Andre Villas-Boas arrived at Chelsea in the summer to much fanfare with a burgeoning reputation in the game, a clear gameplan and his own footballing principles, despite the repeatedly irritating attempts by the tabloids to paint him as Mourinho Mark II. While Chelsea’s form has been patchy this term, ranging from exceptional to foolhardy, it’s clear that AVB has a far bigger rebuilding job on his hands than previously assumed. With the man upstairs Roman Abramovich known for having a happy trigger finger, the worst thing for the club to do would be to lose faith in their manager‘s vision.
Since his departure in 2007, Chelsea have by and large played in the image of the side created by Jose Mourinho. A penchant for both fitness over finesse, physicality over creativity, Chelsea have relied on a number of key individuals to form the basis of the spine of the team for quite some time now – the likes of Cech, Terry, Lampard and Drogba.
Mourinho’s Chelsea were built upon a platform of a sound and resolute defence, a sturdy and lasting midfield and the battery of Drogba up top, with the breakneck pace often consigned to the flanks.
One slight criticism of AVB during his time in charge, though, may be that he has tried to change too much, too soon. The higher line that has been adopted relies on having pace at the heart of it’s defence – which would go some way to explaining the elevation of the shaky David Luiz over the steady Alex. The main problem to such a shift is the presence of John Terry – a player devoid of any such attribute.
The style of play AVB has attempted to adopt has also seen Frank Lampard demoted from an ever-present to more of a squad player, which appears to be a rather wise move considering his age. Villa-Boas appears to play Lampard entirely dependent on the opposition, not regardless of them. Ramires has since acquired an untouchable status in the absence of Michael Essien and has been excellent so far this season as the all-running, all-action midfielder.
A pass and move philosophy has become prevalent, something Villas-Boas has in direct contrast to the more pragmatic and defensively minded Mourinho. Abramovich not only demands success, but he wants it with a degree of style. The 34 year-old manager has attempted to implement a pacy, open and attractive 4-3-3 formation. The days of relying on superior size and power appear to be over at Stamford Bridge, with Drogba sidelined to an extent so far further exemplifying this shift.
Whereas last term, Chelsea were derided for lacking creativity in the middle of the park, this term they have Juan Mata and Raul Meireles within their ranks. The Spaniard has been superb so far this campaign and at the heart of everything exciting about the side’s attacking play. In short, his presence is symbolic of the rebuilding project Villas-Boas is trying to pursue.
Much like Man Utd have shown this season, by opening up the pitch with their expansive play, you leave yourself open to conceding more goals. They have already let in 15 goals in just 10 games this season, the same amount as they did during the entire 2004/5 campaign. The temptation to lay the blame at the feet of the manager should be put aside for now.
There have been a few questionable decisions. Starting Meireles as a holding man away at Old Trafford is one. The continuing presence of the positionally inept Jose Bosingwa another. When you factor in the rather unenviable propensity to lose your rag at the most slightest and reasonable questions and Villas-Boas is beginning to resemble a man beginning to finally come to terms with both the size and scale of the challenge before him. Developing a siege mentality is entirely negligible at this point in the season, particularly when it’s a self-imposed siege against phantom outside influences.
His petulant rant against Chris Foy after the QPR game, whereby Foy proceeded to act to the letter of the law and correctly dismissed two Chelsea players was as baffling as it was unprofessional. Rarely are referees brave enough to send a player off in a big game such as that, going against the home support, let alone two. He should be commended not disparaged.
It’s worth noting too, though, the eye Villas-Boas has on the future. His purchases – Lukaku, Romeu, Mata – all point to a manager in it for the long haul. Daniel Sturridge has seen his stock rise exponentially in the last year, with his pace a crucial cog in the manager’s plan.
However, despite the significant investment over the past 18 months, it has been long overdue. Evolution as opposed to revolution is the name of the game. There will be more hiccups along the way. Losing two Derby games on home turf in the space of a week is unfamiliar territory for Chelsea, but this does not mean that we should give in to knee-jerk reactions.
Patience has been in short supply around Stamford Bridge under Abramovich’s reign, the appalling treatment of Carlo Ancelotti still sticking in my craw, but Villas-Boas requires time. Changing the club’s style of play, transfer policy and formation in the space of his first six months was bound to throw up the odd bump in the road and freak result.
No other manager apart from Mourinho has tried to transform the image and identity of everything that the club represents as much in such a short space of time. While both boast a ferocious attention to detail and will to win at all costs, they way they go about it is very different and the circumstances even more so. Villas-Boas will be bankrolled, but not to the same extent, therefore his project requires restraint from within.
Football is a cyclical game with an emphasis on the reactionary. Chelsea are anything but a crisis club, they’ve just had a difficult few weeks. The spotlight currently shone brightly on them will be as ephemeral as a cogent thought in that thing Alan Shearer calls a brain.
There are important questions still to address – the high defensive line, the lack of a genuinely class and recognised winger and whether to pursue with the 4-3-3 formation against tougher opposition – but these are still early days in Villas-Boas’s reign and his track record so far has proven that he‘s pretty decent at finding the answers.
You can follow me on Twitter @JamesMcManus1