Tuesday 28 January 2020

Vulnerable in calm before the next crisis

Andre Villas-Boas hasn't managed to look convincing in a triumphant week, writes Dion Fanning

Football management is supposed to make men age but it's making Andre Villas-Boas look and act younger.

This isn't a good thing. Football management gnaws at a man's vulnerabilities. At the end of a successful week when Villas-Boas needed to grow in stature and authority, he ended up looking as strained and as callow as any reasonable person would in his position.

Ultimately, this may be AVB's problem: his core reasonableness. He reacts to criticism like any sane man would and even after the triumph over Valencia which had postponed any ultimate judgement until the new year, he reacted in both his public appearances to the criticism that has come Chelsea's way.

Football management requires a fundamental ability to be unreasonable. It would be impossible to do the job without an exaggerated sense that your own position is the right one.

When things go wrong or turn, great managers are accused of being stubborn but it is their stubbornness that brought them success and it is their stubbornness which perhaps inevitably brings them down.

Perhaps Villas-Boas will pioneer a new model of collective responsibility but he is trying to develop it at the wrong club at the wrong time.

Arsene Wenger said AVB must persuade the senior players of his methods but Wenger had an advantage when he too arrived in a suspicious dressing room. Tony Adams was at Arsenal, embarking on the most fundamental change in his life. Adams was open and willing to new ideas and he absorbed all that Wenger was saying about change. Villas-Boas has no obvious ally so instead he demonstrates his loyalty to the players by attacking the critics.

He said he was defending his players last week but even when he went on the attack against Gary Neville over his comments about David Luiz, it sounded as though he was defending himself.

His criticism of Neville was about a lot more than a dispute with an unlikely TV personality. Most players will tell you that they are suspicious of any manager who spends a lot of time trying to win over the media. AVB might be at war with the media but he is also trying to woo them.

A dressing room that has its own divisions and doubts, and is experienced at searching out a man's weakness, may wonder what he is doing.

The confirmation from a Chelsea spokesman that AVB had instructed the players to include him in their celebrations added to the sense of a man looking desperately for respect in places he won't find it. "The manager has asked the players to look across and recognise him and his staff on the bench after a goal," a spokesman said. "He believes that by celebrating together it shows we are all in it together. That's the players, the manager, the subs, the staff, the medical people -- everyone working and celebrating together."

When John Terry scored recently against Arsenal and Wolves, Villas-Boas appeared to be standing on the touchline waiting for an acknowledgement which never came. Now he has insisted that the players include him in their thoughts. If they score tomorrow against Manchester City, there is now another issue to be considered, another problem he has created for himself.

On Friday at Chelsea's training ground, AVB repeatedly said that he liked to 'incentivate' decision-making. The players were encouraged to voice their opinions and he listened to their views.

How important these views were in the change of strategy last week remains to be seen. Villas-Boas is clearly aware that this is a significant matter. When he was asked if the players were more vocal in expressing their views at Chelsea than they were at Porto, his reply led back without prompting to the change in Chelsea's approach.

"The leader also has to make sure that the ideas he wants to implement are well accepted and that the players give constant feedback. He has to promote this feedback. The players have accepted the ideas and I think all of them saw what we are trying to achieve to a very good level in the games against Sunderland and Bolton. Hopefully we can continue to do that but bearing in mind our run of results I think a different strategy was needed to get confidence levels back."

He denied that he had tried to change too much too soon but this was an admission that the players were suffering as a result of the new approach. This was a significant indication that the manager is trying to hold on to a sceptical dressing room.

After the game against Valencia, he was asked in Spanish if he had committed 'treason' by abandoning his philosophy and his reply was translated as basically, 'you haven't seen what they say every time we lose.'

So he changed it. "This was not a great win in terms of what we are trying to achieve," AVB said after Tuesday's game. "This won't be the Chelsea that we are creating, for sure," he added on Friday.

Villas-Boas changed his approach to suit the players he has and the players responded. Didier Drogba, one of the most influential players in the Chelsea dressing

room, has in the past week given performances on the field that reminded people of his old self. Drogba now echoes David Remnick's line about Reggie Jackson. He is "not past heroics" but he is "past the expectation of heroics".

Chelsea will continue to expect and over the past two weeks Villas-Boas has abandoned or at least postponed the development of a philosophy which he said would be the last thing to go.

In fact, the philosophy went about the same time Villas-Boas was getting tough with two members of the squad he considered expendable, Nicolas Anelka and Alex.

His philosophy has been simplified into the "high line" but it was about a lot more than that. On Tuesday, Chelsea changed their approach. Instead of the centre-backs splitting and heading for the touchline when Petr Cech had the ball, they stayed central while Cech hit the ball long. The things that Villas-Boas insisted would not go had gone. The choice seemed to be between the philosophy and the manager. By changing his approach, Villas-Boas may get the time to change a team which is not his team.

On Friday, he was asked if Drogba could now be offered a contract extension but this didn't seem to fit in with his plans. "Well, we have to go past this phase of results, we have to continue and persist in getting the right performance levels. The team is on the right track, not only Didier, but the team and that's what we want to focus on. Hopefully we can reach a solution that is good for everybody. He is a top example of a footballer in his human values."

These were the human values AVB name-checked on Tuesday night -- resilience, solidarity, responsibility, the values this squad believes it possesses and which, in a time of crisis, may have been the only ones Villas-Boas felt he could be sure of getting from them.

After the game, Cech said the change was dictated by the early goal and Villas-Boas continued this theme on Friday. "There was an extreme level of confidence about what we were doing."

This confidence came from Chelsea's decision to play the way they have played for several years. The dropping of Lampard may have been a concession to AVB's modernisation but again it offered a distraction from the real business of a manager being diverted from his rebuilding by the realisation that somebody else could be asked to do the rebuilding in the morning.

On Friday afternoon at Chelsea's training ground, his voice cracked and strained as he tried to reach the high notes that he needed to convey his apoplexy at Alan Pardew who was his final target after Gary Neville.

Earlier the press officer beside him coughed. "No, let me make this point," Villas-Boas said.

"If I was going to stop you I would have done it before now," the press officer said and AVB carried on.

Even in a week of triumph, he appears alone and unprotected. He is eager to win everybody over to his point of view when others might lead and believe they will follow.

On Friday, he flipped over his notes to point out that Chelsea have the same number of points today as Manchester United had last year and the champions also had three years ago. He joked later that he had hoped he could introduce it less obviously but the moment hadn't presented itself.

He is self-deprecating and smart but eager for approval. As a result he hates all criticism but he is unable to pretend he doesn't.

Qualification to the knockout stages of the Champions League might have protected him from the gravest consequences if Chelsea lose to City tomorrow, but the pressure will return and despite Villas-Boas 'incentivating' decision-making, the pressure will return to him alone.

There were those last week who thought that Villas-Boas summoned the spirit of Mourinho. The talk of persecution sounded like Mourinho but Mourinho knew he had his core audience: his players, the people every manager is addressing when he speaks to the press.

Mourinho was paranoid but never allowed the suggestion that he was vulnerable or needy to take hold, particularly in the dressing-room.

Villas-Boas said Neville had no idea what was going on in his dressing room but Neville knows that all dressing rooms respond in the same way to certain human values and they respond in the same way to weakness. In his most triumphant week, Andre Villas-Boas revealed his vulnerability. He may think they are all standing together but it won't feel like it when the next crisis comes.

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