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Mourinho's Chelsea revamp pays dividends

Players have bought into new approach

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Chelsea's manager Jose Mourinho looks on ahead of their English Premier League soccer match against Hull City at the KC Stadium, Hull, England, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014.

SCOTT HEPPELL / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge Image

Chelsea's manager Jose Mourinho looks on ahead of their English Premier League soccer match against Hull City at the KC Stadium, Hull, England, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014.

Last Monday, the football world was given a sneak peak at Jose Mourinho's new operating system: Chelsea 2.0.

The immediate response was overwhelmingly positive, with notable exceptions in Manchester and pockets of London.

Efficient and effective, it has even fewer bugs than Mourinho's initial rollout at Stamford Bridge, and given the manager's previous work in Portugal, Italy and Spain, it is hardly surprising his latest development should push the boundaries of precision when it comes to what 11 men can accomplish on a football pitch.

Take his Real Madrid project for example.

In the Spanish capital, the 51-year-old inherited a high-profile squad that had so far only underachieved. But with his guidance, they won the Copa del Rey and Primera Division in back-to-back seasons, and talisman Cristiano Ronaldo hit a purple patch of goal-scoring form unprecedented in the club's history.

But it was never really Mourinho's team, and the persistent mistakes in defence and undisciplined nature of the attackers must have driven him crazy -- or at least driven him back to Chelsea, where he began his first spell in charge back in 2004.

At the time, he had every resource at his disposal for an unprecedented undertaking. Building around a core group of players, he assembled a squad that was very much his own, but despite winning a pair of Premier League titles in his first two seasons, he was jettisoned out of the club following a dispute with owner Roman Abramovich in 2007.

From there, Mourinho travelled to Italy, where he turned an already dominant domestic side into European champions. But just as in Madrid a few years later, that Inter Milan team was hardly his design, and you always got the feeling he had unfinished business in southwest London.

That he continued to monitor Chelsea's progress only reinforced the notion, and shortly after his return to the Blues last spring, he admitted that while he had followed the side in his absence, he had hardly fancied their style of football.

"I don't like the way Chelsea were playing the last couple of years," he said at the time. "We want to play a different style."

And the style he sought to impose put him on a collision course with creative midfielder Juan Mata, who had been named the club's player of the season on two occasions.

Talented, imaginative and hugely popular, Mata had nevertheless failed to adapt his game to fit the Mourinho mould -- one the Portuguese would describe in September as something that required his players to "do things they were not ready to do before" rather than playing "without a position, without certain responsibilities."

Mata didn't buy in, and the result was a transfer to Manchester United.

While few managers would dare to pick such a public fight with a star player, Mourinho's Chelsea 2.0 was already showing signs that exciting things lay ahead, that faith placed in the self-proclaimed Special One was faith well-placed.

Already Brazilian midfielder Oscar had fully embraced the Mourinho way, as had world-class playmaker Eden Hazard and former Shakhtar Donetsk attacker Willian, who had quickly displaced Mata from the starting lineup with a series of competent, well-rounded displays.

With Mata out of the picture, and with Serbian hard-man Nemanja Matic added to the ranks in January, Mourinho took a team to Manchester for a Monday encounter against a high-octane City side that would serve as the biggest test of his enterprise to date.

What followed was an exact interpretation of the blueprint.

While Hazard, Willian, Ramires and Samuel Eto'o went marauding on the counterattack, Matic and David Luiz remained installed in front of the defence, which gave nothing away against the highest-scoring team in the English top flight.

And when not in possession, the same attackers made sure to track back beyond centre and contribute on the defensive side of the ball.

They finished 1-0 winners and after the match, defender Gary Cahill praised Mourinho's tactics, describing the 90 minutes as a "class performance."

He added: "We are playing well and doing what (Mourinho) asks of us."

Keep doing it, and Chelsea just might win the Premier League.

Keep doing it, and Chelsea 2.0 might turn out to be exactly what Mourinho is striving for at this point of an already successful career: perfection.

jerradpeters@gmail.com Twitter @JerradPeters

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 8, 2014 C4

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