A seemingly more modest Chelsea manager warns his superstars they must produce on the pitch, not just have fun
José Mourinho is supposed to be a changed man. There were times on Chelsea's pre-season tour of south-east Asia when he would rail, albeit in mock horror, at reminders of the reputation he had once forged for himself, interrupting press conferences as local comperes reverted to those monickers that marked his first spell in English football. "I'm not the Special One any more," he would say. "That was 10 years ago. It's an old story."
The Premier League's provocateur-in-chief has apparently mellowed, enthused by a new kind of challenge at Stamford Bridge and, at 50, the added responsibility that comes with experience. Yet, if the story has moved on, elements of the old plotline remain. The schlep around Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia was all about building fitness, with the tactical fine-tuning to come in the United States, on the four-game second leg that follows. From now on in, Mourinho is intent on making this team tick and, just as in 2004 – when he first arrived in west London – some individuals will find adjustment a slog.
He inherits a side who revolve around free spirits, almost an imitation of the Barcelona lineup he confronted and, briefly, eclipsed while with Real Madrid. Eden Hazard has already made an impression. Juan Mata and Oscar, two of the six players granted more time off after the Confederations Cup, report back at Cobham on Sunday. These are the talents to set Chelsea apart, but they will not be indulged. Mourinho's man-management retains its edge. "I am not the kind of guy who makes life easy for the great players," he said. "This kind of player is the last I praise.
"You have to praise the guys who play to their limits, who give everything. They are not superstars; they are just good players trying to support their teams. Don't get me wrong, I still prefer the top players, the guys who win you matches and make the difference. But if they are 'great', they have to give more than the others. For me, to praise an ordinary player is easy. For me to praise a top player is not. When a player is different and has more potential than others, he has to use his talent in a good way."
That insight was delivered in a sixth-floor meeting room at the team's Jakarta hotel, high above the din of the city's choking gridlock, with the implications clear. It might ring a bell with Damien Duff and Arjen Robben. It certainly will with Joe Cole, now back at West Ham, whose evolution under Mourinho was painful at times. He and Shaun Wright-Phillips were once infamously hooked within the opening 26 minutes of a defeat at Fulham. "Joe was one of the best talents in the Premier League, and in English football, but I made his life quite difficult," said Mourinho. "We transformed his game together because he accepted what I wanted – and we turned a No10, who would come up with two or three amazing actions, into an inside-winger, left or right, who was strong defensively. He was fantastic. I was so pleased with what we did with him.
"A creative player has to use his ability and, if he loses the ball trying to create or score a goal, no problem. If he's just having fun, though, and loses the ball in midfield and then doesn't defend, and the team concede, that's a problem. These guys have to go out there to produce, not have fun or look to humiliate an opponent, putting the ball through their legs. It's about being respectful and having objectives.
"We've had Joe, Robben and Duff, Cristiano Ronaldo, Angel di María and Mesut Ozil … with me [at Real Madrid], players like Eden Hazard will have freedom. The kid has a lot of talent, but it's about what he does next. He has to go from a great talent to great numbers: how many goals, how many assists, how many winning goals, how many goals in big matches. Football is about numbers in a very pragmatic way. I'm ready to help him, I'm ready to work with him. And he must be ready too."
At first glance, Mata would already boast that weight of statistics. The Spaniard has totalled 18 goals and 33 assists in his two Premier League seasons, his efforts earning him the supporters' player of the year award for each of his two seasons at Stamford Bridge, with his team-mates nominating him the players' player of the year, too, last term. That was an award conceived by Mourinho during his first spell at the club, an unapologetically blatant attempt to ensure Claude Makelele was recognised while others hogged the limelight.
"It was my invention," said the manager. "The fans have one perspective, the players another, so for Mata to have won both means a lot. People love him, but his fellow players love the work he puts in for the team. Of course he fits into my plans. I have my idea about him, about where he produces better and where he has more difficulty. We will try to help him perform better in those situations. I've always liked a right-sided player to be left-footed. I started with Robben and Duff, then [Goran] Pandev at Inter, and Di María and Ozil. Many clubs do it. It's more than a tendency.
"I like wingers coming in on the inside for the penetrative movement, for the pass, for the shot. And Juan is the only player we have to do that on the right. On the left we have Hazard, Victor Moses, Kevin De Bruyne, André Schürrle … Juan is also very comfortable playing as a No10. In between these two positions, he has a lot to give to the team."
The signing over two years of so many attack-minded midfielders was supposed to quench Roman Abramovich's thirst for slick, forward-thinking football, a style that successive managers, Mourinho included, have been charged with implementing. Few have conjured a balance between solidity and swashbuckling attack, invariably prompting their own downfall, though the returning head coach does not envisage conflict with the owner this time around. The oligarch has been at Stamford Bridge for a decade, funding Premier League titles and a European Cup. When he first arrived, he was treated with suspicion. Now he feels like a trailblazer.
"Who knows what Chelsea would be like if he hadn't bought the club in 2003?" asked Mourinho before thoughts drifted to Qataris in Paris, Russians in Monaco and Abu Dhabi's growing clout in Manchester. What does he make of the splurge of foreign investors?
"Maybe my question mark is why are they interested. I remember when Roman bought Chelsea, there was always the question: when is he going to sell it? Is he in love with the club? Is he in love with football? Is he doing this for the right reasons? Now I'm 100% sure, even with a big offer, Roman wouldn't sell. Some other clubs and some other owners, I'm not sure. I don't know them, their feelings, where they want to go, when they want to stop. Everybody was saying 'win the Champions League or win the Premier League and Roman will go'. Well, he won the Premier League and the Champions League, and his mentality is the same. He is always adding ideas and pushing because he sees a future. I remember when we started building [the training ground at] Cobham. [The then chief executive] Peter Kenyon and I were worried about giving just the right conditions, but Roman was always going for more. Why build four pitches when we can build 15, for the kids, for the future. Why train people elsewhere, at Brentford, when they can train together here?
"He's made life easier for the new owners coming into football. He did things in the right way so, by being one of the pioneers, he's given those others a chance to be well received. In our time it was hard because Roman was the man on the spot. After that, my profile added to it. We were not loved and people did not give us the credit we deserved at the time. Yet now you see people buying clubs in France, England, Italy, – an Indonesian buying 70% of Internazionale. Things are changing. People are received as 'good'."
Accusations of financial trickery lodged at the time may have been justified, but rivals have since realised they have little choice but to follow Chelsea's lead. Arsenal, who reacted with horror when Abramovich distorted the market, bid more than £40m for Luis Suárez. "I remember something Sir Alex Ferguson said when United won the Premier League in 2007, that the responsibility for United to be stronger that season had been down to Chelsea," added Mourinho. "'Because, in the last two years, they killed us,' he'd said, 'so we understood what we were doing was not enough.' So they bought, they spent, and they brought United to that level."
Others compete on an equal footing these days, yet this remains a manager who can give Chelsea an edge.