You'd be well within your rights to label Chelsea's 2014 campaign as thus far blistering. I can't expect many would find fault, though I'm sure there are those willing to dissect the pair of Manchester draws and Battle of Wearside in the hopes of finding some inexorable truth to cast Chelsea as pretenders to the throne. By every key basic and advanced statistical category, Chelsea this season are setting the pace. And they're doing all of this with relative ease. Untroubled to a large extent despite involvement in three cup competitions to date, it's frankly impressive that the club managed to string together 22 unbeaten performances.
There's an air of comfort to the way Chelsea have handled their business this year. Plenty of credit has to be given to individual performers, but as a collective, Chelsea appear to have identified their five-gears and oscillate from low-to-high depending on context. Matches which troubled the club in years previous have been put to bed with limited fuss thus far; it's become downright common to expect Chelsea to win. Perhaps that's what's made the Sunderland loss and Manchester draws sting so much. It's that we genuinely believe we will win every single match. And for that, credit has to be given where it's due.
Despite the years of separation, Chelsea and Mourinho's second marriage appears to be on solid ground. As if the therapy clicked and both parties came to an understanding that they want the same thing- glory. In Mourinho, Chelsea have a sentimental war-lord with a proven track-record of brilliance, less focused on his personal achievement and further motivated by imprinting his legacy in a single destination after brief stints elsewhere. In Chelsea, Mourinho finally has his base of operations from which he can conduct his experiments without interference. After a one-year honeymoon in which Jose pulled no punches (exiling Mata, De Bruyne, Luiz, Lukaku, Cole, Lampard) and began his master re-build (importing Matic, Fabregas, Costa, Luis, Zouma, Salah, Schurrle, Courtois) Chelsea look poised to take flight.
What makes Jose-Chelsea v 2.0 work so well? Any number of individual factors you could argue. Despite his exemplary CV Mourinho was never fully embraced by the Madrid faithful. Well-documented battles with President Florentino Perez pock-marked his tenure at the helm, leading some to claim that Mourinho had damaged the image of the club. Surprisingly, Mourinho did little to engender good-will among his primary constituents; the Madrid faithful. He endured the wrath of Madridistas everywhere by publicly criticizing club legend Iker Casillas, openly feuded with the likes of Sergio Ramos and Pepe, and often did not get along with mega-watt Cristiano Ronaldo. It's ironic that Jose would not cater to the fans, given that he did such an incredible job at Chelsea and Inter Milan to placate their whims and thereby ensure his legacy cemented among the greats. When relieved of his duties, there was an air of 'don't let the door hit you on the way out', and the immediate aftermath was riddled with former Madrid employees claiming Mourinho was the wrong man for the job.
Returning to Stamford Bridge, his spiritual home and all that jazz, was always going to make for good copy. And those emotions which visibly bubbled to the surface in the early weeks of his second reign made for excellent narrative. There he was, once more, patrolling the touch and barking instructions to some of his old charges. But lingering doubts about Mourinho's ability to curtail his well-documented ego persisted, particularly as he came face to face with the dictatorial Roman Abramovich. It's no secret the pair had a fairly ugly break-up, and it was always going to be fascinating to see how the two would put differences to bed and work together. In the end, the fireworks and dramatics never materialized; partly owing to Chelsea's ability to define and implement a hierarchy in Jose's absence that removed the need for Jose and Abramovich to interact- if at all. But beneath the surface, it's plain to see that Chelsea and Mourinho work well together because they both need one another. The club needed an iconic manager to see through the next decade of improvement and Mourinho needed Chelsea's loyalty, framework, clout, and veil of comfort to give him the opportunity take another shot at glory.
So what's different about this season? In short, the right players coupled with the right system. It's that simple, and then again it's not. Football is never as cut-and-dry as some might make you believe. To win a title, let alone a match, a lot of factors have to bounce in your direction. But this season, Mourinho and company seem to have finally figured out the ideal formula for replicating victories. And that on-pitch success has given Mourinho license to act-out, albeit in minor ways. His recent criticism of Stamford Bridge and lack of atmosphere riled plenty of fans, but never cast a pale of doubt on his tenure as Captain of the ship. Sure, he might have taken his words a step too far, but did anyone actually believe his job was at stake? Of course not. If anything, he succeeded in galvanizing a relatively mute crowd into life, with a noticeable improvement in the tenor and temperature of our home crowds.
He, Mourinho, obviously knows what he's doing. That's the benefit of many years of experience at some of the finest destinations in the footballing world, including Chelsea. You learn to leverage your influence to take pressure off your squad and ignite a reaction elsewhere. The players, who appear to adore him, have already adopted his sound-bites and mentality. Mercurial superstar-in-the-making Eden Hazard is showing signs of consistency, Oscar has been located after a brutal World Cup exit, Willian talks openly of his desire to 'kill a lion' in reference to Mourinho's motivation tactics. Petr Cech, reduced to spot duty after ten seasons as 'the guy' is towing the party line, John Terry continues to amaze cynics with his age-defying return to form, Diego Costa is destroying the will of defenses, Nemanja Matic is quietly murdering everyone in his path, and Cesc Fabregas looks delighted to be playing regular football again. That's a lot of improvement over the course of a season, and one need look any further than the man behind the curtain pulling the strings.
We don't dispute that players have talent. To reach the level of first-team football, you're obviously insanely skilled at your craft. But unlocking talent, and consequently cultivating extraordinary promise in the hopes of getting a return is an art. In Mourinho's second term, the focus has been not only on winning trophies, but he genuinely appears vested in attempting to improve players. He may never be considered a champion of youth, a la Arsene Wenger, but the signs suggest he may finally be taking to this concept. Nathan Ake has already found himself on the fringes of the first team, Ruben Loftus-Cheek has made his well-documented cameo as of yesterday, and Lewis Baker remains another prodigy bubbling to the surface. Jose's by no means the type of manager to risk a result to give minutes to a youngster, but given the right circumstances, he's not opposed to rolling the dice.
And so long as Chelsea continue on this path of merciless dominance, he might well find more minutes for some other youngsters. While the majority of Chelsea faithful always expected this union to work brilliantly, I doubt many believed it would be paying dividends as rich as this, so soon. Tempered expectations notwithstanding, this current Chelsea iteration have been a joy to watch and much of the credit has to be given to Jose Mourinho, who has gone about doing the dirty work of molding a collection of individuals into a cohesive unit hell-bent on success. The question remains, how far can this go?
By the look of things, Chelsea really should be cruising through the month of December without any major hiccups. The odd draw here or there can be overlooked by many, so long as the points keep arriving like paychecks. But the main course of the season is now arriving (festive period) and looking knockout-ties in the Champions League are not far on the horizon. We will see whether Jose's men have what it takes to endure, and if you're judging purely on past performance, then you'd have to feel strongly that Chelsea have more than a fighter's chance of finding their way into a few history books as the season winds up.