Sunday, November 20, 2011

Stop the clocks

British politicians have been arguing for more than 100 years over the pros and cons of putting the clocks forward an hour in the spring, and bringing them back an hour in the autumn.

Those in favour have claimed it improves national productivity during the lighter summer months, adding to the economy as people shop and dine out later in the evening, while saving on electricity used for lighting in the process. There are even claims that remaining permanently in line with continental European hours will reduce childhood obesity (I guess through more outdoor exercise, rather than later ice cream van patrols), as well as improving road safety.

One person who will probably appreciate some stability in the British clock is Roman Abramovich. Much like a vampire nearing sunrise, the Russian zillionaire must dread the onset of winter in Britain. For every time the clocks go back, Chelsea seem to fall into a mid-season slump from which they don't recover until the last of the Christmas cards are being put out for recycling.

One year ago, Chelsea spun into a November nightmare, starting with a 2-0 defeat away to Liverpool, followed by a limp 1-0 home win over Fulham and then a 3-0 kicking at the same venue from Sunderland, with not even a glimmer of weak, winter sunshine until a 7-0 fillip over Ipswich in the FA Cup in January restored confidence. By which time Carlo Ancelotti had already been marked as the next Chelsea manager to get the trademark Abramovich double-tap to the head.

Roll on 12 months and it's all looking worryingly familiar: yesterday's 2-1 loss at home to, yes, Liverpool, came too soon after that 3-5 humiliation to Arsenal at Stamford Bridge at the end of October, and the anaemic 1-1 draw against Genk (who they?) in the Champions League just three days later.

The difference is that this time around Chelsea aren't being managed by a veteran coach who had won the Scudetto, the Champions League twice and the Coppa Italia with Milan before winning the Premier League at the first time of asking with the Blues. Before getting fired, of course, for not winning it the second time.

No, this time Chelsea are managed by something of an experiment. André Villas-Boas, the 34-year-old Portuguese lad who, prior to becoming the club's seventh manager under Abramovich's patronage, had been, ahem, manager of the British Virgin Islands, Académica de Coimbra and FC Porto, winning with the latter Portugal's Primeira Liga, the Portugeuse FA Cup, and the UEFA Europa League Cup in his one and only season at the club.

As What Would David Bowie Do? remarked at the start of the season, it would appear that Charlie Buckett had unexpectedly won the entire Wonka industrial empire when the ginger-haired youngster was appointed to manage a side which contained players barely younger than himself.

So what's made the difference between this November and last? You could argue that Chelsea's slump last year had a lot to do with the summary dismissal of Ray Wilkins. No one has ever been certain of Wilkins' tactical nouse - good egg and media-friendly Chelsea old boy though he is - but his departure seemed to uncannily coincide with a loss of form that ultimately cost them a title they were due to win for a second time by coming out of the traps in August with all guns blazing.

This time there has been no behind-the-scenes politicking. All that could be blamed is the ongoing nonsense involving captain John Terry's alleged racist remarks to Anton Ferdinand in the game that arguably started the clocks-going-back slump, against QPR on October 23. It is entirely possible that the latest scandal to cast a long shadow over Terry's integrity is interfering with team unity, given the racial mix of the Chelsea squad. But the likelier culprit is the defense around which Terry is pivotal. Their vulnerability was self-evident yesterday against Liverpool, as had been savagely so against Arsenal and, bafflingly, against Genk - as toothless a side to have ever made it passed the Champions League qualification round.

For all the talk about Fernando Torres not scoring, Daniel Sturridge has proven to be a potent striker this season for the Blues, but for all the good he's doing up front, it is the backline that is letting things down.

Terry, for one, is a ghost of his former self, the invincible, never-say-die centre half. David Luiz, the frizz-haired Brazilian, when played next to him has been more of a liability than a help (Gary Neville - in a moment of unusual erudition - suggested that Luiz was playing like he was being controlled by a 10-year-old playing on his Sony PlayStation...). Even Branislav Ivanovic, who was becoming a dependable partner to Terry, has looked untidy and susceptible to oncoming strikers, while the unsettled Alex hasn't been much use to the centre of defence either.

And to complete the misery, Ashley Cole - in theory, still the finest left back in the world - has found himself too easily turned by strikers, with his right-sided counterpart Jose Boswinga looking just as faint when it comes to providing defensive cover up and down the length of the pitch. Even goalkeeper Petr Cech has been looking a worry, with doubts creeping in about his eminence, depute having been universally regarded as the best keeper in the world not so long ago.

It is only November 21st, and, as under-fire football managers are want to say, there is a long season still to come. "We need to organise ourselves a little bit better," Villas-Boas bravely tried to say at the post-match press conference yesterday. A little better? Now there's understatement. "We are a team that does not concede a lot of opportunities but the opponent has found the efficiency that we haven't found yet."

Even allowing for the fact that English is not his native tongue, effectively saying that opponents are simply being more efficient is a sniff of hubris AVB's mentor and compatriot Jose Mourinho would have raised a titfer to. The fact remains that, for the second November in a row - and not for the first time in their recent history, either - Chelsea are struggling as they face the pre-Christmas phase with tough fixtures ahead: Leverkusen in Europe, Liverpool again in the League Cup, a resurgent Newcastle away in the league, and then Manchester City at Stamford Bridge. With every chance that Spurs will, tonight, win over Aston Villa, the boys from SW6 will be down to 5th in the league.

"It is not impossible to turn it around," said Villas-Boas. "It doesn't look good 12 points behind a strong leader but the December fixtures give us hope and we have to make the most of them." We've heard all that before, and with a single again Guus Hiddink back on the market (managerially speaking - and not to be confused with Demi Moore by any stretch of the imagination), Villas-Boas better watch out that Abramovich isn't dusting off his Tokarev 9mm with screw-in silencer. For it was just after yet another winter slump that the World Cup-winning Luiz Felipe "Big Phil" Scolari was dispatched, to be replaced temporarily by Hiddink.

Confidently, Villas-Boas believes he's bullet-proof: "The owner didn't pay 15 million Euros to get me here from Porto only to pay another fortune to get me out," he said yesterday. Perhaps, but he shouldn't forget that Scolari was sacked after four losses in 25 league games, and Villas-Boas has managed to lose as many in just 12. Mourinho was sacked after winning the league back-to-back, while Ancelotti - the most successful coach to come to Chelsea - was sacked at the end of only his second season in charge.

True, the season isn't over yet, but to see Chelsea battling for fourth place takes me back to the pre-Abramovich era, when every season seemed to be a struggle for sixth-place mediocrity. Ironically, it was a Chelsea win over Liverpool which elevated them into fourth place and Europe in 2003 which made Abramovich's mind up to buy Chelsea and not Liverpool.

It's this time of year when he might well be wondering whether he made the right choice...

The history of Chelsea's mid-season Premier League slumps

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