Chelsea: A search for style

Avram Grant did his best to be charitable towards Jose Mourinho this week. The new Chelsea manager said that “nobody at the club was happy” about his predecessor’s departure. He agreed that the timing last Wednesday night was inopportune and he seemed to suggest that the Portuguese had his sympathy.

Grant chose his words with extra care when the subject of the bond between Mourinho and the key players was raised. It is not a barrier he needs to overcome, he insisted, rather it is something to be respected and built upon.

“I can tell you that if there was a player who was three-and-a-half years under Jose and he didn’t have a good relationship with him, I would be worried about him,” he said. “It would be more strange that they can say, after three years, ‘I don’t know him, he was not good for me’.”

Ultimately, though, Grant did indeed damn Mourinho.

It is mightily difficult to tread a diplomatic line between owner Roman Abramovich and the Portuguese. Just ask Peter Kenyon, the chief executive, whose powers of mediation have been tested in recent months. Grant is an Abramovich appointment and, in the end, he found himself toeing his master’s line.

The time for managerial change had come and the team’s uninspiring start to the new season crystallised that view.

“We played one game against Birmingham [on the opening weekend], which was fantastic; [then] we played well for 20 minutes against Reading; apart from that, we didn’t play well, didn’t score enough goals and there are many things to improve upon and make better,” said Grant.

“The team has had periods of time for three years where Chelsea have played well, but maybe the time has come to change the base a little bit, maybe 20% to 25%. We want to give the supporters a style of football. We know that the first commitment is to win; the way to win can be done better. The base is good but the timing has come in the last month to change things.

“I’m positive but I know it can’t always be 100% happiness. When you have 25 players in the squad it sometimes happens that one or two are not happy.”

Mourinho might have won five domestic trophies in his three full seasons at Chelsea, but playing well in only one and a bit matches by the middle of September, as personal relations with the owner disintegrated, is a recipe for disaster.

Grant has noted Abramovich’s demand for more stylish football and he appears equally aware of the imperative to produce quickly. He had ready-made excuses after the defeat at Manchester United on Sunday, his first game in charge, and he repeated them.

Mikel John Obi’s red card was harsh; United’s opening goal came after the two-and-a-half minutes of first-half stoppage time had been played while their second was the result of a dubious penalty.

But Grant is in for a long haul. “It’s a process, it won’t come in one day, but I know that I don’t have long-term credit,” he said. “Everyone knows in football that even the term permanent is temporary. Chelsea have the base in terms of the players and we can change things in terms of what we have done before. It’s a process but it might take a long time.”

Grant was brought to the club in the summer as director of football and he has not been given a new contract yet to reflect his change in role. He attempted to make light of the hostility in many quarters, which has accompanied his promotion.

“I was here 11 years ago when Arsene Wenger came [to Arsenal] so the negative reaction doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “Somebody told me it’s part of the traditional welcome of the English to a new coach.”

But Grant is too wily an operator to be oblivious to the concerns of factions in his squad. Over and above the loyalty of many to Mourinho, there are those who were surprised that the former Israel coach has been entrusted with regaining the title and challenging for the Champions League.

“When any new coach comes to a club something can happen, but at the moment it’s been OK,” Grant said. “I think I have the backing of the players. I believe all of the players, including [Andriy] Shevchenko, can work and become even better players. I can take good things from every player and I’m sure if you take the best of them then you will see, even in the short term, Chelsea being better this season.”

Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba will return from injury in the next week or two and John Terry, the captain, will not face action from the Football Association for his confrontation with the referee last Sunday, when he attempted to snatch the red card from his hand. Grant needs such further encouragement, from now onwards.—Â

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