The arrival of André Villas-Boas from Porto has naturally sent a jolt of excitement through the Chelsea hordes as he ushers in a new era under the Roman Empire. While previous incumbents have often worked within set parameters, many sources appear to be claiming that Villas-Boas will enjoy some modicum of autonomy. He has already begun to stamp his identity on the backroom staff with the removals of several high profile staff members. However, the existence of one Michael Emenalo remains a constant reminder of Roman’s watchful eye.
At Porto, AVB was quick to implement his own brand of the 433 system, one that focused on “entertainment and creativity, but also organisation” which should be music to Chelsea’s ears. His side played with an inverted triangle in midfield, switching the traditional Porto trio on its head. This placed an emphasis on the holding midfielder and in particular the attacking triumvirate. His side played at a frenetic tempo without the ball, something akin to Guardiola’s Barcelona. His wide men are expected to press the ball, with the holding midfielder orchestrating the pressing.
When looking at last season and Chelsea’s version of the 433, the main thing to note was the imbalance within the side. The lopsided nature of Chelsea’s attack led to easily exploitable holes when in defence; this is something that AVB will look to quickly address. When talking about full-backs AVB stated “the modern game allows two types of full-backs”, your Ashley Cole or your Ivanovic, however the risk of playing two attacking full-backs “at the same time in football today is quite high”. AVB is primarily focussing on balance here: looking at Barcelona, their right hand side is far more dominant than their left for obvious reasons. Messrs Alves and Messi have more licence to attack than Pedro and whoever slots in at left-back.
The problem with balance begins when you have a less offensive minded right back with a “false winger” ahead of him. Towards the end of the season when Florent Malouda’s form dipped dramatically and Ashley Cole began to show the effects of carrying an ankle injury, the productivity of our left hand side dropped significantly. This allowed teams to effectively set their midfield up to funnel all our attacking play towards our right hand side. You can easily see from the above Guardian Chalkboard the over-reliance on Ivanovic as an attacking outlet. Anelka, who started this game on the right flank, continually moved infield and attempted to link up play. As you can see most of his ball touches and distribution came from central areas, but most alarming was that 12% of his play came from an area more associated with Essien/Mikel/Ramires.
The inability to keep opposition full-backs honest was a salient reason for our whimper towards the finishing line as the season began to reach its conclusion. Contrast that with Porto’s very dangerous wide options, the difference is astounding. In Varela and Hulk, Porto boasted two wide forwards who were the antithesis of the Kalou/Malouda/Anelka combination. Quick, direct and with a real sense of urgency, they were a cornerstone of Porto’s superb tempo and style of attacking play. It is of no real surprise that today there are reports surfacing that AVB is attempting to sign Udinese’s superb Alexis Sanchez.
Sanchez is potentially the player we need most to implement the AVB methodology. An unbelievably talented right winger with the ability to beat a man, deliver a ball and perhaps most importantly perform these tasks consistently. Yes, he has all the tricks of a modern day winger, but he has an end product that you cannot associate with every player at the highest level. While Neymar’s talent remains unquestionable his temperament does not sit well within the AVB philosophy: “my whole team concept is one where everyone is important, but no-one has more importance than any others”. Something I personally believe Neymar will have issue with. I feel that defensively we are fine next season if we do the necessary with regards to our wide forward options. Ivanovic will provide the perfect foil to any true winger ahead of him.
There remains a question to be asked of our left hand side. Is Malouda the type of player who fits into the AVB way of doing things? Potentially yes and no – on top form Malouda is entirely the player we want, but his insular displays towards the tail end of the season leave him in the “maybe” pile. As far as Kalou is concerned he definitely will remain despite many clamouring for Sturridge to usurp him in the pecking order.
The other area of huge contrast is the various midfield trios that Porto and Chelsea deployed in the central area. Both opt for the inverted triangle, one holding player with two more forward thinking players, but the fluidity of the respective trios is stark. The Chelsea midfield is typically characterised by its physical prowess, being able to dominate the central channels is something that we have relied upon since the arrival of Mourinho. However, the game seems to be heading into an epoch where having a distinct physical edge is no longer enough. Technical players rule the roost, with athletic midfielders almost being bypassed by teams with passing prowess.
Our inability to manipulate the ball quickly is an area that hurts us against a disciplined side. The ease at which Newcastle stopped us from playing towards the end of the season was a mere microcosm of the wider problems that pervade the Chelsea midfield. With all due respect players such as Jonas/Barton et al. should not be able to stop the quality that we have on paper. I stress on paper because so many players in this current side are mere shadows of their former selves. The inability to pass to a man in space, at speed, is something any world class side must have. If you took our end of season run in isolation, it would be easy to mistake us for a mediocre side.
It was a question of fitness, form and confidence that saw players shrink into shells operating at half capacity. Compare the image of Michael Essien rampaging against Barcelona in the second leg of the Champions League under Hiddink, with the player who could not pick a blue shirt out with a pass over 10 yards for much of this season. Essien was but one of many players showing the effects of wear and tear, but he is not a lost cause. I remain hopeful that Essien can rediscover his best form, as he is truly an exceptional footballer, but given the seriousness of his past injuries it would take a lot to halt his slide. With a summer off, a fresh approach and presumably a new fitness/medical team I believe AVB can help Essien and others like him rediscover just what made them world class individuals at their peak.
I refer to AVB as a man of reinvigoration when purely looking at two of Porto’s key components in midfield. Joao Moutinho was a player who was always regarded as one of the next great Portuguese talents. Nevertheless, he was someone who never consistently took the next step and imposed himself regularly on games. In a way he is similar to our own Obi Mikel, who at times looks potentially world class and others like his mind is elsewhere. Moutinho, like Mikel, has the talent as I have argued vehemently on TheChels.net, but not the mentality or consistency to win over doubters. I also look toward Fernando Belluschi who became a lynchpin at Porto last season. AVB imbues his players with a true sense of togetherness and belief that ultimately elevates their performance levels.
The present midfield needs shaking up, that is beyond rebuke. AVB must decide very swiftly if people like Essien and to an extent Lampard fit into whatever system he is likely to operate (in fact, as I type there are rumours filtering out that Essien is free to go this summer). The sad reality (and I say this as someone who idolises Lampard) is that the question about his relevance in the new system will be asked. Can a midfielder who scores over 20 goals a season provide the crucial link play of a Moutinho or Belluschi that someone like Torres (or indeed Falcao) would demand? The Chelsea system has depended on the physicality of Drogba and the goals of Lampard since the time of Mourinho. It has been a style that has often won over in the Premier League, but in truth needs tweaking if Abramovich’s goal of winning the Champions League is to be realised.
Chelsea have been linked with the likes of Modric and Pastore in recent weeks, partly fuelled by a solid bid for Modric and partly fuelled by an obvious clamour for this type of midfield player. I can see AVB asking for a player of this calibre to help with the tempo of Chelsea’s play. It was a comment that I noticed fans saying after practically every game: Chelsea’s midfield slows the play down too much. Again the problem stems from the forward line and its lack of movement, but for me the issue is one and the same. No wide outlet equals a narrow line of play and a narrow style of play is easily countered and counterpunched. Manchester United easily exploited our lack of shape on the right hand side in our three final games against them. Think at where their goals came from, the imbalance was obvious and exploited to devastating effect.
Ultimately AVB is a coach who likes his teams to dominate and intelligently use possession. His sides play with a high tempo throughout the game, with and without the ball. This is largely attributed to his coaching methods in both pre-season and training. Porto lacked “sharpness” in pre-season and then went on to dominate for an entire season. He subscribes to the Raymond Verheijen view that many English clubs start their season with a fatigued squad due to the vigorous pre-season training almost all are put through. Porto gradually built up their fitness levels, ready for the first competitive game. So if the “new” Chelsea look mediocre in their pre-season outings, try to keep the wider picture in mind: this is how AVB did it at Porto and look how they fared last season.
I think the movement for a potential young Petr Cech heir look quite on the money. Highly respected Belgium football journalist John Chapman puts us in the running for Thibaut Courtois. While we have Delac out on loan, I’m not sure of the validity of such a move, but Chapman seems to believe there is a potential move on the cards. In the same ballpark the deals for De Bruyne and Lukaku similarly have gone quiet. Maybe AVB has other ideas, but I think both are worth persisting with. The main stumbling block will be the ridiculous fees being bandied about, particularly where Lukaku is concerned. £20m for a potential prospect is ludicrous, even if Liverpool have wasted the Torres money on Henderson and Carroll.
The recent developments for Sanchez seem quite interesting. I will say it now: Barcelona are skint. If they had money, Fabregas would already be playing for the Catalan side. Any offer they made was derisory and Sanchez (quit sensibly) will decline any overtures from Manchester. Realistically, that leaves Chelsea as the only potential suitors. A recent newspaper article states a source close to Sanchez says he would be excited by the prospect of working with AVB; not quite as excited as Chelsea fans would be if he potentially signed.
The Neymar deal looks a non-starter for me, purely down to the price being commanded by Santos. I genuinely feel Sanchez would be the better option and Neymar’s temperament is suspect to say the least. With Premier League defenders going out of their way to rough him up, how would the newest golden boy of Brazilian football react?
Looking at Modric, you see the type of player necessary for Chelsea’s midfield to tick under AVB. With offers for Pastore and Moutinho mooted, you can safely assume that we are indeed after a central creative influence. Modric is tried and tested in the Premier League, Pastore is an exceptionally gifted player who does tend to drift in and out of games yet always seems to influence them and Moutinho became the crux of everything good about Porto. Who do you pick? Personally I would take any of these players, but Modric would be my choice if I had the say. Yes he is excellent, but how badly would it reflect on Sp*rs and more importantly how much could you wind their fans up in work about it all?
Lastly, there is Falcao. He is an utterly superb finisher, of that there is no question. We have seen the devastating effect of a modern fox in the box with Hernandez’s tap ins against us in recent encounters. I would go as far as saying Falcao is the more complete player, but that would only be a marginal call as Hernandez is undoubtedly one of the finds of the Ferguson reign. The question is not of quality, but of necessity. Do Chelsea need a Falcao?
If AVB gets his way expect a far more fluid, far more aggressive and far more attacking Chelsea side. The main components are already there and AVB will look to develop a side in his own image. If his Porto side are anything to go by we will press the ball at every opportunity and look to maintain a high tempo throughout. There should be a move from the ponderous build up that pervaded the side for much of the season to a team that is based on cut and thrust. However, this style of play will almost certainly mean 3-5 new additions when the transfer window opens. If AVB is being backed by Roman, expect the movement to include a few wow moments, and I include big names leaving as well as coming. AVB is a man who is not afraid to shake the bird cage – it is something that we need and I cannot think of a better available candidate to take us forward. As I said, it will be 433 but not as we know it. Welcome to the evolution.