meant by his post-match comments was that his squad lacks certain qualities – assertiveness and drive – which explains in part the eagerness to sign Wayne Rooney, who might have provided this kind of bolt-on, big-ego physicality. Against this, football is not a computer game and even Chelsea are allowed a little margin for uncertainty. The match against Basel was Marco van Ginkel's third for the club. It was Samuel Eto'o's second and Willian's debut. There were plenty – not least in these pages – who were quick to ridicule the amount of money paid for Didier Drogba in the opening weeks of Mourinho's first spell in charge. No big league manager will ever get five years to build a team again – at Chelsea you'd better be getting somewhere by mid-November – but these are resourceful and intelligent players and the picture can change very quickly.
There are those who say the problems run deeper, that Mourinho has a systemic flaw as a manager, a failure to embrace a more creative way of playing, basing his team's attacking patterns around rigid and outmoded tactical notions. But for Mourinho this has always been a business not of footballing principle but of wrangling results, a succession of big moments that make up a season (at the end of which he generally gets to lift up at least one large piece of metal). He likes proper strikers and Chelsea will not give up on the idea of buying one. Romelu Lukaku remains on the staff, but that ship, a little bafflingly, would appear to have sailed for now. They will instead try to buy a go-to, big-money, scruff-of-the-neck centre-forward, probably in January transfer window.
In the aftermath of consecutive defeats it is easy to cast Chelsea's squad as unbalanced. But the fact is squads are always unbalanced. Manchester City lack central defenders. Manchester United – whose midfield looks pretty decent suddenly – lack midfielders. Arsenal's inability to stop winning right now is clearly an affront against nature, given their basic lack of pretty much everything. Barcelona have been short of a great hairy beast of a centre-half and an old-fashioned target man for at least a decade now, absences which have no doubt taken the shine off their many glorious successes over the same period. And so Chelsea have too many soft-shoed attacking midfielders for their own good. They're downing in guile, the presence of Juan Mata, Oscar, Eden Hazard, André Schürrle, Kevin De Bruyne, Willian and – oh, go on then – Josh McEachran not just excessive, but a most unMourinho-like descent into prettiness at the expense of something more muscular. And yet despite this many of these terribly unbalanced squads are going to end up winning trophies this season. Chelsea's squad is still very strong. The challenge is simply to locate and manage its limits and its strengths.
It is worth remembering the one man who seemed to see the defeat by Basel coming was Mourinho himself. There is perhaps an indicator here, having diagnosed a pre-existing weakness, of how quickly Mourinho might be able to adapt and learn. The standard division of opinion on Chelsea's manager would have it that he's either a bold brush, personality-driven footballing genius or a kind of bullying chancer, a footballing Simon Cowell with no real fine-point methodology beyond a scrabble for self-aggrandising victory. As ever the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Mourinho has always adapted. His first Chelsea team had plenty of variation, from the attacking élan of Robben-Duff to the occasional defensive smothering. Mourinho's Internazionale beat Barcelona and then Bayern playing two very different ways. And beyond the bluster and the celebrified babble, a talented manager is faced with a period of trial and adaptation. This is not a crisis: it is simply football. It will be fascinating to watch.