War Face

For centuries, when a new pope assumed the office, his coronation procession would be punctuated by the master of ceremonies halting him, burning flax, and shouting mournfully that thus passes the glory of the world. It was a reminder to the man that had just become the supreme pontiff that all of the pomp and acclaim would soon fade away. I personally think that would make a fantastic addition to every champion’s victory parade. When Diego Costa energetically flung celery at fans during Chelsea’s open-top bus parade with the Premiership trophy a year ago, I doubt he was thinking of A.E. Housman’s caution that the laurel fades quicker than the rose.

The Chelsea board was perfectly content to rest on their laurels following the 2014-2015 season. After all, Chelsea had just won the title at a canter, had a dynamic superstar in Eden Hazard, and one of the best managers in the world at the helm. What could go wrong? Chelsea’s 2015-2016 campaign was their worst season in a generation, and crescendoed with Jose Mourinho’s dismissal in December. What went wrong? There has already been a lot ink spilled on this subject, but no one has mentioned tattoos yet. And that is the key to it all.

In the summer of 2013, Jose Mourinho got his wife and children’s names tattooed around his wrist. What inspired the 50 year old Mourinho to get inked for the first time? It was Oscar’s tattoo around his forearm featuring lyrics from Puff Daddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You.” The tattoo is a tribute to his father who died in a car crash when he was young. Mourinho is the type of manager that is so friendly  with his charges, that he knows the meanings behind their tattoos. Frank Lampard once tearfully described him as “the most loyal, the most caring manager I have ever worked with” after Mourinho made it a point to call him and ask how he was doing every single day after the death of his mother even though Mourinho had left Chelsea earlier that year. In a telling moment during Chelsea’s clash with PSG in 2014, Zlatan Ibrahimovic interrupted Mourinho’s post match interview to embrace him and wish him good luck; when Mourinho pitched up at Old Trafford there was only ever going to be one destination for Ibrahimovic, who famously said he would die for Jose. Michael Essien calls him “daddy.” When Mourinho returned to Chelsea in the summer of 2013, he told supporters he was “one of you,” and when he got his tattoo it was a statement to the players that he was one of them.

So, after winning the Premier League in 2015 and seeing the toll it took on his team, Mourinho decided to give his charges an extended summer vacation. He was going to be the “cool” boss, and he trusted that his strength of friendship with the squad would mean everyone would show up for a truncated preseason fit and ready to walk through walls for him. Instead, as Cesc Fabregas and others have admitted, they abused that trust and showed up overweight and out of shape. Mourinho was betrayed by his players, who took advantage of their relationship. Mourinho must have been furious, and he began lashing out (see Carneiro, Dr. Eva). It is not really a surprise that the club fell into a death spiral.

I originally was puzzled by Conte’s appointment. After all, the narrative is that Mourinho’s intensity burns players out after a few seasons, and Conte always seems to be doing an impression of Mr. Furious from Mystery Men. However, when it becomes apparent that it was actually Mourinho’s laid back attitude that was a huge component of the dumpster fire that was last season, it makes sense that Chelsea would hire Conte. Conte will sweep into Cobham like R. Lee Ermey, screaming into a tearful Eden Hazard’s face, “YOU WILL NOT LAUGH! YOU WILL NOT CRY! YOU WILL LEARN BY THE NUMBERS!”

Conte wants to mold Chelsea into a unit marked by aggression and high intensity, and there will need to be some changes. After Chelsea’s first preseason game, Conte mentioned that there were still “skeletons from last season,” with Chelsea sitting too deep and defensive; this season will see Chelsea shake off the shackles of Mourinho’s safety first philosophy and play further up the pitch, harrying opponents. It might still be defensive, but Chelsea will be far more dangerous than last term. When Chelsea were bad last season – and they were often very bad, indeed – they looked completely stumped on how to score a goal; for the first half of the season, Willian, with his free kicks, was locked in a race with “own goal” to be Chelsea’s leading scorer. Conte has lined up 4-4-2 throughout preseason, with a pair of midfielders controlling the center and flying wingers that essentially make it a 4-2-4. With Conte playing two out-and-out strikers, it should liven things up quite a bit.

The biggest question with the formation, however, is how Fabregas fits into it. He and Nemanja Matic were awful in middle last year. At one point, Matic came on as a sub and was (quite rightly) hauled off after less than half an hour; Fabregas was worse. If you didn’t click the link to see how bad Fabregas was, go back and click it. I’ll wait. Fabregas simply cannot be relied upon to make a tackle. Or mark his opponent. Or run fast. Or do anything except passing the ball. Many point out how Conte built his Juventus side around Andrea Pirlo and could do the same with Fabregas. However, Chelsea simply do not have any of the personnel necessary to play the 3-5-2 that allowed Pirlo to flourish. I expect we will see Fabregas pushed up to the forward line, like he often was at Arsenal and Barcelona.

Moving Fabregas forward, or ditching him altogether, will see the middle of the park dominated by Matic and Kante. With the midfield so egregiously poor last year, the defense was exposed as the aging, unwieldy unit that it was; Branislav Ivanovic’s awfulness is slightly (and only very slightly) mitigated by the fact that he was offered zero protection all season long. With new signing Kante patrolling the midfield and Matic regaining any sort of form, Terry and Co. may just squeeze out one more decent season as Conte retools the squad.

And Conte does need to retool the squad, but, in the meantime, you will find Conte teaching Eden Hazard how to make a war face.

This article originally appeared at the Sports Association.

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