Sunday, February 19, 2012

Woke up this morning with dem same ol' Blues blues

It was a mad idea last summer and it has grown progressively madder. André Villas-Boas - at the age of 33 and after just 21 months in professional football management, taking over one of Europe's biggest sides, owned by one of sport's most impatient proprietors - was a preposterous idea on June 22 last year when Chelsea announced the precocious Portugeuse as its new manager. 

Now, nine months later, and with Chelsea not only losing sight of the Barclays Premier League title, but automatic qualification for next season's Champions League, Villas-Boas is looking increasingly like he couldn't run a hot dog stand at Stamford Bridge, let alone a team of ageing superstars with egos to match. 

Yesterday's 1-1 draw to a diminished Birmingham City in the FA Cup 5th Round merely highlighted a relatively poor season getting steadily worse, and a managerial position creeping close to becoming untenable. Which is unfortunate. Because it's not really his fault.

When Villas-Boas arrived at the Bridge last summer (well, returned to it), conventional wisdom was that this was - as high-risk appointments go - as risky as electing Charlie Sheen mayor of Las Vegas. Why, when a manager of Carlo Ancelotti's European pedigree and maiden season league-and-cup double achievement wasn't good enough, should a manager with such a patent lack of experience do any better? 

One could be tempted to think that Roman Abramovich's decision to hire AVB was some cruel form of bloodsport. Not only was football's very own Charlie Bucket getting the keys to the entire chocolate factory, he was also inheriting a squad dominated by the politically-savvy John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba, as well as the woefully disappointing and outrageously expensive Fernando Torres.

On paper Chelsea are one of the most exciting teams in world football. When you look at the talent throughout the squad you do wonder how this group of players should have been so poor yesterday to Birmingham at Stamford Bridge, a home venue which not so long ago was an impenetrable fortress.

And yet to see Villas-Boas looking isolated and seemingly out of his depth on the touchline, you wonder what this much-vaunted "project" is that he and his superiors keep talking about. To me "project" doesn't exactly sound like a firm commitment. In corporate life, a high-flying executive who gets put in charge of 'Special Projects' is usually on their way out because the CEO doesn't know what to do with them. Perhaps Villas-Boas is merely on a three-year internship. Either way, it hardly suggests a long-term appointment. 

Little is really known of what Villas-Boas' project actually is, however. Is it to finally win the Champions League, the prize most coveted by Abramovich? Is it to modernise a squad still built around the nucleus of players assembled by Jose Mourinho more than five years ago? Or is it to try and help Fernando Torres understand what the three white sticks with a string bag attached to them are at each end of the pitch? 

Villas-Boas has been defiant to the point of cockiness that his job is safe. Despite a noticeable uptick in the number of visits Abramovich has made to the team dressing room post-match and to the club's training ground in Cobham in recent days, Villas-Boas maintains that the Russian has demonstrated nothing but "empathy and motivation for next year's project". 

However, it's this year's project that is the concern. With the club lying fifth in the Premier League, and on Tuesday night playing Napoli in the Champions League, facing an on-form team in a notoriously oppressive environment, Abramovich is in a difficult position. If he fires Villas-Boas now he will merely confirm what many critics of Chelsea have been saying, that the oligarch doesn't have the first clue about owning a football club. This view is supported by the ridiculous turnover of managers and the acquisition of crocked players like Torres for non-sensical sums of money. We might never know what Abramovich actually thinks: but if the sight of Chelsea's chief executive Ron Gourlay puffing out his cheeks in a despondent (or relieved) manner at the end of yesterday's cup tie was anything to go by, AVB's bosses are clearly concerned about their head coach.

If, on the other hand, Abramovich sticks with Villas-Boas, despite the team looking unlikely to claw their way back into the top four and a European place next season or, possibly, not winning a trophy at all this season, questions will be asked as to how much true progress has been made in Year 1 of the three-year project. On this, I suppose, you've got to start somewhere, and if that means being brave enough to drop the likes of Terry, Drogba and Lampard - despite their supposed power base within the club - then Villas-Boas is trying to get somewhere. But, maybe, not far enough. Or soon enough.

1 comment:

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