• Tuesday, 21 February 2012

    Pragmatism in the court of the oligarch

    The Premier League in England needs a crisis club. Not a genuine one, obviously, not one serially mismanaged and run into the ground like a Portsmouth, but one of these crises that can only happen at well-funded clubs stuffed to the gills with millions of pounds worth of players. The sort of crisis that only losing a few games that many expected them to win. A lot of time lately, it's been Arsenal. Now it's Chelsea.

    Appointing Andre Villas-Boas signalled an intent to change the way Chelsea play football. Villas-Boas's hallmarks are all over the Porto side that British viewers had a look at in last week's Europa League game against Manchester City - a high line, constant pressing, shift it wide early and get it forwards. It's exciting, it's vibrant and that's the brand of football he was charged with taking to the Bridge. However, it also needs a certain type of player and a willingness to buy into the style as a group. While he has been able to bring in some players to help him achieve his vision - Juan Mata, for instance and has a number of existing players who can play that way, the overhaul of the squad is an ongoing process as Chelsea's policy of buying players at their peak and subsequently finding themselves with ageing assets on high wages and of no resale value bites them on the bum. Consequently, it just isn't quite working out on the field for Chelsea at the moment.

    Needless to say, this has been blown up into a major issue and pressure piled onto the young manager - isn't it odd that age only matters when things aren't going so well? - to the point that it's all he's ever asked about at press conferences. Responses are scoured over for hidden meaning, hints of rifts with the owner jumped upon and the merest hint of discontent from the squad shown to 'prove' he's lost the dressing room. This culminates in the situation we find today where a Champions League loss to Napoli - perfectly plausible despite Ray Wilkins saying "they're not a threat" when the draw was made - is painted as being potentially the last time Villas-Boas takes charge of a Chelsea match.

    A corrollary of all that is incessant speculation about potential successors and today's Daily Mirror suggests that Marcelo Bielsa is the one to come in should Roman Abramovich put Villas-Boas out of the press's misery. Now, if Villas-Boas was having difficulty imposing his style on the Chelsea squad, how on earth is the madcap Argentinian supposed to do that?

    Bielsa is, needless to say, brilliant. He's taken his philosophy to Bilbao and he's achieving something quite remarkable. It took time though as Athletic lost three of their first four matches. Were that to be subject to the same press scrutiny as Villas-Boas's Chelsea reign, he'd have been run out of town by mid-September. But, like Villas-Boas, Bielsa was hired because of his philosophy, to implant that at the club and allow it to become the new culture. He was backed by a sympathetic board who bought into his vision.

    Abramovich has proved himself to be a capricious boss during his time at Chelsea and has rarely thought overlong about binning the money spent on hiring managers before. However, he did spend big on acquiring the services of Villas-Boas and one presumes that the vision that Villas-Boas has on how football should be played was a major factor in the reasons for his recruitment. If so, there is no crisis and everyone can just stop the incessant rambling about nothing. If not, then Villas-Boas is best off out of it and someone else is going to acquire an extremely talented coach.

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