Brought in to overhaul Chelsea’s ageing team, the 34-year-old fell victim to the Stamford Bridge old guard, writes Jack Pitt-Brooke.
Although Andre Villas-Boas has become the latest manager to exhaust Roman Abramovich’s patience as Chelsea manager, he leaves as a man apart. While Jose Mourinho built a team, and Avram Grant, Luiz Felipe Scolari, Guus Hiddink and Carlo Ancelotti stewarded it, Villas-Boas’s remit was destructive.
Brought in to change the players and the team, he was meant to be the first truly post-Mourinho manager. But the Portuguese’s shadow is still so powerful at Stamford Bridge that his compatriot was trying to strip away everything that made Chelsea successful. Abramovich was happy to let him do it. But when the problems of transition saw Chelsea humiliated in Naples in the Champions League last month, and with their participation in next year’s competition increasingly threatened, it became too much..
It would not be too generous to Villas-Boas to describe it as the impossible job. The impression Mourinho makes on football clubs is so deep that it is difficult to re-discover any momentum or motivation in his absence. The mess at Chelsea since 2007 is rivalled by the mess at Internazionale since that glorious European Cup final of 2010, again won by Mourinho. At Chelsea, he left a set of players with intense personal loyalty to him, with a style of reactive football taught by him. The successes of the post-Mourinho years, Hiddink’s FA Cup win and Ancelotti’s Double, were both based on the successful harnessing of that Mourinho side.
Villas-Boas was asked to do the opposite. He was to bring the transition that Chelsea needed, replacing the Mourinho model with his own dynamic, attacking approach which had been so successful at Porto last season. “It’s not just a question of winning, but winning with a certain flair,” he said at his unveiling. “Everyone likes attacking football. We are proud defenders of the beauty of the game. It makes no sense for us to get into a club like this and play dreadful football.”
The plan was for a dynamic, Barcelona-inspired 4-3-3, with emphasis on passing and pressing, and all much quicker than Ancelotti’s side. “Our game looked slow last year and we’re trying to raise the speed of our ball possession,” he said before his first game. “We just hope we can build a philosophy for ourselves over the course of the season that’s different to what we had last year, and is a good one.”
To help with this process, Villas-Boas bought two Spanish midfielders, Juan Mata and Oriol Romeu, and Portuguese Raul Meireles, whom he managed at Porto. Along with the Brazilian pair Ramires and David Luiz, and the £50m Fernando Torres, he had an alternative core to build around.
When, after the defeat of Wolves in January, some followed Villas-Boas’s request that they celebrate with him, it was all post-Mourinho players: Romeu, Luiz, Meireles, Ramires and Jose Bosingwa. Villas-Boas never enjoyed the same relationship with the old guard.
The season started well enough. After an opening draw, Chelsea won three on the trot in the league. Even Torres was playing and linking well, despite a bad miss at Old Trafford when Chelsea were unfortunate to lose 3-1 to Manchester United. But they followed that with three more league wins and a 5-0 home defeat of Genk in the Champions League which suggested that the players were taking to the new system.
The turning point was a 1-0 defeat at Queen’s Park Rangers at the end of October, in which Jose Bosingwa and Didier Drogba were sent off and John Terry was alleged to have racially abused Anton Ferdinand. Perhaps due to fragile confidence, perhaps due to fragile leadership, Chelsea’s form never recovered.
Their next league game was even worse. The high defensive line, a foundation of Villas-Boas’s tactical plan, was cut to pieces by Arsenal. Robin van Persie scored a hat-trick in a 5-3 win and the sight of Terry stranded on the ground, further up the pitch than he was used to, told the story.
Invincibility at home was a central part of the great Chelsea era. They did not lose a league game at Stamford Bridge between February 2004 and October 2008, a run of 86 games. Villas-Boas’s Chelsea went on after that Arsenal game to lose at home not only to Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool but also, rather improbably, to Alex McLeish’s Aston Villa.
Villas-Boas could never fully divest himself of what he inherited. Every time his new approach stumbled, with the players slow to adopt his methods, he was reminded of the enduring strength of the Mourinho plan. His best result as Chelsea manager was probably a 3-0 home defeat of Valencia in a vital Champions League game, achieved with a defensive approach and some throwback Drogba heroism. Or the 2-1 defeat of Manchester City six days later, won by a Frank Lampard penalty. Since then, Chelsea have won just three of 12 league games.
For all the fleeting effectiveness of the great Mourinho lieutenants Drogba and Lampard, Villas-Boas knew that his job was to wean Chelsea off that dependence. His answer, with Lampard, was to pick him in the easier games but not in the hard ones. That decision cost him on that infamous night in Naples. With Lampard on the bench, he put Ramires and Meireles in central midfield. Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani tore them apart, and Chelsea lost 3-1. The Champions League is achingly important to Abramovich, and the evidence that they are further away from winning it than ever did not help Villas-Boas.
Likely elimination may be one thing, but failing to re-qualify is quite another. But the malaise at Stamford Bridge has infested their league form to the extent that a top-four finish now looks like a challenge.
By the end, only Abramovich’s trust was keeping Villas-Boas in his job. “What will be the reaction?” Villas-Boas wondered last week. “It will be one of the two, a continuation of the project and full support or just the cultural pattern [of dismissals] that has happened before.” As Villas-Boas has discovered, some things at Stamford Bridge are very deeply ingrained.
AVB: managerial record
Academica de Coimbra (October 2009 – June 2010)
P30 W11 D9 L10 Win % 36.7
In his first managerial role, kept the club in Portugal’s top flight.
Porto (June 2010 – June 2011)
P51 W45 D4 L2 Win% 88.2
Completed a treble of trophies with Porto last season by lifting the Europa League in Dublin in May. Also was unbeaten in the league.
Chelsea (June 2011 – March 2012)
P40 W19 D11 L10 Win% 47.5
Despite his promising reputation lasted less than nine months.