Well, the inevitable happened again. Chelsea fired a manager. Big deal.
Andre Villas-Boas has looked ready for the chop since Christmas. The youngest manager in the Premier League, in his third season as a manager, sitting in the hottest seat in world football? Working for the most trigger-happy owner in top-class sport with a record of three wins in 12 games? Fighting a losing battle in seemingly trying coerce a group of veteran superstars into his new-age training and tactical methods? It could never last.
And yet, after casting aside numerous more successful managers without a second blink, that trigger-happy owner didn’t want to fire this one.
Roman Abramovich never gave Champions’ League overachiever Avram Grant a second shot. He fired Carlo Ancelotti for not winning the Champions’ League – despite a league title the same season. But this was supposed to be different. When Villas-Boas was hired in the summer, Abramovich talked up the prospects of the Portuguese starting a dynasty at Stamford Bridge. He was meant to emulate the achievements of Sir Alex Ferguson, the enduring star production of Arsene Wenger. He was supposed to be steering Chelsea for the next generation.
So what went wrong? Several things, really: Nicolas Anelka, Alex, Napoli, West Brom, Wolves, Portuguese radio interviews (man, that’s becoming a theme). So let’s start at the top.
AVB was incapable of integrating on any level – personal or professional – with a squad of players his age who have won everything but a Champions’ League trophy in Chelsea blue. The likes of John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba have been reported to have voiced their discontent with the young boss’s innovative statistics-based coaching style and squad rotation; Lampard in particular was repeatedly vocal about his lack of regular starts under Villas-Boas.
The isolation of Anelka and Alex, two popular dressing-room figures who could well have helped turn around Chelsea’s fortunes this season, was a mistake. As I write this article, Drogba and Fernando Torres have combined for 11 league goals this year. At Porto last year, AVB’s system generated a monumental 74 goals for his two star strikers, Hulk and Falcao. Yes, Premier League teams are defensively better – but are Torres and Drogba not better players than the Brazilian pair?
Freezing some of the team’s leaders and rotating others has had a clear impact on Chelsea’s season. They may be aging and not quite at their peak, but that group of 29-33 year-olds are still Chelsea’s best players, and trying to isolate them out of the team has led to some dismal results over the last three months. Granted, Chelsea have only lost four Premier League games since the start of November – one of which was against Liverpool – but the other losses have been a home collapse against Aston Villa and away defeats to Everton and West Brom. Chelsea need to be beating those teams.
Villas-Boas has been the master of the draw over the last few months, and it is dropped points in tied games with the likes of Swansea, Norwich, Fulham and Wigan which have Chelsea out of the title race. And who can forget their surrender of a three-goal lead at home to allow Manchester United to squeeze a point last month?
Then there’s the Champions’ League, Abramovich’s most coveted prize of all. If Arsenal’s canning of AC Milan last night is anything to go by, the Blues are far from out of their tie with Napoli, having lost the first leg 3-1 in Italy – but the London club were outclassed and Napoli are highly unlikely come out with quite as little effort as Milan did in the first half last night.
Even after all his failings, though, Abramovich wanted to hang onto Villas-Boas, believed he was the man to change the culture at Chelsea. That’s why so much has been written this week about Abramovich reportedly laying into his players Sunday after firing their manager. Every player in the squad was reportedly told they are now playing for their futures. Interestingly, interim manager Roberto di Matteo left Lampard, Drogba and Essien out of his team for last night’s win over Birmingham, preferring the likes of John Obi Mikel and Salomon Kalou.
At this point, it’s time for the billionaire to take some blame. Do you really believe in a guy’s ability to do a job? Give him more than eight months, then. Give him a summer, an offseason, to actually evaluate what he’s learnt from his first season and act on it. Let him change your team up. Challenge him to mould a team. You wanted the new Ferguson? Well, Sir Alex didn’t win anything his first four-and-a-half years at Old Trafford. These projects need time.
One thing’s for certain – whoever is hired next by Chelsea won’t be a project manager. It will be another big name brought in to steady Roman’s sinking yacht and bring some fresh silverware to Stamford Bridge. That’s why the bosses being talked about are the likes of Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola, Fabio Capello (yes, really) and Rafael Benitez.
Villas-Boas was never quite the right man for the Chelsea job at this embryonic stage in his career. Seldom can you throw such an inexperienced coach into such a turbulent club and expect miracles. Perhaps, if AVB can recover, land himself a slightly lower-profile situation and spend a few years honing his tactics and gathering confidence and experience, we’ll see him back in the Premier League one day. He has, I think, the skills to be an elite manager. Just not now, and not with players turning against him.
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