“Sacked in the morning”, sang the away fans. Standard. “Booooooooo”, jeered the Chelsea ‘faithful’. Little more concerning. “Only one Jose Mourinho”, chirped all. Ominous. André Villas-Boas, the Portuguese prodigy. Guided under Sir Bobby Robson and nurtured under José Mourinho now finds himself in a situation where he is haunted by his former master. The Chelsea fans want the past back, fearful of the future. Roman Abramovich, infamous for his trigger-happy, ‘hire ‘n’ fire’ status, is keeping fans waiting. Some are optimistic: “We are in a period of transition, wait until next season”, others more fed up: “Sack him now”. But patience is a virtue. Sacking him now might inject a short-term high for some Chelsea supporters. Long-term, AVB is still the man.
The Chelsea performances of late have been opprobrious. Forget the self-destruction against Manchester United – in reality, a point to the reigning champions would have been warmly acknowledged. Perish, too, the thought of a 2-0 loss to Everton. The real damage was evident last week, culminating in a 1-1 draw in the FA Cup against Birmingham.
AVB’s handling of his players has been perplexing. “They don’t have to back my project,” said Villas-Boas. “It’s the owner who backs my project.” A concise statement, saturated with powerful meaning. The underlying message reverberates around the dressing room: “Players, even seasoned ones like you John and Frank, I don’t care what you say. I do things my way here now, so tough luck.” The dressing room will hear and retaliate: “If a manager won’t listen to my views, then I won’t bother trying for him in matches.” And boy is it showing. Why a manager as callow as AVB, who needs the support of his fellow generation, feels the contrary beggars belief, and asks the question: was there a law in his contract stating “thou shalt not be fired”? Why he is so certain of Roman’s “unconditional” support for him, despite the fact the man has a proven track record of firing even his close friends in Grant and Ancelotti, is likewise unknown.
His blind loyalty to some players has been totally mystifying, his team selections unconventional. Much-maligned Bosingwa and Malouda appear to have automatic starting places, when neither can attack nor defend. Speculation was rife that frustrated senior members like Frank Lampard questioned the manager’s abilities; perhaps, to assert his omnipotent standing, he only plays players who back his “project”.
His answers have been peculiar: “David Luiz is going to be one of the greatest central defenders in the world. Why? Because of his characteristics: technical ability, anticipation and speed” is perhaps the most outlandish quote I’ve heard from the wise man. One would argue that the key to a great defender is tackling, being strong in the air and commanding. How speed would make Luiz one of the best central defenders is obscure.
Two clear things are going wrong at Chelsea: an inability to score, and incompetence at the back. Master Mourinho was a strong believer in making sure his back-line was adept, ignoring any potential short-comings going forward, thus being strong enough to see out 1-0 wins; Amateur AVB took to the other end of the spectrum, promising that attack would be the best form of defence, sacrificing defensive duties for a proficient front three, which has failed to materialise. His bold blueprint has backfired.
But can one comprehensively rebuke AVB for not being the geek to solve the Torres enigma? The brutal fact is that the Chelsea midfield simply do not create enough opportunities for him. Romeu, Essien, Meireles and Mikel are all ultra-defensive. A creator is conspicuous by his absence. Attempts for Moutinho and Modric collapsed, Frank Lampard’s best days are gone, Mata’s squandered on the wing and Piazon’s still young. The opponents must laugh their heads off – their sole duty can therefore be to mark Torres. Four defenders can always contain one main attacker.
Every manager has his flaws. Even the Great, the Almighty, the Special One had a flaw, perhaps the most destructive flaw. That flaw has harmed all his succeeding Chelsea managers. The flaw: his introduction of player power. His own posse of “untouchables”. The group that can get managers sacked, shown with Grant and Scolari. Blame AVB all you want. Call for his head. He is merely a case of right man, wrong time. The simple fact remains: Chelsea is paying the price for not changing an egocentric squad post-Mourinho. The old legs have long passed their planned obsolescence; the young ones trialled, but yet to be exhibited. Time is running out to save the current Chelsea’s season. But AVB needs that time. This turbulent eight-year soap opera has a happy ending. He, together with Roman Abramovich, are charting a correct path to a sustainable Chelsea future.
UPDATE (04/03/12, 13:37): Chelsea have fired Andre Villas-Boas. This was my post two weeks earlier on why that would be the wrong decision.