One of the arguments put forward for José Mourinho being given more time at Manchester United is that sacking a third manager in five years would make the club a Chelsea of the North.
Chelsea is the club of instability, of knee-jerk reactions on the whim of Roman Abramovich, a state of chaos that United should not be allowed to fall into. Chelsea have sacked eight permanent managers in 15 years, with the addition of two caretaker stints from Guus Hiddink plus one each from Avram Grant and Rafa Benitez.
But never mind the length of tenure, feel the success rate and the width of the trophy cabinet. During that time, Chelsea have won five league titles, five FA Cups, three League Cups, the Europa League and the Champions League. And still that has not been good enough for Abramovich and his advisers.
A leading reason for being so trigger-happy is the Russian’s expectation of being entertained. He got bored as Mourinho refracted his attacking attentions during his first spell and something similar happened during the second tenure for the formerly Special One. The pipe dream was always to have Pep Guardiola bring “tiki-taka” to the Kings Road. Once it became clear that Guardiola’s Barcelona days were drawing to an end during the 2011-12 season, repeated attempts were made to lure the Catalan genius.
The compilation of tricksy, expressive players like Eden Hazard, Oscar and Juan Mata in Chelsea’s attacking midfield unit was made with Guardiola in mind, but the dream never became reality. Instead, Roberto di Matteo, Benitez and Mourinho struggled to assimilate them with Mata allowed to join Manchester United and Oscar deemed surplus to requirements under Antonio Conte.
Only Hazard now remains, and despite repeated links with Spain’s giants, appears happy enough to stay. And that may owe something to working with his latest manager. Maurizio Sarri is the man whose Napoli team Guardiola himself has said were appointment viewing. “I’m so happy he came here,” he said ahead of the Community Shield. “The way he plays I think will be perfect for English football.”
The evidence of Chelsea’s three wins from three has been of a team taking almost immediately to Sarri’s doctrines. There should be more improvement to come since the farcical summer impasse that saw Conte taking the first pre-season training session and Sarri being locked into his Napoli contract despite Carlo Ancelotti getting his job. It meant he had less than a calendar month to work with his players before the Premier League kicked off.
Chelsea, more than any other club in English football, are able to withstand such turbulence, keep calm and carry on. Jorginho, whose arrival at Stamford Bridge rather than the Etihad caused such rage at City, has slotted in superbly at the base of midfield, pushing N’Golo Kante forward to what may look an unnatural position but has been successful so far.
In winning 2-1 at Newcastle on Sunday, following a 3-2 win over Arsenal, they have exhibited durability, with their new manager, a tense, anxious presence on the touchline, probably gasping for a cigarette but unafraid to make decisive changes.
So far, so good, then, and Abramovich, at last, may have found a manager who prescribes the entertaining football he can show off to his fellow oligarchs. Ancelotti, sacked in the tunnel at Goodison Park in 2011, was the last manager able to supply exciting football on a regular basis rather than the functional pragmatism that Mourinho and Antonio Conte (above) adhered to.
And yet, for Abramovich, there may be a tinge of melancholy to having snared the manager who might just be the one he had been waiting for. The loss of his UK visa due to worsening relations with Russia and more stringent rules on entering the country means he has not been able to watch Chelsea from his highly secure exec box at Stamford Bridge since the spring.
Becoming an Israeli citizen is likely to allow him to return soon enough, but the sudden cancellation of the £1 billion-plus project to rebuild the Bridge, a decision tied up with that visa wrangle, can only suggest someone with a loosening commitment. Reports that the club is up for sale for £2 billion are denied by club officials but doubts over how long a regime that changed the face of English football persist.
It’s possible that Sarri could end up being the right manager at the wrong time for Abramovich.