Monday 19 March 2018

A philosopher stands alone

Villas-Boas trying to crack success with flawed theory, writes Dion Fanning

During his first few months at Chelsea, Andre Villas-Boas has resembled a theoretician struggling to accept the crazy notion that his methods don't work in practice.

"The game," he said after yesterday's victory against Wolves, "is imponderable actions and chaos... the game is not everything you dictate."

The sense of powerlessness might have become more intense as he struggles to adapt to life at a club like Chelsea. Garret FitzGerald is said to have once remarked: "It's all very well in practice, but will it work in theory?". Villas-Boas seems like another man committed to his theories despite the early evidence that the philosophy is not working and, more importantly, that he is alone in thinking that his philosophy is the philosophy of Chelsea, the football club.

Only Roman Abramovich could define Chelsea's philosophy in his era but many people feel they have a stake in shaping it. There was no schooling at Academica or Porto for what Villas-Boas is going through at Stamford Bridge. Yet not even Pep Guardiola, the coach he most admires and the man who has advanced the style Abramovich craves, could do what he wants to do on a football pitch with this Chelsea squad.

He would, however, have respect and Villas-Boas is discovering something he must have suspected: that this is a Chelsea dressing-room which has been allowed to believe they live in a democracy which, in football, usually mutates into a mob.

Yesterday he made an attempt to assert himself. Oriol Romeu started ahead of Frank Lampard as Villas-Boas decided that his ideas on how football should be played mattered more than the players who had come to personify the club. After two key defeats, Villas-Boas was going down his way although going down against Wolves seemed unimaginable and quickly became unimaginable once Wolves began to play.

With Romeu flanked by Ramires and Raul Meireles in midfield, Chelsea looked like the team Villas-Boas imagines in his head. Lampard was rested, Villas-Boas said later, because he will be needed for the game against Liverpool on Tuesday, but there was a significance in the selection and in the style of Chelsea's play.

"There wasn't a great air of confidence around this place today, in fact there was a sense of foreboding," Mick McCarthy said afterwards in reference to Chelsea, before acknowledging that the early goal Wolves conceded brought great relief.

When John Terry scored that early header and began to run towards the bench, it looked as if there would be a moment between the brave old warrior and the eager policy wonk. Instead, Terry ran past the Chelsea bench and gestured towards the crowd -- his people, who offered adoration and redemption and anything else that's going.

The divide between the young manager and the ageing players remains the fascinating heart of this story despite yesterday's comfortable win. If he didn't anticipate the resistance from senior players to a style of play they are too old to implement, then he is not the slave to detail he claims to be.

Villas-Boas is a technocrat, the players at Chelsea are a southern European country and the high line represents austerity measures the people aren't equipped to endure. AVB's message is the same: Chelsea will have to change and he has been given the backing to enforce those changes.

The resistance he meets will test his resolve. He has to overcome the questions within the club and the challenges from outside it. Chelsea play Liverpool in the Carling Cup on Tuesday and then are at Newcastle next Saturday before key home games against Valencia and Manchester City.

Exit from the Champions League will test all of his theories as well as his belief that he has the backing of Abramovich to make the changes he wants to make.

Villas-Boas' view is the logical position, but the logical position has not been much in evidence at Chelsea in recent years. You could say it's their philosophy-illogical positivism. At times yesterday, Chelsea played beautifully with Ramires outstanding and Mata and Sturridge devastating. They scored three and it could have been a lot more. "We're not going to fill ourselves with arrogance," AVB said, talking about yesterday's win and he knows it might not also deliver the dressing-room.

They have yet to be convinced by his approach and he has sounded brittle when criticism is put to him.

On Friday, he demanded that the latest critic, Michael Ballack, conduct some self-analysis. Ballack joins Gary Neville and Alan Hansen in being criticised by Villas-Boas for their criticism of Villas-Boas and there is a pattern emerging.

Is he wounded by the criticism from former players because they have an authorial air when speaking of the dynamics on a field that he can never have?

There have been plenty of managers who haven't played the game but nobody has travelled so far so quickly. There is an openness about him that is endearing. Yesterday he said that the win didn't take the pressure off him.

But he can also struggle. After the game, he asked the media to point out that Chelsea are now only two goals away from having the second-best attack in the league. After the 5-3 defeat to Arsenal, he said two of the goals Chelsea conceded should be ignored in any analysis. He speaks several languages fluently but one of them is bullshit.

Along with his team, he will be faced with choices in the next crucial month. The nature of his ascent ensures that Villas-Boas is a man apart. All managers are outsiders but AVB has more reason than most to feel alone. Yesterday he could bask in the sense of unity that victory brings. It might not last long. At Chelsea, nothing tends to last long.

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