When Manchester United last left Old Trafford, they ran out on Monday beneath a sign bearing the famous message: “This is Anfield.” When they play their next away game on Sunday there will be no equivalent marker. They will not need one. Not merely because it is Stamford Bridge, but because the modern-day Chelsea was forged by the current United manager.
Think of Chelsea and various aspects come to mind: a team who are often ruthless winners, one who often display more substance than style, a dressing room with strong characters, a habit of spending heavily, an attitude that strikes some as arrogant and others as indomitable. All date back to Jose Mourinho’s reign and, in particular, his first spell in charge.
Chelsea were rebranded, reinvented and rebuilt under Mourinho. It would be disingenuous to pretend Roman Abramovich’s investment was not a contributory factor. Yet the owner’s perennial quest for Barcelona-esque attacking football has never been realised. Instead, Chelsea’s style of play has remained resolutely Mourinho-esque. Even now they have a tactically motivated, defensively-sound strategist in charge.
Antonio Conte may have altered Chelsea’s system, implementing a back three after a dozen years of playing 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 in Mourinho’s truest traditions, but he is very much the Special One’s heir in other respects. He is Chelsea’s latest pragmatist. Abramovich covets the idealists, but the importance of winning trumps everything else. It has done since Mourinho’s arrival. His successors have all tended to be overshadowed by him. To varying degrees, they have followed his blueprint. They have included his old ally, Andre Villas-Boas, his long-time nemesis, in Rafa Benitez, and his more laid back, attack-minded antidote, Carlo Ancelotti, but Chelsea have been broadly Mourinho-esque since 2004. Whether the playing personnel or the policies, much has come from him.
The break with history came when the Portuguese was parachuted in. Before then, Chelsea had gone 50 years without a league title. They were a Cup team, entertainers who could muster excellence but not always consistency. They were capable of winning silverware but seemed summed up by a previous meeting with Manchester United, a 5-3 defeat in 1998. They let in five goals in 52 minutes that day. They conceded just 15 in their entire first Premier League campaign under Mourinho.
He has managed Chelsea for less than six percent of their 111-year history and won 60 percent of their league titles and 60 percent of their League Cups. The foundations he built were so strong that Chelsea reached a Champions League final, seemingly on auto-pilot, eight months after his first departure and conquered Europe, with the core of his team still the dominant figures in the squad, almost five years after he was sacked. He left a legacy in a way he has not elsewhere. His Champions League-winning Porto and Inter teams fell apart after his departure. Real Madrid conquered Europe a year after Mourinho’s exit, neither despite nor because of him. Chelsea was different.
As was Mourinho. Much as he seems to dislike Arsene Wenger, much as he delights in pointing out how long the Frenchman has gone without winning the Premier League, they are the only two foreign managers to change an English club’s identity to such an extent. Arsenal were a byword for dullness and efficiency 20 years ago. Wenger rendered them exciting, attacking and a little fallible.
Mourinho – at least until his traumatic final few months – had the opposite effect at Chelsea. But by transforming Chelsea, he joined a select band of English football’s great emperors, men who left an indelible impression on a club while altering it dramatically and, of course, while winning. He is in the company of Wenger, Sir Alex Ferguson, Brian Clough, Bill Shankly, Don Revie, Sir Matt Busby and Herbert Chapman.
The difference, highlighting the speed with which he worked and the strength of his personality, is that he did it much quicker. His first spell at Stamford Bridge spanned less than three-and-a-half years. It was still long enough to revolutionise Chelsea. He was decisive, and they became more divisive. Mourinho became the darling of Stamford Bridge, celebrated longer and louder than any of the players, because his was the greatest impact. He remains the pivotal figure in their recent rise. The chances are that the crowd who never took to Benitez will welcome him back to a club that still contains more of his DNA than United. Perhaps it has irritated Abramovich that Chelsea’s identity has revolved around Mourinho, but it does.
So when he goes down memory lane, he won’t need any reminders that this is Chelsea. It is the club that Mourinho changed irrevocably.