José Mourinho received an extra present just after Christmas when the Guinness Book of Records officially recognised one of his particularly special achievements.
His entry, in the words of the most iconic collector of feats, is for "the longest unbeaten period of a football coach playing at home". During his undefeated streak, which stretched almost nine years and took place in four different countries, the attitude he demanded of his team left a powerful impression.
Considering how the Chelsea period of this fortress mentality was not long ago, it is little wonder the club feel troubled when they experience a bout of home sickness. Chelsea have won only two of their past eight matches at Stamford Bridge, and recent results have been particularly grim. After losing to QPR, then Swansea, and letting slip a two-goal lead over Southampton, Rafael Benítez has faced the discordant music.
Rewinding to the Mourinho era, there was an aura around Stamford Bridge that was influential in both dressing rooms. Managers are fond of saying that top-level football boils down to details. The mood generated by Chelsea's home record was one of those. Mourinho's team felt a kind of invincibility as they approached the Kings Road. Conversely visitors would sense something on the negativity scale from difficulty to futility. The psychological element is not easily ignored, and it gave Chelsea an edge.
Benítez, who was on the opposing side as Liverpool manager, remembers it. He was, in fact, the manager who ended Chelsea's undefeated sequence while in charge at Anfield. "It was always tough, always difficult," he said on Friday. "We will try to make it the same. It was for Aston Villa [beaten 8-0]. Everyone was scared after that." Maybe. But not for long.
The effects of the unbeatable seasons outlasted Mourinho for a while. In the season he was fired, Chelsea were still notoriously difficult to overpower. The following campaign, there were a couple of home losses under Luiz Felipe Scolari and they regrouped under Guus Hiddink. Carlo Ancelotti arrived to re-fuel Chelsea's sense of superiority at Stamford Bridge. It was the cornerstone of their title-winning season. Their Premier League home record was pretty marvellous: W17 D1 L1. They scored significantly more home goals than in any of the champion finishes under Mourinho – an average of 3.5 goals per game.
Ancelotti's second season did not work out quite so well. Chelsea succumbed in three cup competitions at home They were, unfathomably, tonked 0-3 by Sunderland. The air of supremacy was being eroded. Last season, four defeats in the league was as bad as it had been for more than a decade, when they finished behind Leeds United.
Benítez is aware that an improvement at Stamford Bridge is paramount. The fact that he is contemplating recalling John Terry, even though the captain was not considered ready for a high-tempo 90 minutes earlier in the week, indicates the need to change the balance in his side. Are Chelsea missing leadership? Benítez admits it is a factor. "We have a group of players with quality and sometimes we miss these things. He's one of the strong characters we have. To have bodies, to have people with this mentality, can help," he said.
Benítez has not yet had the chance to work much with Terry, who has been injured for most of the Spaniard's period at the club. Terry may be lacking sharpness, but it must be tempting to bring back his powers of motivation and organisation, while the coach admits he has been searching for "balance" in his team. He feels this lack of balance was responsible for recent disappointments. Chelsea want to commit men forward to rack up goals, but also want to stay compact defensively. But it's not easy setting the scales.
It is alarming, though, to hear him say they needed a third goal against Southampton "to kill the game" – as if defending a two-goal lead was somehow precarious. "Had we scored the third goal, it would change everything. We didn't do it, they scored a goal, and we had a problem to manage," Benítez said. "You have to manage the home games in a different way. You have to give them solutions."
In fairness, Arsenal are a team who also have plenty of work to do on their balance. In a fixture that ended 5-3 to the visitors last season, just about anything, of course, is possible this time around. Mourinho would surely shake his head disapprovingly.
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image: © Ronnie Macdonald