Tuesday 21 November 2017

Here to stay: Andre Villas-Boas

Henry Winter

Chelsea's players have been told by the board that Andre Villas-Boas enjoys the total backing of the club's owner, Roman Abramovich. The oligarch has also expressed his support directly to Villas-Boas, the 34-year-old manager plagued by a run of four defeats in seven games and intensifying scrutiny over his tactics.

For all the calls from Chelsea fans for Abramovich to express publicly his loyalty to Villas-Boas, this is not the style of a very private billionaire. It would also be perceived as the dreaded vote of confidence. Behind the scenes, though, Abramovich has reminded a dressing-room packed with powerful personalities that Villas-Boas is here to stay.

The Portuguese revealed that he has talked to the Russian and been promised time. "He has said that,'' said Villas-Boas, delivering an impassioned defence of his philosophy after training at Cobham yesterday. "I have his belief. But I don't ask for time. I demand results of myself. I'm not worried. I'm confident we can turn this run around.''

Abramovich (below) does not have a great track record in granting managers time, but there is a feeling within the Bridge that it is pointless appointing a promising young manager, asking him to refresh an ageing squad and then jettisoning him at the first hint of adversity.

For all his obvious potential, Villas-Boas inevitably exudes the air of an ingenue. Sitting in his office before training yesterday, he expressed "surprise" to an aide over "why we were on the back pages of every paper". Here's a polite note to the newcomer: if one of the world's wealthiest clubs, a Champions League finalist scarcely three years ago, flirt with demotion to the Europa League it is bound to trigger some toxic headlines.

"I didn't come here to be a failure,'' he continued. "It's a project of high expectations and mine at the moment are negative. There is no running away from it. But that doesn't mean the project will not continue or that we don't have the talent to turn around the run of negative results.

"A spiral of negative results does not mean a negative spiral. Why don't you speak about the ability of these players to transcend a negative period? Why don't you speak that after Chelsea get the win they need, they may go on a winning streak like last year?"

Murmurs of disquiet seep from under the dressing-room door, although whether this is the usual dissatisfaction of ignored squad members is unclear. Villas-Boas' pressing tactics do not suit some of the older players, who may be whispering concerns.

The manager himself dismissed all talk of disagreements, insisting he enjoyed a "very good" relationship with the players. "There have been meetings but not critical meetings or animosity or insults. There is no dissent.''

He would listen to "input", Villas-Boas admitted, but his strategy of defending high, attacking though a 4-3-3 system with strikers rotated was non-negotiable. "The philosophy will be the last thing to die in this club. The philosophy is not in question and the players accept that.''

He refused to countenance the possibility that Chelsea's squad might not be good enough. "I don't agree. This squad was set out by myself and my technical staff to win four trophies.'' He claimed not to have discussed possible reinforcements with Abramovich. "We have not even touched January; that's not on the agenda or the priority.''

Villas-Boas' defiance was commendable, but he overlooked the reality that observers are startled to see so many individual mistakes made by an experienced group of players. "You are being speculative,'' he retorted. Hardly. Chelsea's defence is all over the place, a quartet not overly blessed with speed struggling to implement the manager's high defensive line.

Villas-Boas bristled. "The high line is a misconception turned into opinion-making. Nobody had a problem with the high line in the second half against Liverpool when we were high up the pitch, pressing and creating opportunities. Nobody spoke about the poor first half where the high line was closer to the goalkeeper. And I don't agree the defence suffers from a lack of pace."

Clearly in a mood to take on his critics, Villas-Boas slapped down Michael Ballack's comment that his old team lack mental toughness with a curt: "Michael is always very self-opinionated." He did concede that his players needed to concentrate late on in games.

It was a rare admission of frailty. Back on the offensive, Villas-Boas shook his head at the suggestion that Chelsea were vulnerable at corners, claiming that the goal conceded to Bayer Leverkusen in midweek "was the first goal we suffered from a corner and it's late November''. Yet it was little surprise to discover that Wolves, today's guests, have been working heavily on set-pieces this week.

Many Chelsea fans would like to see some of the club's tyros, such as Romelu Lukaku and Josh McEachran, given a chance. Villas-Boas shook his head. "Lukaku is competing against three of the best strikers in the world (in Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka and Fernando Torres). Lukaku's looking good and is a boy for the future. Josh's time (on the pitch) is maybe not up to his expectation but it's a question of them raising competitive levels.

"The philosophy is that if young players survive in this environment with the best players in the world they will be an amazing talent exploding, the best players in the world. And you have to tell me who is not at the top level?''

Terry? "I don't agree that JT's form is bad."

Torres? "I don't agree.'' Villas-Boas needs to understand Torres better, appreciating that the Spaniard needs to feel loved, to believe he is the No 1 centre-forward. "No,'' replied Villas-Boas. "The group is the most important thing. The guy I put on the pitch is my No 1 centre-forward. Praising individuals or influencing them by saying they're the best in the world is not my style." Pity. The team would benefit from a confident Torres.

So would Villas-Boas. The man at the Bridge seemed unperturbed by the maelstrom. "I sleep well.'' (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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