An ESPN FC postmortem published shortly after José Mourinho finally paid for Chelsea’s debacle of a season with his job included a telling anecdote about the manager’s suspicions of a silent mutiny on the part of his players. In the locker room after the 1-0 loss to Bournemouth, an exasperated Mourinho asked the team “Are you trying to kill me?” The players’ silence in response hinted that their answer was yes. Their completely transformed performance in his absence on Saturday practically removed all doubt.
Over the first 30 minutes or so of Chelsea’s match against Sunderland this weekend, they were unrecognizable. The tentativeness, the collective dispiritedness, the aversion to trying to making things happen, the disjointedness of the entire team in defense and attack—almost all of what has so plagued this season was gone. In its place was dogged determination and excitement from a team expressing themselves freely, combining in tricky ways all over the field, and, for the first time in a long time, looking like a group of elite players facing much inferior competition. Oscar, Willian, and Pedro especially tore through Sunderland’s defense at will, fluidly interchanging positions and flicking and backheeling the ball between each other in ways Chelsea’s attackers hadn’t all season. They scored twice in that opening salvo of dominance and could’ve easily had more. A penalty right after halftime put them up 3-0 and sealed the game.
This doesn’t necessarily mean Chelsea are back and will, in the new Guus Hiddink era, will slot right in as one of the best teams in the Premier League. Chelsea never regained the same level of control of the match after Sunderland’s goal, which itself featured some of the same defensive frailty they’ve shown so far this season. Then there’s the fact that Diego Costa and Cesc Fàbregas looked more engaged but still not all that good, and that, you know, this was against the abomination that is Sunderland. They still have a long way to go before anyone should trust that they’ve turned a corner for good.
In an interview after the match, club captain and historic Mourinho loyalist (though who knows where he stands now) John Terry confirmed what was obvious when the club’s technical director made sure Mourinho wasn’t only thrown under the bus, but that they backed it over him a couple times and left it parked with one of the tires on his back, that the manager’s firing was a direct result of the economic realities of the game. From ESPN FC:
“If it was the case where you could get rid of a lot of players I’m sure clubs would do that, but unfortunately it does fall on the manager’s head,” Terry said in The Times. “There’s nothing we can do about that. For Chelsea being the big club we are it is unacceptable for us to be in this position. The manager has lost his job because of that.”
The Chelsea fans in attendance were still overwhelmingly pro-Mourinho and demonstrated their support by chanting his name throughout the match and booing Fàbregas and Costa. They recognized the incongruity between the team’s previous games and the Mourinho-free one, and were not happy at the discrepancy. “Where were you when we were shit?” was one chant heard during Chelsea’s period of ascendency.
All the players can do to win the fans back is let their improved performances speak for themselves. The Sunderland game said plenty, both “Hey guys, we want you to know that we’re all still good,” and “Holy hell, are we glad that Mourinho bastard is gone.”
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