For Jose Mourinho, each game in his second stint at Chelsea has brought a step up in level. First there was the extremely gentle test offered by Hull City, a game won inside half an hour and then elegantly closed down. Then there was the more frenetic, slightly fortunate 2-1 win over Aston Villa. Then came Monday night and the mutual negation at Manchester United. Then on Friday comes a stiffer challenge still and a meeting with his old rival Pep Guardiola in the Super Cup final against Bayern Munich.
Once upon a time, British football would have sneered at the Super Cup. It’s never much cared for that or the Intercontinental Cup, the auxiliary baubles that often came to seem a chore rather than an honour for teams who had won the major prize of the Champions League or European Cup. But last season suggested how much Roman Abramovich cares about it: it’s widely believed that it was Chelsea’s 4-1 defeat at the hands of a Falcao-inspired Atletico Madrid that was the beginning of the end for Roberto Di Matteo. The switch of venue from Monaco to Prague, from a pitch plonked on top of a car park to a genuine football city, should add a lustre and, besides, Guardiola against Mourinho, two highly successful managers with vastly differing conceptions of the game, would be fascinating whatever the circumstances.
Mourinho will regard his first couple of weeks back in English football as a success. Seven points form three games, two of them relatively testing, is a decent enough return and he has, so far, stuck to his promise of being more relaxed. Yet this is Mourinho, an arch-politician, and so already his public utterances have become a game of subtexts. What did he really mean? Was that a subtle message with ulterior motive?
Even his team selection at Old Trafford, fielding four attacking midfielders and no orthodox centre-forward seemed as though it could be a coded cry for another forward: Wayne Rooney perhaps, or Samuel Eto’o. Was Mourinho really looking to undo United with the supposed “mobility” – as he described it – of Andre Schurrle, or was he saying that none of the three forwards at his disposal – Fernando Torres, Demba Ba and Romelu Lukaku – were good enough. Would even he dare to take such a gamble in such a significant game?
Was it even meant as a message to Rooney? Was he saying, “Come here and you’ll be first choice, not back-up to Robin van Persie?” (Not, of course, that that was what David Moyes said in his now infamous press-conference: he said that Rooney was important as a withdrawn forward but also had value as the only real back up to Van Persie as an out and out centre-forward. The point was perhaps expressed clumsily, but Moyes was actually complimenting Rooney’s versatility; it was those with political points to make who interpreted it as an insult.)
The more significant message might have been what it said to Torres, Ba and Lukaku. After all, isn’t Torres supposed to offer mobility?
Unless Mourinho can convince them there was a specific tactical reason to play Schurrle, strikerlessness will come to seem a snub. Post-game, Mourinho was at his mischievous best, saying he was interested in Rooney but that it was up to the player to declare his intentions. In that, he was able to highlight that Chelsea had made formal bids, that they had played by the rules, but also to force Rooney to declare his hand; and if he did say he wanted to move to Chelsea, of course, then his bargaining position would have been weakened when it came to discussing a contract.
But for all that, the most interesting aspect of Mourinho’s reign so far has been what has happened on the pitch. Against Hull, it was a return to the familiar: take an early lead and hold it. Against United, Chelsea were far more defensive than they had been under Rafa Benitez last season – when they came from 2-0 down to draw in the FA Cup and then won two subsequent games 1-0. In fact given that United’s squad has barely changed, this felt in some ways like a step back.
Chelsea had bullied United at times in central midfield last season; but Mourinho opted for a more reactive approach when he might have tried to pressure United.
That could have been significant not merely in terms of the three points but also for what it might have done to Moyes. Without credit in the bank, it wouldn’t take much for fans, journalists and players to start to doubt him, with could have profound long-term consequences. Mourinho, though, seemed quite happy to frustrate United and take a goalless job. And because it’s Mourinho and the assumption is that everything he does has a Machiavellian edge, you begin to wonder whether he wants to keep Moyes in the job because he doesn’t really fear him, just as batsmen milk a bowler they feel comfortable facing rather than blasting him out of the attack.
Which is, of course, preposterous, but the image of Mourinho the manipulator is so pervasive it affects how you look at everything.