It wasn't a bluff. It wasn't a mind game. Jose Mourinho has been playing down Chelsea's chances of claiming the title this year not because he was planning on boosting his own legend by succeeding against the odds, as pretty much the whole world suspected. He wasn't telling us Manchester City have the strongest side in the league so that he might play the St. George to their all-conquering dragon. He was telling us, in fact, that Chelsea aren't going to win the title and that Manchester City probably are.
Chelsea are not serious about winning the Premier League this season. They're not serious about winning the Champions League, either. We've heard, for the past three years, that the club was 'in transition', which, in layman's terms, means 'not particularly good and trying to get better'. And we're still in transition. Bringing Mourinho in last summer was the beginning of us finding our way out, not an instant panacea.
The proof is in the last two weeks. On January 16th, fresh off securing a key addition to the squad in Nemanja Matic, the Blues thumped Manchester United 3-1 at Stamford Bridge, keeping pace with Arsenal and Manchester City at the top of the table. Halfway through the season, the foundation for a very sturdy title challenge was in place. With an injection of funds, Chelsea could have gone from 'in the mix' to 'heavy favourites'.
Instead, the squad was weakened across the board. Looked at in the immediate, the club's post-Matic moves are indefensible. The sale of Juan Mata takes away a major (if thus-far misfiring) weapon for the run-in; Michael Essien being allowed to move to AC Milan takes away a versatile backup who was at least capable of giving the regulars some rest. Ryan Bertrand hasn't done much this year but in case of emergency he's a better left back than whoever we have at third choice now.
Meanwhile, Mohamed Salah can't match Mata's threat in the Premier League and can't even play Champions League football for us, and while Kurt Zouma might be able to help out a top-level team right now, he'll be helping St. Etienne rather than us until June. The squad still has question marks at centre forward and midfield, and although the early stages of the window addressed some problems with the addition of Matic, since then the Blues have gotten worse, not better. If you study events since the win against United through a win-now prism, they look like a spectacular blunder.
However, those who run Chelsea are not stupid. They're simply operating on different time scales. If their goal was to win one of the two major trophies this season, they had an awful January, but if the intent was to rebuild and prepare for a serious push next season, the moves seem far more sensible. The players are improving, the sqaud has a better balance than it has in years and the money from the Mata deal can finance some major purchases in positions of need come summertime.
There's only so often you can play the 'wait until next year' card, but that's what Chelsea have done here. Personally, I think that they could and should have been more ambitious this season, but they've chosen to take the pressure off and focus on developing the squad. As long as they finish in the top four*, an objective they're on course to secure easily, the stage is set for the Blues to come into their own next year.
*Top three, really, because avoiding the qualifying round allows a club to conduct their summer business earlier.
Barring freakish results (which we're certainly no stranger to), Chelsea are unlikely to win a trophy this season. But if the plan goes as hoped, that's a necessary evil in building a team to last. I can't imagine fans liking it -- I don't like it -- but we are seeing improvement and progress, and if this is the path the club's going down we'll simply have to hope that the destination is worth it.
As our good friend Andre would have said, trust the project.