A Mourinho team is not a side you want to hand a lead, whether in a match, or in the title race. When the ‘Special One’ first arrived in London in 2004, fresh from unlikely Champions League glory with Porto, he was handed a huge transfer budget, and expected to challenge the perennial big three of Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United. What no one expected was the blistering pace Mourinho’s Chelsea burst off the tracks with. By the time Sir Alex’s Manchester United began their traditional post-January improvement, the Blues, buoyed by imperious Stamford Bridge form were out of sight.
Key to this success was Chelsea’s relentless ability to go ahead in a match before shutting up shop and grinding out the win. It is a tactic of Mourinho’s that has become hallmark of his career, a trademark that has been crucial everywhere he has been, particularly during Inter Milan’s treble winning campaign. Last year though continued what has been a recent lull for the Portuguese gaffer, who despite taunting Arsenal’s Arsène Wenger as a “specialist in failure”, has suffered a barren spell himself dating back to the end of his tenure of Real Madrid.
Mourinho was unconvinced by his side last season, in particular by his strike force, who have all since been moved on. His attempts to paint Chelsea as underdogs for the title back fired, and the team were uncharacteristically able to take control of the title race. Nevertheless, Chelsea still performed well against the big sides, drawing praise and criticism for their perceived negative tactics. Brendan Rodgers was in particular riled by Mourinho stifling style of play, as the Londoners delivered a body blow to Liverpool’s Premier League dream.
Another huge outlay on players (offset by their controversial stockpiling of young talent), now means Chelsea have a side more characteristic of Mourinho; Felipe Luis is robust at left back and Fabregas has brought guile to a midfield that was already in possession of power and industry. Chelsea are certain to be amongst the favourites for the title and have definitely started the season by living up to that billing. Sitting atop the Premier League table, it may have only been five games, and of course far too early to rule anyone out of the race, the Blues are already four points ahead of their nearest genuine rival, as the other contenders have already dropped points.
On Sunday, Chelsea once again attracted the ire of an opposition manager, Manuel Pellegrini labelling Mourinho’s men a small team and comparing their strategy and mentality to that of Stoke’s. Unusually, Chelsea failed to hold onto their lead against Manchester City, even after Zabaleta’s sending off, but the result means that the Citizens now already trail Diego Costa and co by five points. Arsenal were also expected to provide a firm challenge, but with Debuchy now out until January, the Gunners’ defence looks frail, and they too have already begun to fall short of the pace.
Liverpool meanwhile face a season of transition, their host of new signings taking time to bed in as Brendan Rodgers’ men try and cope with the sale of Luis Suarez to Barcelona. The manager has already ruled his side out of the title race, and whilst that is surely just an exercise in lowering expectation, Rodgers will be very aware of the difficulty faced by Tottenham last season in replacing Gareth Bale. Spurs started the season strongly, but they too have already suffered unlikely defeats. Along with fellow Champions League place dark horses Everton, Tottenham will be concerned at their slow start, but can at least be relieved that their rivals have also made sputtered and stuttered to life so far this season.
After their huge outlay and a host of new stars, Manchester United were expected to be right back in the hunt for the title. The Reds’ new galacticos romped past QPR in what was meant to mark their return to contention, but their top heavy side was brutally exposed by Leicster, who roared back from behind to win 5-3 on Sunday. The Foxes mauled a weak backline, which looked shaky from the moment Evans went off injured. Tyler Blackett has come under heavy criticism, but the young academy graduate was offered no protection by left back Rojo.
For all of the serious contenders for the Premier League title to be so off the pace so early is foreboding, as Chelsea are unlikely to slip up, especially not with Mourinho cracking the whip. This season has the potential to be amongst the most competitive ever, with as many as seven teams realistically harbouring top four aspirations, but unless the traditional big boys shape up, the title race could well become a non-event. At the moment, it looks the only thing that could slow Chelsea down is Diego Costa’s fitness. If the Brazilian born predator’s body holds up, Mourinho’s boys will take some catching.