Villas-Boas' exit falls in line with Chelsea's problematic philosophy
"Rome wasn't built in a day," Brian Clough once said, "but then I wasn't on that particular job."
It's a good line, but in terms of his career utterly misleading. Clough never had instant success at any club. In his first seasons at Derby County and at Nottingham Forest, he finished in the bottom half of the second flight. Within five years he'd won the league with Derby; it took three with Forest. Alex Ferguson was in his seventh year at Manchester United when he won the league for the first time. Herbert Chapman was in his sixth at Arsenal. Turning around a ship headed in the wrong direction takes time. Andre Villas-Boas was given eight months by Chelsea.
The best analogy with Clough's career (and all bright young managers working in England must be compared to Clough) is with his brief time at Leeds United in 1974. The 44 days he lasted there are probably better documented than any other spell of management in British soccer history, but what tends to be emphasized is Clough's abrasiveness, his instinctive dislike and distrust of the players he found there. It tends to be forgotten that Clough took over a squad full of thirtysomethings, nine of whom were out of contract; it was a squad that had grown old together and needed a radical overhaul.
Clough was too aggressive and by his own admission tried to do too much too quickly, but given what happened subsequently, you wonder whether the task was impossible. Jimmy Armfield replaced Clough and led Leeds to the European Cup final, after which it dwindled away, was relegated at the end of the decade and owned no more silverware until lifting the league title in 1992.
Chelsea's situation is not quite so desperate as that, but 11 on this squad played under Jose Mourinho. They, like Leeds, have grown old together, which is a problem not merely in terms of the age profile of the side, but also because the older players get the more conservative they become, the more they like things to be as they were, the more resistant they are to change. And this is a particularly assertive group of players: even before Villas-Boas they had got rid of at least one manager and possibly as many as three. Their influence can be seen in the way successive Chelsea managers tried to change the style of play but always ended up reverting to the old-style 4-3-3.
Roman Abramovich, we keep being told, wants to see fluid, flowing, attacking football. Each new coach was supposed to provide it, and each one ended up reverting to the Mourinho model, more based on power than technique. The older and slower players got, the more that became the case. Barcelona, it's suggested, became the model Abramovich wished to follow. There's a story -- probably apocryphal but representative of a general truth nonetheless -- that Abramovich invited Txiki Beguiristan, who had overseen Barca's youth setup, for a chat.
"What would you need to do the same here?" the oligarch supposedly asked.
"Ten years," the reply supposedly came.
Barcelona's pre-eminence is the result of a culture instilled four decades ago that, every now and again, thanks to a combination of gifted players and coaches, and a little luck, will yield a glorious harvest. Chelsea's problems are also the result of pursuing a philosophy consistently: short-termism and bloodletting, the demand for success today, yesterday if possible, and let tomorrow be hanged. It is an appalling statistic that no Chelsea youth team product has become a first-team regular since John Terry, who made his debut in 1998.
Perhaps Villas-Boas wasn't the right man for the job. He was 33 when he arrived at Stamford Bridge, with just one season of managerial experience. That was a hugely successful season in which he won the league with Porto dropping only four points and lifted the Portuguese Cup and the Europa League, but things almost went too smoothly. He had never faced adversity, had never had to arrest a decline, had
His style of football -- the famous high line, with pace and mobility -- was unsuited to an aging squad. Did Abramovich consider that? Or did he, like Massimo Moratti at Internazionale when he appointed Gian Piero Gasperini, simply fail to recognize the obvious incongruity between his manager's ideal and his squad's capabilities? Perhaps Villas-Boas could have handled the transition better, but to oversee a wholesale change of tactical approach and personnel is hugely difficult, even for the most experienced managers.
As it was Villas-Boas rapidly passed through three phases. First he was fresh and energetic, worryingly like the idealistic new teacher at a cynical school. That enthusiasm soon faded to prickliness, a barely comprehensible hostility to the media which, with one or two notable exceptions, was broadly sympathetic, recognizing the magnitude of his task. And then came the strange confessional, recklessly honest -- perhaps even resigned? -- late phase, in which he admitted and dismissed the significance of rifts with the squad, openly queried recent signings (and the £80 million Chelsea spent on David Luiz and Fernando Torres in January probably represents the worst spree any club has ever undertaken) and acknowledged that things were going to get worse before they got better.
"Unfortunately the results and performances of the team have not been good enough and were showing no signs of improving at a key time in the season," Chelsea's statement said, which suggests Villas-Boas was ousted to give the club the best possible chance of winning the FA Cup -- it faces Birmingham City in a last-16 replay on Tuesday -- and the Champions League -- in which it trails Napoli 3-1 after the away leg of the last-16 tie.
Is Roberto Di Matteo, who has been named interim first-team coach till the end of the season, really better equipped to achieve that than Villas-Boas (noting that, with football's gift for coincidence, Villas-Boas was sacked after a defeat to West Bromwich Albion who sacked Di Matteo last season)? Perhaps, if the relationship between Villas-Boas and the squad had become unsustainable, he is. But again Chelsea can be seen placing short-term gain over long-term development. Even if Villas-Boas wasn't the right man, you wonder whether it might not have been worth using him to cull the aging core of Mourinho loyalists.
As it is, whoever the new man is will face the same problem that has dogged every manager since Mourinho left. And Roman wants his new empire built, if not in a day, then at least in a season.