Unpredictable, shaky and precarious, Andre Villas-Boas’ first five months in the Chelsea job has seen its fair share of controversy, scandal and surprise. Even at rocky Stamford Bridge, where the next ‘crisis’ is never far away, it’s been an eventful start to the 2011-12 campaign.
AVB breezed back into SW6 in the summer with the confidence of a man who knew exactly what he wanted to do at the club, and knew exactly how he was going to do it. He was self-assured but not controversial in pre-season, going about his business in the transfer market rather quietly and effectively while taking his time to properly assess the playing resources at his disposal.
He preached in great depth about the footballing philosophy that he and his technical staff had brought with them to West London, talking about unlocking an undiscovered 10% of ability in his players and staunchly proclaiming himself ‘a proud defender of the beauty of the game’. In those first few press conferences and public appearances in July one couldn’t help derive a positive impression from the young Portuguese boss; here was a calm, confident, sensible guy with a revolutionary philosophy in marrying success and attractive football. Here was a 33-year-old who would kick-start a new, exciting era at the club.
Fast-forward five months to the present day, where the Blues currently sit 4th in the Premier League table, nine points adrift of leaders Manchester City, having lost a hefty quarter of the 16 games played. Most of that pre-season promise has been replaced with questionable handling of numerous players, questionable handling of the press and a precarious league position.
AVB’s summer dealings with his players seemed routine; allowing the inconsistent Yury Zhirkov to return to Russia for some £13m was considered a good bit of business, even better was the acquisition of the mercurial Juan Mata from Valencia. The little Spaniard has already been a revelation at Stamford Bridge, at times providing the lone bright spark of hope and ingenuity. Raul Meireles has been a decent signing, while Romelu Lukaku’s worth will only truly be discovered in the months and years to come.
Arguably the best piece of business done in the summer, however, was the capture of Spanish Under-21 international Oriol Romeu from Barcelona, a 20-year-old Catalonian who has quickly established himself as a first team regular starter, ahead of John Obi Mikel. Villas-Boas had tracked Romeu throughout his time at FC Porto and clearly quickly set about getting his man upon arrival at Chelsea. The benefits for that decisiveness are already being garnered today, and hopefully for many years to come.
Decisiveness could perhaps be one of Villas-Boas’ middle names. With the understanding of a mantra to regenerate this Chelsea side, he has gone about what can only be viewed as more revolution than evolution during his early time at the club. His handling of both Alex and Nicolas Anelka provide prime examples here.
The manager seemed to take a decision on their respective futures very swiftly once the campaign began. Anelka was in and out of the side for the early part of the season, especially once Daniel Sturridge had served his suspension, but hasn’t started a league match since mid-September. Alex has played just a touch over four hours’ league football under Villas-Boas, while his sending-off against Fulham in the Carling Cup seemed to be the death knell of his Blues career, even at the time. Both had transfer requests accepted by the club recently, with the former having agreed a January switch to Shanghai Shenhua in China.
However, both seem to have been, and continue to be, messy divorces. Reports that the manager has banished them even from parking in the first team car park at Cobham are unsubstantiated, although not in doubt is his insistence they train with the reserves since those pleas to leave were corresponded. With David Luiz currently injured, Branislav Ivanovic’s form at centre half questionable and a date in court with the Met Police hanging over captain John Terry, the sensibilities of banishing a hitherto reliable squad member to train with the stiffs remains debatable.
Anelka’s expulsion has been softened by the excellent form of Sturridge, however with Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou off to compete in Africa’s continental competition next month, Fernando Torres still struggling for minutes let alone form and Lukaku as yet unproven, one must question the logic in freezing out a seasoned professional with over 100 league appearances for the club. No doubt Villas-Boas has heralded a new dawn at Stamford Bridge, where player power has been dealt a thunderous blow, but fans are entitled to ask; at what cost?
Yet that is only the tip of the questionable-manager-treatment-of-players iceberg. In the summer AVB attempted to move the Torres circus on, insisting the press were obsessed with Chelsea’s No.9. In the handful of months since then the Spaniard’s predicament has actually worsened, as unfathomable as that notion would have been in August. Britain’s record transfer signing hasn’t actually started a league game since the end of October, and that barren spell (let alone his goal drought) doesn’t look like ending anytime soon.
The reason why the 27-year-old has failed to recapture his form of old in West London is the £50m question. Certainly the team has taken time to find a style to best suit his game and, just when it appeared that synergy was emerging (Old Trafford, first 40mins against Swansea), have reverted back to the tried-and-trusted in recent weeks. The boss’ man-management skills have, however, appeared strange.
Torres has never stuck out as a player who particularly responds well to ‘hard love’, he appears more of an arm-round-the-shoulder kind of guy. It seems inconceivable that he would be willingly frozen out, given not only his enormous price tag but also the reality that he and Sturridge will be the only first team strikers throughout much of next month.
Perhaps Villas-Boas does have a plan; the return to a deeper defensive line, with Drogba leading the attack in his guise as a bullying battering ram, is just not in keeping with what AVB has preached about for so long. One might reasonably suspect that turning back to a familiar system was just a temporary measure to guide the team through their stickiest patch of the campaign thus far. Perhaps, with Drogba away and the transfer window reopened next month, Villas-Boas has a masterplan to release El Niño from his shackles and bring in the two or three players needed to complement his game more effectively. We will have to wait and see.
Someone who has found AVB’s tenure just as difficult to adjust to is Frank Lampard, the mainstay of the Chelsea midfield for the past decade. At 33, the argument is that Super Frank must take more of a back seat this season, however that suggestion simply hasn’t gone down terribly well with someone who strives to be the very best they can be. It was typical Lampard at Bolton in October, responding to being left out and the widespread notion that he was now past-it for club and country with a hat-trick at the Reebok.
However, despite being on course for his obligatory 20 goals a season (he has 9 to date this term), it is fair to say Lampard hasn’t quite flourished in Villas-Boas’ fast-paced midfield. In recent weeks, despite his own protestations to the contrary, he has been largely anonymous. The manager’s challenge has been in keeping this former ‘Invincible’ happy, and while Lampard is hardly likely to hand in a transfer request of his own anytime soon, it is a balancing act that the boss must precariously deal with. So far he has just about managed it, but the sound of Frank’s knuckles on his door is likely to become quite familiar to AVB in 2012.
If his players have given him a headache throughout this autumn that is surely nothing compared to the migraine that is the scheming British press. While calm and relaxed in pre-season he still showed his teeth a few times then, hitting back at the ‘obsession’ with Torres and Ferguson’s annual comments on the age of the Chelsea squad. However, much like a boxer throws a few soft blows as he sizes his opponent up in the early rounds, that was merely the calm before the storm.
In recent weeks the manager has picked a war of words with just about everyone, from Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville to the BBC’s Alan Hansen, decrying the ‘continuous persecution’ of the club in the media. His motives for such an outburst remain unclear; was it merely an attempt to batten down the hatches and instil a siege mentality, us-against-the-world approach, or does he genuinely feel his team get a rough time of it from the hacks? Either way, making an enemy of the rags is a dangerous game, particularly when results continue to be inconsistent.
Many have commented that he appears a fish out of water, caught sweating in the cold, harsh glare of the media spotlight. His blasts at all-comers may have gone down well on the terraces, fuelling the anti-Chelsea discrimination belief, but the wisdom in turning such an influential establishment firmly against him might be a move he comes to regret.
It appears the powers-that-be have finally come to recognise the need for a transition at the club, and the prospect of giving a manager a few years to rebuild is one that should be welcomed. As long as a decent assault on the domestic trophies and Champions League is made, and a top-four finish is assured, it is likely Villas-Boas will be given that most precious resource of time.
However, the fear lies in giving the right mantra to the wrong man. Frequently this season, Villas-Boas’ inexperience has been evident, although it is fair to say this should always have been expected. It is also worth pointing out that Chelsea are in fact 2 points better off than at this stage of the campaign last year; then it was just a 2-point deficit on leaders Arsenal though, now it is 9 behind Manchester City. It is mainly the quality and consistency of Roberto Mancini’s side that is proving the difference.
No doubt 2012 will be the biggest year in Andre Villas-Boas’ short managerial career. He has set tracks along the path he wishes to take, although resuscitating the comatose philosophy that he claimed would never die in the New Year is an imperative. He has drawn his lines in the sand and shattered a culture of player power that had curtailed the fortunes of practically every one of his predecessors in the Abramovich era. For that, there should at least be gratitude. However, although there might be a relaxation of expectations come summer judgement time, guiding his side to a comfortable top-four finish whilst continuing to remodel the Chelsea of old remains a requirement of his job.