Before he was quickly ushered away by an alarmed press officer, Jose Mourinho made it clear what he demanded from the journalists gathered at his post-match press conference.
His anger rising to a flamboyant crescendo, the Portuguese reminded everybody in the room of his achievements:
“I won more Premierships alone than the other 19 managers together…three for me and two for them. Respect, respect, respect man.”
Had this been any other manager it may have caused more than just a mild stir. However, this was Mourinho at Manchester United and by then everybody was used to the weekly histrionics.
Since his return to Chelsea in 2013, there had been a common consensus that the Portuguese had lost his pizzazz. A bruising stint at Real Madrid seemed to have knocked the stuffing from him. A manager famous for his charisma now appeared as a jaded husk who took offence to everything and everyone.
For his many admirers, it was genuinely a shame to see. Younger supporters used to seeing a cantankerous ageing manager with seemingly outdated tactics, may not fully appreciate it, but the very first incarnation of Mourinho in the Premier League was truly extraordinary. The Portuguese built a team that genuinely redefined perceptions of excellence and revolutionized the English game.
Mourinho roared into the collective consciousness of football fans with his infamous celebrations as Porto eliminated Manchester United from the Champions League in 2003/04.
The image of an olive skinned, ultra-suave young coach pelting down the touchline, fists punching the air in defiant triumph has slipped into immortality. As have his achievements with Porto. Their Champions League crown that year stunned the establishment. An ageing team ratcheted together with a couple of emerging youngsters and journeymen pros had set the bar stunningly high for all underdogs to follow.
All of a sudden everyone was after the rookie from Setubal. The coupling together of Chelsea’s newfound fortune with the brightest young managerial talent seems more a logical step than a masterstroke. And yet Mourinho wasn’t initially on Peter Kenyon’s radar to replace Claudio Ranieri. The former Chelsea Chief Executive favoured a move for then England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson.
In a sliding doors moment, Mourinho was initially very keen on the summer vacancy at Liverpool and didn’t think much of an upstart project in West London. Speaking about where his destiny lay, the Portuguese made his feelings clear:
“Liverpool are a team that interests everyone. Chelsea does not interest me so much, because it is a new project with lots of money invested in it. It is a project which, if the club fail to win everything, then (Roman) Abramovich could retire and take the money out of the club. It’s an uncertain project.”
Alas for Mourinho and Liverpool it wasn’t too be. The Reds opted for Rafael Benitez and Chelsea made their move with a three-year bumper contract.
Showing no regrets and absolute conviction upon his coronation in West London, Mourinho had the press eating out of his hands as he quipped his brilliant opening line:
“Please don’t call me arrogant, but I’m European champion and I think I’m a special one.”
The Premier League had seen nothing like this before. This was no stoic Glaswegian nor a softly-spoken Alsatian intellectual tweaking nutritional habits; this was a man who simply oozed confidence. He had a swagger in a manner not seen since the days of Brian Clough. The press clearly liked what they saw and duly buckled up for the ride.
At the same time, Chelsea fans were daring to dream. Their quest through a promised land of boundless riches now had a suitable navigator and while the Premier League had seen its share of successful newcomers, nothing could have quite prepared it’s avid followers for the tour de force of Mourinho in 2004/05.
Records tumbled and opposition were swept aside by players infused with a new sheen of confidence that steadily morphed into a burning conviction as the season wore on. Mourinho brought masterly continental defensive discipline as well as searing counter-attacking play. Alongside all of this was the gravitational pull of his personality.
Carlo Cudicini summed up this phenomenon in Harry Harris’s book, The Boss: Chelsea Managers from Ted Drake to Frank Lampard, with the former Italian keeper stating:
“That arrogance, knowing the strength of that team, and being very good at pushing that team in the right direction were his biggest qualities…Playing or not playing, happy or not happy…he got everyone on the same side, especially in that first season, to all push in the same direction.”
A decision to anchor French veteran Claude Makelele in front of an already watertight back four proved a superb tactical tweak. Whereas some number sixes were deployed as box-to-box midfielders or given other tasks on the field, Makelele’s shielding role allowed Joe Cole and Frank Lampard to maraud and cause devastation.
Another tactical tweak saw a 4-3-3 deployed from November as Arjen Robben and Damien Duff eviscerated full-backs up and down the country whilst also creating a plentiful supply chain for the solitary figure of Didier Drogba upfront. Previously, top Premier League sides boasted some of the all-time great strike partnerships. But here was a team able to record 29 wins and 72 goals with just a solitary striker leading the line.
On the training ground ball boys were ordered to rapidly retrieve stray passes to keep the intensity high. Defensive recruits Ricardo Carvalho and Paulo Ferreira had followed their gaffer from Porto and were naturally well-versed in the almost fanatical studying of passages of play and attacking scenarios that may spring during any given match. Known as periodisation, Mourinho drilled positional know-how into his defensive charges with John Terry becoming his loyal lieutenant on the pitch.
The results speak for themselves. Chelsea let in just 15 goals all season, a record which stands to this day. They kept an astonishing 10 consecutive clean sheets and lost just one game as a first league title in 50 years was secured.
Stylistically, there were critics but they were summarily shrugged off by most. Speaking to the BBC years later, Robben perhaps summed Mourinho’s ethos perfectly:
“Mourinho puts out a winning team, it doesn’t matter if it’s done with nice football or not…”
A solid defensive unit, pacey wingers and a determined winning mentality; none of this was new. Arsenal and Manchester United had dominated with similarly effective weapons in their armoury. What makes Mourinho’s success all the more impressive is his refinement of such methods and the tactical tweaks he would make to grease the gears of a footballing juggernaut.
In English football, 4-4-2 was still sacred, albeit with some managers tweaking the chemistry a little. However, Mourinho’s switch to a devastating 4-3-3 and opting for one big mobile target man simply confounded teams who were left brutally exposed. Drogba was a handful on his own, but with wingers overlapping and an extra man in midfield, Chelsea were near unstoppable.
Critics of Mourinho throw the money argument back at his admirers, claiming his success was not possible without a Russian oligarch writing the cheques. While it’s true that Petr Cech, Robben, Drogba, Carvalho and a host of others were brought in on top of the huge outlay spent the previous summer, it is plain wrong to dismiss the influence of Mourinho in creating one of the most formidable teams in the history of English football.
The money may have given him decent ammunition but Mourinho blew the doors off the Premier League’s hinges during that first seminal spell at Chelsea. Arsenal and Manchester United were swept aside, with the Gunners having never really fully recovered from being supplanted from the top of the table.
The English game was given the most ruthless and disciplined example of how to win the title. Teams would try and mimic their formation with varying degrees of success. Defensive discipline became vogue with Liverpool deploying similarly lean methods and even Arsenal showing similar traits in their run to the Champions League final in 2006. To this day a variation of 4-3-3 remains a go-to formation for most top sides and forensic attention to detail is simply a must.
Mourinho’s arrival in English football marks a staging post in the league’s evolution. Standards were set that were not eclipsed for well over a decade and Chelsea became synonymous with success. Time and modernity may not have been kind to the Portuguese but his footballing influence is worthy of the highest respect in the land; he was the Special One who boldly moulded the English game into his own unique and totally self-assured image.