It’s been coming for some time, as Chelsea stumble around, dropping points against teams they usually dismiss with ease, threatening to fall out of the Champions League in the last 16 (Napoli – good but not great), not even able to beat Birmingham at home in the FA Cup. When would Roman Abramovich apply the metaphorical guillotine to Andre Villas Boas’s neck? Today it came, after Chelsea lost 1-0 to West Brom yesterday. West Brom! Marooned in fifth place, three points behind a resurgent Arsenal. No Champions League next year? Unthinkable for Abramovich – and the Chelsea fans, who’ve grown used to bossing it with the Russian’s millions.
Off with the manager’s head! Who’s next? Well, for the interim, Roberto di Matteo. AVB’s deputy, so associated with the current failure. But a man with a Chelsea past. Strange one nonetheless, but presumably approved by Terry and Lampard, Drogba and Cech. The powers that be.
That was AVB’s problem. Chelsea weren’t ready for radical change but that was his mission. He was brought in after great success at Porto, essentially to get Chelsea playing like Barcelona. Ever since the successful Mourinho team was dubbed boring because it knew how to close down a game at 1-0, Abramovich has seemed to crave attractive, attacking football, as well as Champions League success. Carlo Ancelotti was getting there, but was sacked in his second season, for faltering a little after winning the Double in his first. Faltering after Abramovich sacked his assistant, Ray Wilkins, in mid-season. Good ol’ Ray clearly played a more important role than people realised. The politics of Chelsea are positively Byzantine.
I like AVB. He is clearly committed to playing good football, and gives good interviews. In fact you can’t stop him talking! But maybe he just wasn’t experienced enough to take on the Chelsea “dressing room”. He wanted to play a fast pressing 4-3-3, which the stalwarts just weren’t capable of adapting to in their twilight years. Early on the gaps between defence and midfield, or behind the centre backs, were embarrassing as the team struggled to carry out the new instructions. Eventually some of the old structure was restored, but all the messages coming out of the club were that the established players were still unhappy. And no-one briefs the press like the Chelsea boys.
AVB was caught between two stools. He had to change things, but wasn’t able to do it quickly. When he started dropping Lampard to get more mobility in midfield it became the story. The battle for supremacy had begun. AVB was never going to win without full and clear backing from Abramovich. He never got that.
Other things didn’t help: Torres’ inability to score, Terry’s racism court case, David Luiz’s crazy moments in defence. But the heart of the problem was that the established pros at Chelsea didn’t buy into AVB’s way of playing, but he couldn’t get rid of them. Maybe he just isn’t a good man-manager. Did he try to understand those top players, get them onside, buying into the mission? The way Mourinho clearly does, everywhere he goes?
Time and again when you read about successful managers you hear comments from the players about how the managers interacts with them, positive comments. Insight, concern, support. Basic human qualities, basic leadership. It must be incredibly difficult to establish your authority at a top club these day, with all those multi-millionaire egos. Difficult to get them to share your vision, your strategy, your tactics. I’m sure you’ve got to work with the grain, show respect for the established culture, the leaders in the dressing room. Introduce change gradually, imperceptibly. Get the players to own the changes. We did it ourselves…
Of course, a couple of good wins, especially if they get past Napoli, and all will be well. At least for a while. Football is so fickle. Look at Arsene Wenger. Increasing numbers of Arsenal fans were calling for his head. Then they beat Spurs 5-2 and Liverpool 2-1. Arsene is manager of the month for February. The talk is of catching Spurs in third. And even overturning that 4-0 deficit against Milan. Very unlikely! But some are imagining the outcome. Optimism is back.
I think the problems go deep at Chelsea though. There is a real malaise. Too many factions, too many unseen influences. Declining players with too much power. A remote and unpredictable owner. Problems looming when the financial far play rules come in. Not enough of that most precious commodity – leadership.
So is the scene set for the return of Jose? Maybe, but I think it would be a mistake for him. Too many malign influences, some probably still there from his first stint. Better to wait for one of the big prizes – one of the Manchesters. Maybe warm up with Spurs, if Harry takes on England. Or stay at Real Madrid. They’re not bad.
Leave Chelsea to their own devices.