Villas-Boas already walking a tightrope
Published 21/11/2011 | 05:00
Remember that Russian term from the Roman Abramovich-Boris Berezovsky legal battle -- 'Krysha', which means roof, or protection? Increasingly Andre Villas-Boas must wonder what covers his own head and his back.
Youth unemployment is already way too high without Villas-Boas joining the ranks. But the clever young coach hired by Abramovich to bring entertainment to a sometimes sullen Stamford Bridge looks more callow by the game, and more vulnerable
"The owner didn't pay €15m to get me out of Porto to pay me another fortune to get me out," he said after his latest setback.
Full marks for optimism. What he forgets, though, is that Abramovich is a master at throwing money at problems of his own making. One of the downsides of being insanely rich is that miscalculations can be buried under a snow of fresh extravagance. No one is safe. No one can be sure of 'Krysha'.
Villas-Boas should be. He is 12 league games into his Premier League career and is carrying out the duties he was coaxed to London to perform. There was even a first half-time blast for his players as Liverpool led from a Maxi Rodriguez finish. It was time to drop the collegiate tone in favour of something sterner.
His assignment from the beginning was to make Chelsea more than merely relentless and efficient at a time when football has entered a mini-golden age of self-expression, mainly in the shape of Barcelona and Spain.
This is noble work, but the timetable is now dauntingly tight and is rendered even tighter when John Terry appears cumbersome and confused, David Luiz recoils from physical pressure, Ashley Cole is ripped apart by the opposition's right-back and John Obi Mikel offers yet further proof that he lacks the speed of body and thought to be another Claude Makelele.
With each defensive aberration and every defeat, Villas-Boas (34) loses more of his boyish sheen, along with his authority. Chelsea 3 Arsenal 5. Chelsea 1 Liverpool 2. For the first time in Abramovich's time his team have posted back-to-back home league defeats. Manchester City, 12 points better off after a dozen games, are a dot in the lens of a telescope.
"There is no calling this year a transition," the Chelsea manager insisted.
This was a smart verbal move. English football is too febrile, and the stakes too high, for Villas-Boas to expect an ovation for any speech about patience and transitions.
High lines, transitions in play -- some trendy new terms have entered the lexicon this year. For Villas-Boas, the defensive 'high line' has become a curse, an easy reference point when things go wrong. They conceal a rash of individual errors that allow players to cower behind tactical excuses.
In the Arsenal and Liverpool defeats there were other pressing issues beyond the starting positions of centre-backs.
Simply, Cole, Terry and Luiz have been way below the standards needed.
When Abramovich ladled out that €15m to buy Villas-Boas out of Portuguese football, via the Jose Mourinho route, the idea was that Chelsea would look like Man City do now. Power was out, poetry was in. The owner had spent too long brooding over the mechanical nature of his team's endeavours.
For the sums to add up (will they ever?) they needed to seduce a worldwide following with their enterprise, spirit, their joie de vivre.
They needed less Mikel and more Mata. To verify the real Villas-Boas brief, you would need to have been a waiter bringing tea to the room in which Abramovich outlined the job spec to Carlo Ancelotti's successor.
From day one, the new man told us it was to liberate this side; to drag it into sync with Arsenal, Manchester United and now City, who surprised the rest of the elite by investing heavily in ingenuity, and have reinvented themselves since their FA Cup win.
Villas-Boas talks of the "immense talent" at his disposal. We have yet to see it this term.
Juan Mata, this team's David Silva, is both the answer and the question. Why are there not more of his kind? Why did it take so long for Chelsea to start evolving along more artistic lines?
Abramovich's doctrine has always been to change the manager. We now see more clearly than ever that he needed to change some players.
"We've set out to build something new at this club," Villas-Boas said, during an impressive call to arms. Yet Chelsea have amassed fewer points after 12 league games than at any time since Claudio Ranieri was in charge.
Like a tennis player writing off a set, he consigned these two home defeats to a shallow grave, investing his hopes instead in the "December fixtures", somewhat bafflingly, since Chelsea face Newcastle and Spurs away, plus Man City at home.
Already he talks of "shortening the distance" to City and United. This suggests he can reform the side stylistically and play catch-up at the same time.
The pressure is now on to return to what Chelsea know: tight defence, bulldozing midfield play and centre-forward power. To fall back on memory, though, would mean abandoning the owner's more romantic notions.
A small tactical mystery is why Villas-Boas thinks he needs to play a high defensive line to effect a more attacking style. Other teams attack plenty without exposing their defenders to pace. Surely this back-four could be allowed to retreat a yard or two without compromising the whole expansion plan.
The team he started with here were limp and misshapen, with Florent Malouda poor, Didier Drogba off target and Mikel again a liability.
The good news for Villas-Boas is that these players cannot whisper to Abramovich that he made a mistake in the managerial jobs market, as some did with Luiz Felipe Scolari.
Their own errors are as visible as the young coach's difficulties in marrying safety with sophistication. Regicide has been a reliable tool in the past but Abramovich is unlikely to be fooled again by Cobham dressing-room politics.
As Liverpool rejoiced, Villas-Boas' high line looked more like a high wire, taut, swaying, and ready to tip him off. What he needs is 'Krysha'. And time. (© Daily Telegraph, London)