It is 2 June 2004, and half of the nation’s
football journalists are assembled in a
hot, cramped conference room at
Stamford Bridge. Some are clutching
coffees, others are chatting, and a few
are sitting on their own, going over notes
while quietly gasping for a fag. Soon
enough the sound of camera shutters
snapping drifts down the hall, and people
stand to attention. There is shuffling,
there is bustling, there are journos
rushing to their seats and trying to
compose themselves. Then, in through
the door walks Jose Mourinho, flanked by
Chelsea officials on either side. Minutes
later, he has the crowd enthralled.
It doesn’t take long for him to deliver the
immortal line. “I’m European Champion,”
he reminds those gathered before him. “I
think I am a special one.”
The moment those words escaped
Mourinho’s lips, the game was afoot.
From that point onwards, he would
forever be dubbed ‘The Special One’. This
was a self-fulfilling prophecy, as it turned
out, and he was soon to be lauded as the
best manager in the Premier League.
Over the course of the next three years he
would win two titles, a Community Shield
and three domestic cups. That was only
the beginning, however. First he
conquered England, then the world.
Mourinho didn’t leave his success up to
fate, of course. His words may seem
prophetic in hindsight, but his triumphs at
Chelsea happened by calculation and
design. It was a gamble to announce his
arrival in England in such a grandiose
fashion and, had results not gone his way
in the early days, it could have left him in
a difficult situation. Thankfully, he had a
plan, and it required an opening bluff to
make it work.
If the ‘Special One’ conference was an act
of bravado, it was also a distraction from
Mourinho’s main maneuverings. He was
now ready to make his opening gambit,
and was about to play it to perfection.
What Mourinho did next was more
important than perhaps anything else he
did during his first spell at Chelsea. He
secured the signings of Didier Drogba and
Ricardo Carvalho, and oversaw the
finalisation of Petr Čech’s transfer to the
club. He built a spine for his side, and it
turned out to be nigh on unbreakable.
Though there were numerous other
transfers signed off that summer, the
spine of the team was always Mourinho’s
main focus. He would strengthen it
further the following season, signing
Michael Essien to shore up the centre of
the midfield despite having won the
league at the first attempt. Those players,
along with Claude Makélélé, Frank
Lampard and John Terry, formed a
cohesive unit which their rivals simply
could not contend with. Chelsea won the
League Cup that February, followed by
their first league title in 50 years. They
had triumphed with a record 95 points,
with only 15 goals conceded and one loss
to their name all season. The spine that
Mourinho cultivated was the basis of that
Fast forward 12 years, and Mourinho
seems like a very different manager.
Chastened at the end of his second spell
at Stamford Bridge, he seems a
somewhat grizzled, jaded version of his
former self. His first press conference at
Manchester United was understated,
almost sullen at times, and came along
with all the disdainful jibes we’ve come to
expect from him at this point.
Nonetheless, his approach to team
building seems awfully familiar. There are
glaring parallels between his recent
transfer strategy and the way he built that
iconic Chelsea side, just over a decade
Mourinho has always made sure to have
strong spines in his sides. While he is
willing to chop and change out wide, the
crucial positions down the middle of the
pitch must be durable and resolute. In his
first season at Chelsea, Cech, Drogba and
Carvalho played in almost every game
when fit. Cech was soon considered one
of the best keepers in the league,
Carvalho was one of the canniest
defensive operators around and, up front,
Drogba terrorised opposition centre-
backs with his physicality and brute
strength. Together, they were
Similar efforts to strengthen the team
spine were made at Inter and Real
Madrid, with differing levels of success.
Mourinho was blessed with a rock-hard
defence at Inter, but brought in Diego
Milito and Thiago Motta to provide extra
backbone further up the field. In his first
season at Real, he brought in Emmanuel
Adebayor, Sami Khedira and Ricardo
Carvalho, again. While that spine might
not have been quite as effective,
Mourinho’s intentions were clear.
Now, at Manchester United, Mourinho’s
opening gambit is no different. He has
brought in Eric Bailly, Henrikh Mkhitaryan
and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and laid the main
foundations for his team. Bailly is a
young and hungry centre-back,
Mkhitaryan a central hub and Zlatan an
imposing, physical forward who can bully
defences into submission. Should
rumours of Paul Pogba’s arrival prove to
have substance, Mourinho will have built
a spine to rival that of his greatest ever
Chelsea team.
Looking back on the summer of 2004,
Mourinho’s transfer strategy stands out
as a work of genius. When he built a core
of Drogba, Cech and Carvalho, he revived
a club which was desperate for success.
Those players went on to achieve true
greatness, and Mourinho basked in their
reflected glory. The question is: will we
say the same when we look back on the
summer of 2016?