CHELSEA v WEST HAM
(Tonight, 8.45pm, SingTel mio TV Ch 102 & StarHub 227)
A year ago this week, Chelsea's title challenge began in earnest.
Jose Mourinho cut a despondent figure. He was tired, haggard and irritable.
His boyish grin was giving way to a permanent snarl. He was not getting his own way. And Mourinho must get his own way. There is no room for democracy in a domestic dictatorship.
The Blues had just been battered by Sunderland in the League Cup quarter-finals.
They lost a chance to grab some easy silverware. Mourinho lost too much face. Stamford Bridge appeared to be falling down.
Every other manager in the Premier League might be forgiven for pressing the panic button, rotating at random or splashing cash like shoppers in the Boxing Day sales.
Indeed other managers have panicked. Brendan Rodgers spent too much on sub-standard squad fillers.
Arsene Wenger didn't spend enough and Manuel Pellegrini didn't sell enough.
Even Louis van Gaal forgot to fortify his defence.
But Mourinho revels in adversity. He keeps his head when others in his profession are losing theirs.
The Portuguese coach went back to basics. He simplified. He made a mockery of electronic whiteboards and pundits pontificating beside touchscreens.
He followed in the footsteps of coaching pioneer Ron Greenwood who always advocated the same philosophy.
Simplicity is genius.
Lesser managers overcomplicate to compensate for tactical or motivational deficiencies, but Mourinho is never afraid to keep it simple. His ego is such that he doesn't have to bluff or bluster, or hide behind nonsensical jargon.
Rodgers likes to play the tactical philosopher. Mourinho plays the blue-collared plumber, the best in the business. He plugs leaks.
After the Sunderland setback, he took a monkey wrench to the squad and kept tightening until the leaks stopped. It really was that simple.
THREE KEY POSITIONS
Cover was added in three key positions - through the spine of the line-up. He bought Diego Costa, Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic.
Collectively, those three signings are candidates for the most successful quick fix and squad overhaul in recent seasons.
Chelsea went from League Cup chumps to a side now mounting a trophy charge on four fronts in a matter of months.
Costa added the aggression. He also held up play and retained possession with his freakish upper body strength. Mourinho always demands more of his strikers than mere goals.
Fabregas ensured that Chelsea would seldom struggle again against lesser sides like Sunderland, who stack defenders like dominoes behind the ball.
The Blues needed to thread the eye of a needle in congested contests so Mourinho bought the accomplished Spanish seamstress.
Frank Lampard's age and impending departure left a literal gap that Jon Obi Mikel was struggling to fulfil.
So Mourinho signed a Serbian colossus. Matic is already a major contender for Player of the Season.
In the endless sea change of Premier League management, Mourinho has been a beacon of consistency.
He continues to revolutionise squads, by being anything but a revolutionary.
He's a conservative pragmatist committed to victory, rather than the latest chalkboard trends.
Revolutionaries burn brightly and fizzle quietly. Mourinho endures.
David Moyes spoke of a new defensive discipline at Old Trafford. Andre Villas-Boas' "crouching coach, hidden talent" routine was going to radicalise Tottenham.
Rodgers' seven attacking lines promised seven steps to Anfield heaven.
But, as all three tried to reinvent the wheel, Mourinho quietly rolled past them.
In his first press conference as Chelsea manager in 2004, he emphasised his straightforward plan of signing two comparable, interchangeable talents in every position.
In his press conference before the Stoke game earlier this week, he reiterated his desire to sign a pair of committed professionals in every position.
His job isn't to massage egos, but to win. He signs men of substance rather than superstars.
As a result, World Cup winner Andre Schuerrle currently sits on the bench without complaint. Global celebrity Radamel Falcao is staying/leaving or failing/delivering for Manchester United every other week.
It's a matter of judgment. Mourinho is a remarkably quick study of character and temperament.
"When I sign a player, I have to believe he will join in with the way we work, the way we live," he said this week. "He has to adapt to this certain kind of mentality."
Sir Alex Ferguson also spoke of that elusive "mentality" - the psychological X-factor that he hunted down in the transfer market for more than two decades.
Talent alone is never enough.
Juan Mata is a wonderful magician, but a flaky one so he had to go. Unlike Fabregas, Mata remains the midfielder with a soft centre.
Mourinho has little time for malleable men. His sides are moulded in granite. That's why he always wins the title in his second season at a club. That's why he'll repeat the enviable trick this time around.
With the leaks plugged, the Premier League's finest plumber leads his table-toppers out against West Ham tonight in what promises to be a bruising Boxing Day encounter.
Whatever happens, Mourinho is already more than the manager of the season so far. He's the man of the season so far.
A year on from the Sunderland shock, the Blues are primed for Premier League domination. They keep it simple. Others overcomplicate.
And the more his rivals change, the more Mourinho stays the same.
This article was first published on Dec 25, 2014.
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