Where did it all go wrong for Chelsea?
Published 25/11/2011 | 05:00
Despite protestations from the club, Chelsea have an ageing squad. Or rather, they have a dependence on a large core of players who are 30 and over, some of whom are showing rapid signs of deterioration -- right through the spine of the squad.
It's a spine that has remained the same since Jose Mourinho was in charge, when he dubbed some players untouchable. They have remained so ever since. But the march of time is catching up with a generation and it's showing -- even with the likes of Ashley Cole and Petr Cech.
It's how to manage phasing out Frank Lampard, for example, and moving on Nicolas Anelka, Didier Drogba and so on that matters. One problem is simply that the 30-somethings are sitting on big contracts, enjoy living in London and are proving hard to shift. That was apparent in the summer.
A host of teenagers have been acquired -- Thibault Courtois, Oriol Romeu and Romelu Lukaku -- and manager Andre Villas-Boas has been tasked to accelerate the process. But how many are first-team ready?
The problem was identified by Carlo Ancelotti who, privately, fretted about a dearth of players in the key 23-27 age bracket, a bracket he said that will win trophies, while agreeing to fast-track academy players who have not proved good enough.
Chelsea tried to remedy the age gap by signing Fernando Torres and David Luiz but it hasn't worked, while the pursuit of Luka Modric and Alvaro Perreira failed. They need to try again to reduce the dependency.
It would appear unfair to single out Torres in an analysis of Chelsea's problems but his travails, and his £50m price tag, sum up the club and may also define whether Villas-Boas survives.
It also sums up the haphazard philosophy at play. Roman Abramovich didn't pursue Torres for so long, and spend so much money on him, for the coup to fail so spectacularly.
Whoever manages Chelsea has to get the best out of the Spaniard -- or at least make a huge effort to do so. No one doubts Villas-Boas isn't trying to do this and he persevered with him at the start of the campaign -- only for Torres to be on the bench for the last three matches.
The striker appears uncomfortable, despite the arrival of Juan Mata and a commitment to play the kind of football he should thrive on -- all the more galling for Chelsea given his advisers came to them in January urging a bid. Torres' form may decide the manager's future.
No one could accuse Abramovich of not being willing to spend at Chelsea. But it's the often haphazard approach to transfers -- feast or occasional famine at times -- that is baffling and would suggest a real lack of strategy at the heart of the club.
There is also, and has been ever since Claudio Ranieri was manager, a sense that no one is quite sure who is buying the players and why. Certainly Jose Mourinho played up the suggestions that Andrei Shevchenko was imposed upon him -- not strictly true -- but there was more of a grievance with the arrival of Alex from PSV Eindhoven.
For that deal, read Yossi Benayoun and, to an extent, Fernando Torres for Carlo Ancelotti.
It's said that Villas-Boas has more control than his predecessor, although this led to complaints that he was dithering on deals.
As ever with Chelsea there is also an uncomfortable reality that they do not actually land their main targets -- from Thierry Henry, for example, when Abramovich first took over, to Luka Modric this summer.
There are certainly a number of conflicting voices and opinions at Chelsea, with several people able to influence policy at various times and that doesn't help especially with the chopping and changing of managers.
Everyone knows, since the then chief executive Peter Kenyon confirmed it, that Abramovich wants to watch 'fantasy football' -- he dreams of 5-0 wins with spectacular volleys from the edge of the area.
He wants thrills, spills, goals and trophies. He loved Jose Mourinho while he was winning but when he stopped bringing home trophies, the football became turgid.
Abramovich wanted more bang for his buck and a succession of managers have been tasked to deliver it, gradually playing more expansive football. Villas-Boas has brought a whole new dimension to that and has made no bones about the job he has -- to build something "new", something exciting.
"The philosophy is not in question," Villas-Boas has said but it has been controversial and it is risky.
He has asked his defence to play with a higher line, for his team to press more intensely and for quick counter-attacks.
They have conceded 17 goals in 12 league games, leading to accusations of "naivety" from Alan Hansen in these pages, and questioning of whether he can carry on doing it. So far, Villas-Boas has.
Aged just 34, Villas-Boas fits the mould of the kind of manager Abramovich would be attracted to.
He swept all before him last season -- his first full campaign -- at Porto and it felt like another Jose Mourinho, albeit one with a different temperament and approach, although with similar levels of self-confidence.
Villas-Boas is Mourinho's former -- and former is most definitely true -- protege. The two men no longer talk.
What Abramovich wanted was Mourinho without the confrontational edge but with the winning mentality and he showed his intent by paying £13.3m to activate the release clause in Villas-Boas' contract instead of waiting until next summer, when he could have got him for free.
Villas-Boas has an intense work ethic -- it's rumoured he works such long hours that he sometimes sleeps at the training ground -- speaks perfect English, is a good communicator and has maintained he has "good relationships" with the players.
But he also has a very singular approach, modelled on Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola, and wants to be seen to be scrupulously fair -- which has, inadvertently, meant some players have been put out because decisions are not always explained to them.
Can any manager succeed under Abramovich? Or rather, can any manager succeed for long under the Russian billionaire? Abramovich veers from allowing whoever is in charge to get on with it, and is sometimes absent for long periods, to then being intensely involved in the club. Decisions are often taken very quickly.
Abramovich can sometimes wake up and simply feel that a change is needed. He quickly falls in and out of love with those around him and can be alarmingly influenced by the same coterie. It doesn't help whoever is manager as Abramovich's so-called "golden circle" appears to know best.
Chelsea have struggled this season with yellow and red cards. Villas-Boas is not a disciplinarian -- there is a code of conduct but that is not uncommon -- while, at times, the players have seemed less in control.
Last season Chelsea were the fourth cleanest team in the Premier League (59 yellow and one red).
This season they are the dirtiest, with five dismissals already, while Villas-Boas is already fighting a punishment imposed by the English FA for comments he made about a referee. (© Daily Telegraph, London)