Reds ready for return as pressure to deal mounts
Picture the scene. Thursday, 17 December, 2015. Chelsea’s annual Christmas lunch at the club’s Cobham training ground has just concluded. The mood is downbeat. The Blues had lost 2-1 at Leicester City the previous Monday to record a ninth Premier League defeat of the season. José Mourinho’s low-key pre-lunch training session does little to lighten the atmosphere. The manager is sporting a newly shaven head and the stubble of a man too distracted to shave. As the players drift home, chairman Bruce Buck and director Eugene Tenenbaum arrived to sack Mourinho as Chelsea manager for the second time. A brutal assasination.
It was little more than seven months since Mourinho led Chelsea to another league title, bringing the Blues back to Roman Abramovich’s promised land in the manager’s second spell at the club. Inside two years Mourinho built a freshly dominant side; one that lost just three times in the 2014/15 league campaign – one of those a end-of-season dead rubber.
"Mourinho’s dismissal came little more than seven months since he led Chelsea to another league title, bringing the Blues back to Roman Abramovich’s promised land"
Premier League victory was vindication for taking Mourinho back to Stamford Bridge, despite the chaotic end to the manager’s time at Real Madrid and the still fresh memories of a relationship so soured with Abramovich that it ended the Portuguese’s first spell at the club.
The second time around Mourinho’s dismissal wasn’t stimulated by old tensions, but by a manager who alienated much of his squad, some of it with behaviour that bordered on nihilistic self-destruction. By the time Buck and Tenenbaum arrived in an unseasonably warm Cobham, a town of fewer than 10,000 inhabitants on the London-Surrey border, the game was already up. Key players wanted Mourinho out, including some of the very few that the manager actually trusted.
The manager’s general distrust, both of the players in the Chelsea dressing room and of their moral fibre, proved to be the genesis of Mourinho’s staggering fall from grace and the complete destruction of team morale.
Mourinho had accused his players of “betrayal” at the post-match, post-defeat press conference covering Chelsea’s reverse at Leicester. History now records that the manager repeated the accusation inside the dressing room, an action that proved to be the final straw for some.
In the months leading up to his dismissal, Mourinho had increasingly come to believe that his players were leaking team selections and training ground gossip. The former Porto boss complaining of the “rats” inside the club in one of several extraordinary press conferences that season. To outsiders Mourinho appeared to be unravelling in the most undignified way.
Poor training performances and a perceived lack of enthusiasm – or outright desperation to move in some cases – had convinced Mourinho that he needed to freshen up a title-winning squad. The manager was happy to let a clutch of fringe players go in the summer of 2015, but fought to retain others, including the perpetual want-away Diego Costa. In return he had a long list of desired acquisitions for technical director Michael Emenalo to action.
By the time pre-season started Emenalo had secured just Radamel Falcao and backup ‘keeper Asmir Begovic, much to Mourinho’s evident frustration. Hardly star quality given Falcao’s performances at Old Trafford. Meanwhile, the club had failed in an embarrassing series of bids for Everton defender John Stones, before adding no-name defender Papy Djilobodji and Barcelona squad player Pedro as transfer deadline day approached.
The parallels between Mourinho at Chelsea in summer 2015 and the manager at United this summer are far from neat. For one, Mourinho can boast a far tighter-knit dressing room at Old Trafford, one emboldened by victory in the EFL Cup and Europa League last season. Few obvious signs of tension exist, even among those players already encouraged to find a new club. Wayne Rooney has kept a dignified council.
Yet, nor does Mourinho trust his squad. He has already identified up to half-a-dozen players that he is willing to lose this summer. It would be more but for the risk that total overhaul brings.
Mourinho spent much of the past season trying both carrot and stick with expensive acquisitions such as Antony Martial, Luke Shaw, and Henrik Mkhitarayan, while the manager quickly dispensed with Morgan Schneiderlin, Memphis Depay and Bastian Schweinsteiger. If he can, Mourinho will be similarly brutal with the unwanted this summer.
In return for trimming the squad, Mourinho wants at least one new striker, to replace Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a winger and a defensive midfielder – all in addition to the £31 million acquisition of Swede Victor Lindelöf.
“Ed Woodward has my list, what I want, what I would like for more than two months,” Mourinho told BT Sport after the Europa League final. “So now it’s up to him and the owners.” That was far more than a throwaway comment.
Implicit in Mourinho’s demand is the understanding that the manager’s frustration could boil over if Woodward fails in his mission – as happened at Chelsea in summer 2015.
It is no simple task. United’s executive vice-chairman is working off two lists – A and B – with targets in order of priority and plenty of contingency options should Mourinho’s primary choices prove unobtainable.
Lindelöf was one of several options drawn up to bolster Mourinho’s defence, including Michael Keane and Paris Saint Germain’s Marquinhos. The former has now transferred to Everton; the latter signed a new contract in the French capital.
Up front, with Antoine Griezemann opting to stay at Atlético Madrid, Woodward has moved on to Andrea Belotti, where Torino is holding out for the full €100 million contract release clause, and Alvaro Moratta, where Madrid and United remain about £20 million apart in valuation. Romelu Lukaku is also a striking option, although it might take a world-record fee to prize the Belgian away from Merseyside.
In wide areas Mourinho seemingly prioritised Chelsea winger Willian, with Inter’s Ivan Perisic also an option. Neither may happen this summer, and Mourinho might have to settle for a player further down the list. In midfield, United will seemingly capture Nemanja Matic as soon as Chelsea ties up a deal for Monaco’s Tiemoue Bakayoko. All are pragmatic team-focused options, and not the eye-catching names some fans seek.
Yet, Woodward has not completed the summer’s business quickly. Negotiations with a myriad of clubs, agents and middlemen are almost certain to spill over into pre-season. Perhaps even right up to transfer deadline day.
Frustration is rising, not least because Mourinho will likely suffer another summer without a full squad at pre-season training. It is not what the manager wanted.
Most of the manager’s players return to training next weekend, with an an eight game pre-season is to follow. The schedule takes in the USA, Norway, and Ireland, before the UEFA Supercup against Real Madrid in Macedonia. The Reds face West Ham United in the Premier League on 12 August.
“Without the European Championships or the World Cup this summer, I think every club will start the pre-season period with all of their players,” Mourinho said earlier this summer. “I’m going to have the chance to try things and to work on things.”
He might not. Few, especially Wooward, want that tour to begin on the wrong foot.