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Commentary

The bond between Mourinho and his players is next to go under the bus

The joke doing the rounds on Twitter on Monday night was all about Jose Mourinho's three-year plan.

Season one: Buy the bus.

Season two: Park the bus.

Season three: Throw the players under the bus.

Harsh it may have been, on an evening when Mourinho's future at Chelsea appeared bleaker than ever. But it captured something of the disintegration of the bond that was so crucial to Chelsea's Premier League title triumph last term. United they stood, divided they fall.

Throwing them under a bus would be overstating it, but Mourinho certainly made sure everyone heard that he had done his work perfectly before Monday's defeat by Leicester City, highlighting the specific nature of the threats of Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy, and that his players had let him down.

He could have said that they had prepared together in the right way and that his players had let themselves or the team down but, no, he felt that his work had been betrayed.

All season, Chelsea have been unravelling. All of their main strengths last season - the resilience and organisation of the back four, Nemanja Matic's discipline, Cesc Fabregas' fluency, Costa's doggedness, Hazard's effervescence - have all disappeared.

Mourinho went further. He wondered about whether perhaps this really was his players' true level and whether "all last season I did phenomenal work and brought them to a level more than they really are".

He posed it as a hypothesis, but it was still quite some statement and, when added to his risible comments about Leicester City's ball-boys last night ("a disgrace to the Premier League," the great Corinthian said), it pointed, more clearly than ever, to Mourinho's apparent belief that culpability lies with everyone but himself.

That bond looks broken. Perhaps it is not such a surprise, given that a group unaccustomed to losing have suffered nine defeats in 16 Premier League matches this season. But Chelsea looked broken from a remarkably early stage of this wretched title defence - if it even merits such a description.

Third-season syndrome has been talked of before where Mourinho is concerned, calling to mind the drop-off he encountered in his difficult final campaigns in charge of Chelsea (first time around) and Real Madrid, but this has been way off the scale.

Mourinho suggested that his players had failed to heed his warnings, specifically those about "the movement of Vardy between the two central defenders" and the ease with which Mahrez was ushered onto his left foot by Cesar Azpilicueta for the second goal.

That must be highly frustrating for any manager, particularly one who focuses heavily on neutralising the opposition's attacking strengths, but at the same time it raised a question as to what that signifies if Mourinho's most basic advice is not being followed.

The goals they are conceding, week after week, are basic - worrying for a team who defended so resolutely during the second half of last season.

Equally alarming is the Eden Hazard situation. For all of 10 seconds last night, as Pedro was getting ready to replace him, Hazard looked ready to play through whatever pain Vardy's challenge had caused him.

The PFA player of the year signalled he would go back onto the pitch, but then Kurt Zouma's pass went straight past him, out of play, and Hazard headed off down the tunnel, flicking out his hand in a gesture of disapproval as he went.

"He made the decision in a few seconds," Mourinho said of Hazard's initial feeling that he could not continue. "He was on the floor and he came out (of the pitch). When he comes out, he says he can't do it. A couple of seconds later, he says, 'I go to try' and when he goes on, two seconds or two steps, he decides to go back."

Hazard's injury might prove to be more serious than it looked, but the forward has looked nothing like as durable as last season, when he took so much harsh treatment from opponents and kept coming back for more.

Neither has Diego Costa, who appeared to be thrown off his game after receiving a whack from Danny Simpson in the opening minutes. It is remarkable how often that happens.

Perhaps it is the difference between a team competing for the title and a team who have lost their way. All season, Chelsea have been unravelling. All of their main strengths last season - the resilience and organisation of the back four, Nemanja Matic's discipline, Cesc Fabregas' fluency, Costa's doggedness, Hazard's effervescence - have all disappeared. Apart from Zouma and Willian, every one of them looks diminished.

That certainly includes Mourinho. Such a source of strength last season, he has been another weakness this term. His decisions and his behaviour are erratic and inconsistent.

The treatment of John Terry, Matic, Fabregas, Hazard, Costa and others has gone from stick to carrot and back again with little sign of an improvement. You can feel for any manager who is being let down by underperformance, but at no point this season has it looked as if Mourinho knows what the solution is.

On Monday, it was time for another approach, highlighting the brilliance of his own work and planting the seed that perhaps his players are dragging him down, rather than, as they might have it, the other way around.

What is clear is sooner, rather than later, the Chelsea bus is going to move on. As has been abundantly clear throughout the Roman Abramovich era at Stamford Bridge, the manager is always the one most likely to be left behind - and Mourinho, deep down, must know that.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 16, 2015, with the headline 'The bond between Mourinho and his players is next to go under the bus'. Print Edition | Subscribe