The process of moving on club legends before they become a liability is one of the most difficult tasks a manager must face. Former Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson made an art form out of selling established stars at the right time but get it wrong, like Liverpool did so spectacularly in the early 90’s (only Graeme Souness could sell Peter Beardsley then buy Paul Stewart) and a club can be set back years.
Chelsea, 11/4 second favourites for the Premier League, face this crossroads. Upon his second coming, a subdued Jose Mourinho wasn’t making outlandish claims a la 2004, partly because he was unsure if he could back them up immediately. This time, ‘the Happy One’ (let’s see how long that lasts) has a very different agenda. He takes over a familiar squad, with Petr Cech, John Terry, Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard, all key players in the initial Mourinho success, still at the club, but in many ways, how successfully the former Real Madrid boss phases out the old guard will go a long way to deciding if he can disprove the adage that you should never go back.
Mourinho has already acknowledged that there is now an emphasis on youth at the club, and the purchases over the last 18 months of Eden Hazard, Oscar, Andre Schurrle and Kevin de Bruyne show that there is, at last, some sort of long-term thinking at a club that has for the last decade demanded results yesterday.
But all those players are attack minded, not to mention Romelu Lukaku (quite why he was allowed to go out on loan is a baffling mystery) and if Mourinho is going to be a success in the long-term, he must address the issues the issues he has with aging defenders.
Cole is not yet showing too many signs of decline even at 32, and Ryan Bertrand looks like a ready-made replacement in any case (although the team that can nab Southampton’s Luke Shaw will buy the next England left-back).
But Terry is the same age and wear and tear is taking hold. He may be an ever present in the league this year, but that is more down to the fact Mourinho clearly doesn’t fancy the walking liability that is David Luiz and even if the former England captain’s dressing room influence is a positive, on the pitch he hasn’t got long left as an automatic starter. Gary Cahill is not a top class replacement – he is Terry-lite – so Mourinho could do with at least one centre-back.
Similarly, Petr Cech is not a top class goalkeeper – not anymore, anyhow – and Mourinho should be looking to do what his predecessor Andre Villas-Boas was rumoured to have been keen to do and move the big Czech on for a younger, more agile model. Ideally, that would be Thibaut Courtois, the promising Belgian currently on-loan from Chelsea at Atletico Madrid but with Barcelona reportedly interested, Mourinho may be forced to look elsewhere.
A top quality holding midfielder – ie not Jon Obi Mikel – would certainly help the back-four, as playing Lampard deep is not the answer. Lampard still has uses, but without the stamina of yore it is difficult to see where he would fit in to the type of swift, energetic, counter-attacking team that Mourinho likes to build and it is hard to envisage the 35 year-old being handed another contract extension in May.
In a wide-open Premier League, Chelsea will have as good a chance as anyone of claiming the title, but even if they do Mourinho’s job has just started. How well he integrates the young players and evolves the squad will determine if he really will end up ‘the Happy One’.