I believe it was Albert Einstein who once said, “Logic gets you from A to B. Imagination takes you everywhere.” In this light, I would wish, with your permission of course, to indulge your imagination as we travel into the future.
The year is 2014. It is the 24th day of May. The Camp Nou is in awe, not at FC Barcelona, but at the soon to be crowned UEFA Champions League champions, Chelsea FC. In the Director’s Box, Sandro Rosell shakes the hand of Roman Abramovich. It is a handshake that signifies the conceding of defeat. With one minute left on the clock, Chelsea are leading Barcelona 2-0. Chelsea and England captain, Gary Cahill rallies his troops for one final effort. He knows he is on the brink of receiving the ‘trophy with the big ears’ from Michel Platini. The fans chant the players’ names; Meireles! Ramires! Torres! The biggest chant is reserved for Mata. On the bench, everyone is up, ready to celebrate. Apart from one man. Andre Villas-Boas sits comfortably tucked in his seat. He is calm and composed, but at the ends of his mouth, you can see a smile forming.
But this is not 2014, and we are months away from the European Championships, not a World Cup. Chelsea are battling for fourth place in the Premiership, have to contend with an FA Cup replay against second-tier Birmingham City, and face elimination from the Champions League at the hands of Napoli. They are leaking goals, not scoring enough, lacking in confidence, and a mutiny is brewing against their manager, Andre Villas-Boas.
The problem, it seems, is the manager, AVB. Since arriving from his triumphant spell at FC Porto, the man has employed tactics that seem not to fit his players and has sidelined players who in previous seasons seemed imperative to the Chelsea cause (read Lampard, Drogba, Anelka). The former, has not brought results. The latter has brought the squad to the edge of division. It is not happy times at Chelsea. It is not happy times for AVB.
However, I think that AVB is going about his business in the right way. His approach to the Chelsea job is unlike that of any of his predecessors. AVB has sought to change things at Chelsea. Through some signings and a change to the starting line-up, AVB is the first to attempt to do what nobody else who’s been given the Chelsea hot seat has done; he’s attempting to move away from the days of Jose Mourinho.
Ever since Mourinho had that successful spell at Chelsea, every manager since then has relied on his foundation. The spine that Mourinho had; Petr Cech, John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba, with a supporting cast of Ashley Cole and Michael Essien, has subsisted until now. AVB however, does not entirely want to rely on that spine. It is because, in as much as that spine brings about success, it has also cost Chelsea manger’s their job.
This is what has happened to Chelsea managers, post Mourinho. You come in and establish your own system, which works at the beginning. But when things start going wrong, and the spine, unknowingly reverts to it default system, the Mourinho system. This clashes with your system, and the fans realise a disconnect. They start singing Jose Mourinho’s name, you lose the dressing room, and Roman Abramovich tells you uvidmsia!
AVB on the other hand, has come with a new approach. He knows what it is like to work for Jose Mourinho (he was Mourinho’s Chief Opposition Scout while at Porto, Chelsea and Inter Milan). He also knows what it is like to manage a club formerly managed by the Special One (he was manager of Porto last season). He thus knows how to overcome this, and that is what he is attempting to do at Chelsea.
AVB’s Porto was quite different from the Porto of 2004. It was more intense, had more ball players, and scored lots of goals. Indeed, when Falcao headed in that goal in Dublin to win the UEFA Europa League, and complete the treble, comparisons were bound to arise between AVB and Mourinho. But in reality, the players that AVB had; Rolando, Fernando, Joao Moutinho, Varela, Hulk, Falcao; were quite different from Mourinho’s; Vitor Baia, Paulo Ferreira, Costinha, Carvalho, Maniche, Deco and Derlei.
So, in realizing that personnel is the key to solving the Mourinho issue, AVB has attempted to change the personnel. In came Juan Mata, Oriol Romeu, Raul Meireles, Romelu Lukaku, and later on Gary Cahill. These players have been inserted into the first team immediately, with Lukaku being the only failure. After bringing in these signings, AVB went about re-establishing those who had lost their place in the team, but whom he felt he needed, case in point, Jose Bosingwa and Daniel Sturridge. He then restored the confidence of players who, are good but had lost their form and belief, such as Fernando Torres and David Luiz. Add onto this list the likes of Branislav Ivanovic and Ramires, and you have a squad of players who have not previously been influenced by Mourinho.
Of course, doing this has not gone down well with the ‘Mourinho faithful’. They have long been led to believe that they, and only they, can and should be playing for Chelsea. AVB has also not been helped by the fact that ‘his players’ have not reciprocated the same belief that he has shown in them. Torres still can’t score, and David Luiz still can’t defend. Add onto that, the biggest casualty of his approach, Frank Lampard, is currently the club’s top goalscorer. Questions are still being asked why Lampard continues to occupy the bench.
AVB however seems to have played his cards right – so far. He has a significant amount of players in his pocket to ensure that should a mutiny arise, only a handful of players would be against him. He also seems to have the backing of Roman Abramovich, and as everyone knows, on the blue side of Fulham Road, all that matters is the Russian billionaire’s opinion.
In a show of defiance, AVB recently decided to field only ‘his players’ in the Champions League tie against Napoli in Naples. It did not quite work out as expected, and in the end, he had to call upon the old guard that he had overlooked. But to be able to do this in a Champions League fixture was quite brave from him. It may not have sent out the message that he intended, but it did send out some message.
Building a team is not as easy as it looks. This is especially so for Chelsea as they do not have an internal self sustaining structure that for example, FC Barcelona and Ajax Amsterdam have. They have also not had the continuity required to ensure stability. In lessons that can be learnt from FC Barcelona, it requires years of patience and at times, trophy less seasons to build a team. Even Manchester United can demonstrate this. The years in which they haven’t won the Premiership have coincided with a transition in squad players. AVB has thus taken a bold decision to start building a team. His contract runs for four years and hopefully, he can be let to see out his contract for the four years. (It should be noted that Sir Alex Ferguson took four years to win a trophy with Manchester United although that was a different time to be fair). Ultimately though, success validates any approach, and AVB must start succeeding at something if he wants to last long at Chelsea.
By 2014, Chelsea could be European club champions. By the end of the season, AVB could be gone. Whatever happens, AVB’s approach to Chelsea can be summed up in the words of Carl von Clausewitz;
“If a plan succeeds, it is bold. If it doesn’t, it is reckless.”