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what’s gone wrong at Chelsea?

What’s happening at Chelsea FC just now is absolutely fascinating (unless you are a Chelsea fan, in which case its probably pretty depressing). From the heights of having been last season’s Premier League champions, they have since experienced a dramatic drop in form, with them currently experiencing their worst ever start to a Premier League season. They have already lost five games, which is two more than they did the whole of last season. It is the worst series of results that manager Jose Mourinho has experienced in his tenure at Chelsea, and indeed in his entire managerial career.

And all of this has occurred in a very short space of time. On the surface of it, little has changed. Chelsea largely still have the same squad as last year, the same manager, and the same – if not better - talent and personnel at their disposal. If ever there was an argument for the fine psychological balance between winning and underperformance in sport, this is the perfect demonstration.

So what on earth has gone wrong? What has changed for Mourinho’s Chelsea, and more importantly for them, what can be done to arrest this spectacular decline?

In the following few paragraphs, I will leave the technical and tactical analysis of Chelsea’s on pitch performance alone. There are many more people far better qualified than I to be able to comment upon the impact on performance of injuries, team set up and tactical nuance. Instead, an area that I will focus on is around Mourinho’s leadership and it’s impact on the Chelsea team culture.

Now, I realise I am speculating wildly in writing this. I am not an insider - I have never met Jose Mourinho, nor any of the Chelsea squad. However, as a psychologist working in elite sport, I do have a frame of reference for my thoughts and opinions. I understand and have observed first hand team culture in professional sport, and I know all about the importance of relationships between athletes, coaches and their extended support teams.

From my perspective then, looking in at Chelsea, it is hard to get past one incident as having had huge significance in this whole chain of events: the sacking of Chelsea team doctor, Eva Carneiro.

Objectively, the incident itself that led to Dr. Carneiro leaving her duties at Chelsea was really rather insignificant. She, along with physio Jon Fearn, made a clinical judgment, and ran onto the pitch during a match to offer treatment to the seemingly stricken Eden Hazard. She was doing what she is trained to do, and reacted in the way that thousands of physios or sports doctors do at team sports events week in week out across the globe.

It is what has happened since that has been of specific interest to me, and in my view is of key importance in the subsequent unravelling of Chelsea. The significance of these events cannot be overlooked.

Mourinho reacted furiously to Dr. Carneiro’s decision, went on to admonish her in the media, calling her ‘naïve’, and demoted her and Fearn from the Chelsea team bench for the following game. This very public disagreement highlights an interesting area - the sometimes differing agendas between a sports coach and a sports doctor. The priority of the medic will always be the health and safety of the patient, whereas a coach will prioritise performance. In my experience, there is not always 100% alignment between the two.

In my view, there has been a ripple effect of this situation on the team culture at Chelsea, with Mourinho undermining his own position as overall leader of the group.

To understand this further, it is helpful to consider the bond between an athlete and their medical team in elite sport. Ideally, the trust in these relationships will be absolute. I have seen this many times. In an athlete’s line of work, their main tool is their body, and those people responsible for the fine-tuning, support and maintenance of this tool are given 100% faith and trust. I have no doubt that this was the case with Dr. Carneiro and the players in the Chelsea squad, and herein lies the crux of the situation: many, if not all of the Chelsea team will have disagreed strongly with the treatment meted out to her and Fearn by Mourinho.

Whether they voiced their concerns or not is another issue. Mourinho, as well as being one of the most successful managers of all time, is obviously a charismatic personality with an enormous ego. As the self-acclaimed ‘Special One’, he clearly likes to run things his way at any football club he manages. Mourinho likes control, and no-one, not even the team doctor, can question this. Whilst on one level, such a style of personality is undoubtedly an attribute, and possibly even a prerequisite for a successful Premiership football manager, on another level, what happens when the majority of players in a squad disagree with such an individuals decision making? Mutiny? Indifference? Or just quiet unexpressed disgruntlement? No one likes to see someone they trust treated unfairly….

From this subtle shift in dynamics, it would seem that trickles of division have led to momentum shifts and a flooding of underperformance. Mourinho no longer seems to have the aura of invincibility that we have all grown used to. He looks increasingly irked and irritable, perhaps upset that his decision making has been questioned and authority undermined. Maybe he has lost (some of) the respect of the dressing room, with his previous go-to coping strategies making him look increasingly forlorn and ridiculous.

If he has not done so already, Mourinho could do a lot worse than apologise to Dr Carneiro and her team, publicly and/or privately. Publicly at least, he has yet to do so. An effective leader knows when he is wrong, and has enough humility to be able to hold his hands up and admit his failings. Perhaps Mourinho’s stubbornness, a key part of his past success, may also prove to be his undoing. To many outwith the Chelsea family, this would certainly be a case of schadenfreude.

Yours in psychology,


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