A Season of Observations: on Chelsea & Villas-Boas

By | June 21, 2011

“A Season of Observations” will include a series of articles that will review the biggest events of the past season, and offer analysis of the upcoming season.

The Chelsea wheel of fortune has spun, and it has landed on the now former FC Porto coach, Andre Villas-Boas. While a surprising move (Villas-Boas had claimed he was staying with the Portuguese and Europa League champions), the appointment of Jose Mourinho’s apprentice may be an indication that things are finally changing in Roman Abromovich’s kingdom.Much of Chelsea’s off-season so far has been concerned with finding a suitable replacement for Carlo Ancelotti. The Italian’s dismissal at the end of the season didn’t exactly stun the football world, as Abramovich’s draconian inclinations are far from hidden. This is especially true given the Russian magnate’s failure to get his hands on the Champions League trophy, his most coveted prize and the reason he brought Mourinho to London in 2004.

Unfortunately, and some may say, obstinately, Abramovich’s decisions since parting ways with the self-proclaimed “Special One” have done much to hinder his pursuit of European dominance. One can point to a number of factors, starting with the inexplicable hiring of Avram Grant, to his transfer market meddling.
Aside from Abramovich, though, it is the players’ strangle hold on power that has caused Chelsea its biggest headaches. Chelsea’s dressing room, for instance, includes players who suffer from one of football’s worst combinations: aging legs, and grossly inflated opinions of their abilities. To make matters worse, some players feel the need to place themselves in the middle of any discourse involving the club. John Terry, in particular, has developed the keen ability to offer unsolicited opinions about the comings-and-goings of managers, as well as tactical choices. Towards the end of last season, Ancelotti appeared to acquiesce to this reality, admitting in a pre-game press conference that he’d surveyed the opinions of his captains before settling on a formation.

Undoubtedly, Villas-Boas will be walking into a club where an inordinate amount of power rests comfortably in the players’ hands, and this could very well be the reason the Portuguese is being brought in. As Mourinho’s apprentice, Villas-Boas has first-hand experience of what it takes to handle the Chelsea dressing-room (AVB was Mourinho’s assistant at Stamford Bridge), and he has proven during his time at Porto that he can be assertive. When he first arrived at the northern Portuguese club, Villas-Boas was quick to impose his philosophy, and readily showed Bruno Alves and Raul Meireles the door. The same sort of approach is needed at Chelsea, and one can assume that the jobs one-time Mourinho stalwarts, such as Terry, Lampard, and Drogba, are far from safe.

Ultimately, though, it is Abramovich that needs to be pleased and that will be the hardest ball to juggle. The Russian wants nothing more than to win, but he is intent on doing so with a team that plays the same brand of football as Barcelona. Moreover, he will not be entirely content if he doesn’t appear to have a modicum of control. Villas-Boas should be able to deliver on both counts. Under his leadership, Porto played some of the most effective, and entertaining football in Europe, while employing a similar formation to the Catalan club. In addition, Villas-Boas did not inherit Mourinho’s abrasive personality. On the contrary the pupil has surpassed the master in communication skills, which should translate into a smooth relationship with his employer. Additionally, AVB will have benefitted from working with Porto president Pinto da Costa whose running of the club isn’t too different from Abramovich.

One of the most compelling and unintended questions concerning Villas-Boas’ arrival is whether, like Mourinho, he will bring with him some of Porto’s best players, namely Falcao and Hulk – both have made very public their desire to play for bigger clubs. Needless to say, both players were fundamental to Porto’s recent success, and would inject the club with some new blood.

It will be interesting to see Villas-Boas wrestle with the inevitable increase of Mourinho comparisons, and the burden of expectations that will come with them. For someone so determined to shake off the Mini-Mourinho tag, this is certainly a peculiar move, and will make for some mouth-watering press conferences.