The word that has been preying on my mind in recent days: mediocre. Well, it’s not the only word, but the others are just synonyms thereof. Bland. Unimaginative. One-dimensional. Dull.
This weekend, Chelsea were well beaten by a better team. Before my fellow fans gather around my front door to harangue me for my lack of faith in this testing time, I think it’s fair to say that the Chelsea team created by Roman Abramovich has been beaten more than once by better teams. Barca have done it, for example. Liverpool have bettered us in cup competitions enough times for me to be able, with a civil tongue in my head and a reasonably gracious expression on my face, to admit that we might have been found wanting against the boys from Merseyside when it really mattered.
Manchester United were probably a better team than us before this game, in terms of the footballing direction they were looking to go. Mourinho’s teams may start seasons strongly in terms of results, but the football rarely starts to flow in September. It takes a little while for the Blues to shake off the bonds of pragmatism and start to express themselves, as anyone who’s been on the thick end of a 4-0 tonking by Chelsea (and there have been a fair few of those, before the naysayers pipe up) can tell you. The confidence I always had in the Portuguese was that he could perform remarkable feats of deduction and adaptation as the season progressed. His substitutions were a perfect example of this ability to take a problem and twist it in his mind until he saw the solution. In the year in which we won our third league title, Chelsea were a second half team. The first 45 might have been pedestrian, but after half-time the side would come out with renewed purpose. I use the word advisedly. They had purpose because they had been told, in explicit detail, where they were going wrong and how the opposition would fold if pressure was applied just there.
It’s astonishing that a man who can inspire such confidence and awe from fans and players can have left his employer with such a clear view of his shortcomings. Rarely is it that I hang on the words of Robbie Earle, but he did manage something of a bon mot (or three) on t’telly the other day. His suggestion was that Mourinho, sat opposite Abramovich – between them, a large table carved from a single sequoia and inlaid with angel’s wings (that part is mine, not Robbie’s) – suddenly burst into passionate Portuguese invective. “Exciting football? You want more than what I’m giving you? Tell you what, Roman… if you think you can do better, do it. I dare you. I double dare you. Pick your own team.” Or words to that effect.
It is, as has been pointed out, hardly fair to judge Avram Grant on the basis of a single game against top-notch opposition without the club’s two leading scorers and a first choice centre-half. With a single flourish, Mike Dean stamped his ignorance on the game and, in doing so, forced a reshuffle that saw Shevchenko plough yet another lonely and misunderstood furrow up front. Perhaps Ballack or Lampard will spot a few of those smart little runs when they return. Essien is a fearsome exponent of the battling midfield art, but has yet to truly all subtlety to strength. But Chelsea had absolutely no late bustle to threaten United’s lead. Mr Grant looked pensive in his dugout. I, certainly, would have expected more from José.