This Chelsea season is beginning to feel like that “Sideshow Bob Steps On Rakes For 10 Minutes” video. The first couple self-inflicted thwacks in the face were funny; the next few established the pattern; and when it continued repeating from there it became even more hysterical than ever, leaving you in stitches if for no other reason than out of awe at the sheer dedication to ridiculousness. As the pattern continues repeating itself, it becomes almost hypnotic, pulling you from stages of numb indifference to paroxysms of giggling, to the point where you don’t know if you want it to end already and release its hold on you, or for it to continue on forever.
Chelsea lost again on Saturday. This time Stoke joined the ranks of Swansea, Crystal Palace, Newcastle, and West Ham, among others, in managing to snatch points away from the Blues despite having a fraction of the reigning champions’ budget and talent. It was their seventh league loss of the season, already more than twice as many losses they managed the entirety of last season, featuring nearly the exact same players. I’m completely incapable of assessing whether I think this is hilarious, dumbfounding, or hilariously dumbfounding.
There’s really no use going over why the losses have continued piling up. The only sensible answer is that absolutely nobody knows. (Unless there really is some kind of Space Jam-esque magic that can suck the skills out of formerly great players with a simple touch of a ball.) There has to have been such a fortuitous confluence of events—with fault for each factor shared between the players, manager, and the board—that any one explanation is impossible to disentangle from the others. Everyone here fucked up, and while any one mistake probably wouldn’t have resulted in the most inexplicably bad season imaginable, together they created Armageddon.
Rather than trying to understand the incomprehensible and ascertain why the team all the sudden became so mediocre, the real intrigue in gawping at this inextinguishable tire fire is in wondering how the club will choose to react. According to a report from last week, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich had either already decided to cut José Mourinho loose after the Stoke game, or would give him until that time to show improvements. Since then, the Blues struggled in a narrow home win against Dynamo Kiev in the Champions League and lost this weekend. Not at all the kind of performances you’d expect to save Mourinho’s job.
And yet, by all appearances Abramovich is sticking with his manager. If he was going to be fired, it probably would’ve happened already, so that the club could begin talking in earnest with the candidates they have reportedly already placed feelers with. Rather than news of Mourinho’s departure, the story today is that the coach, should he stick around long enough, is planning on tossing out the “bad apples” in the squad he either feels are no longer good enough or aren’t down for the cause. As Mourinho requested during the most revealing of his recent, anxiety-soaked postgame pressers, Abramovich seems to have taken seriously the idea that his regular tack of casting the coach as the fall guy is not a sustainable proposition.
As much as we’ve cackled at Mourinho’s and Chelsea’s shared woe around here, and pointed out the ingredients of The Special One’s style that have created the cultures of distrust and blame and frustration that emerge whenever he sticks around a club for more than a couple years, we think it’s actually smart to stick it out with Mou.
There is no doubting his ability as a manager, and as he has said, bad times were always likely to come at some point in his career. (Nobody could’ve predicted they’d be this bad, of course, but the point remains.) An immediate turnaround is as important to him and the legacy he cares so much as it is to Abramovich, which couldn’t necessarily be said for the two favorites to replace him, Brendan Rodgers and Carlo Ancelotti. They know they’d either be given time to prove their value or would only be caretakers anyway, and thus wouldn’t be judged too harshly for failing to fix what everyone can see is so broken.
If Mourinho does reverse the trend, get these players (or the new ones the club enlists in January) playing to their potential, and earn Chelsea a fourth-place EPL finish, it would be a validation of the manager and the owner in the face of the short-term focus both men are (in)famous for. A Mourinho who’d withstood the fires of hell and brought Chelsea back to life would be the odds-on favorite to continue his march through the realms and take on God himself in the 2016-17 season. This year could very well prove to be the absolute nadir of his career, and at the same time the impetus that pushes him and the club to a long period on top, having learned from their mistakes and grown.
On the other hand, if Mourinho fails to inspire the troops and the team doesn’t crack the Champions League places, Abramovich probably won’t have lost too much. The money from the lack of European play would hurt, especially in the post-Financial Fair Play world, but Manchester United have proven that one season out of Europe’s most prestigious tournament doesn’t have to be debilitating. Plus, UEFA doesn’t seem all that interested in strictly enforcing FFP anyway. It would be a hit, but not one Chelsea couldn’t recover from.
On top of that, by backing Mourinho for the rest of the season, Abramovich could win some significant credit in the managerial circles he’d need to look toward for a successor. One hypothetical plan floating out there would have him fire Mourinho now, bring in someone like Rodgers to see out the season on an interim basis, then make a run at Atlético Madrid’s Diego Simeone in the summer. Why, though, would Simeone want to leave a stable situation in Madrid—where he is regarded as a saint and would almost certainly never be fired—for the uncertainty of the manager-hating Abramovich? It’s like Chelsea’s pursuit of Pep Guardiola all over again. Top-class managers have to see the graveyard that is the Chelsea bench and shudder. There are enough other big clubs that aren’t owned by a mercurial meddler to keep them from taking a job that regularly ends with a firing the year after winning trophies.
If Abramovich keeps Mourinho, even when he had every opportunity to can him, it might help him lure a Simeone-type coach in the future. “I’ve realized I can’t keep sacking the who’s who of European managers and expect the next great coach to disregard the evidence that Chelsea is a bad gig that inevitably leads to a firing,” he’ll tell them this summer. “I’ve learned from my mistakes, and only got rid of Mourinho when it was conclusively proven he wasn’t right for the job.” That case would go down a lot better if Abramovich had three whole Mourinho seasons to point to.
For the first time in this whole saga, it finally seems real that Chelsea could and maybe even probably will miss out on fourth, and that Mourinho actually might have to pay for this start with his job. These are dire times for the club and everyone in it. The best chance they have of making it out the other side, either in the near future or a little further down the road, is to stick with what they’ve got.
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