For some, Andre Villas-Boas’ team selection for Chelsea’s match against Napoli was a bold statement, an attempt to sweep out the rebellious stalwarts of a bygone era and replace them with the next wave of Chelsea stars who would recreate the club’s impressive record in the Champions League over the past decade.
After a 3-1 defeat littered with defensive errors and incohesion, nostalgia for the bygone era grew ever more palpable.
Stubbornness in a manager can be a valuable commodity as illustrated over the past three decades by Sir Alex Ferguson and his swathe of trophies. However, the recent travails of Arsene Wenger at Arsenal show the pitfalls of such intransigence and it is the Frenchman that the Portuguese is most emulating as he strains to enforce his will irrespective of the evidence in front of him.
Many independent commentators and journalists have defended AVB by crediting the tough job that he has been handed in overhauling a team in transition yet nobody could claim that he has handled the situation very well to this point. Ferguson is a past master at cutting away what he perceives to be dead wood while maintaining success in the process but he has had a generation’s worth of experience in the job in comparison to the two and a bit years that AVB has spent plying his trade. Ferguson also makes sure he has worthy replacements at hand before letting the axe fall, something that has not been the case at Stamford Bridge this season.
The decision to leave players of substantial European pedigree on the substitutes’ bench would have made more sense had AVB had others at his disposal of proven talent or potential. But Raul Meireles is no Michael Essien and the decision to field the horribly out of sorts Florent Malouda ahead of the calming influence of Frank Lampard is simply baffling. Not playing Ashley Cole could be forgiven by the fact that the veteran of two Champions League finals is only just returning from injury but when the hapless Jose Bosingwa is played in his stead, one is left with the impression that even a half fit Cole would be of more use.
Other excuses given in the manager’s defence is that the players themselves are under-performing. But while those on the pitch must clearly take their share of the blame for the mediocrity being displayed on a weekly basis, one must also ask why that is the case. Defensive organisation is a vital component of a successful team and the likes of Jose Mourinho and Guus Hiddink both oversaw periods in Chelsea’s history when the back line seemed almost impenetrable. Those days are long gone with uncertainty and positional ignorance plaguing those charged with such duties. The absence of John Terry hardly helps but surely intensive work on the training ground could instil a natural understanding amongst the players whoever is selected in those positions. Is such work being done? It appears not.
A porous defence would not be so much of a problem if Chelsea’s forwards were as rampant as Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi were on Tuesday night but the goals have dried up at the top end of the pitch. That places extra emphasis on defensive shape and rigidity but AVB seems to be blind to that timeless footballing fact.
While some elements of the dressing room are said to have fallen out with the manager over such an approach – Cole is reported to have openly slammed his tactics – others are said to be behind him, most notably the faction of players from Iberia. However, that might not be all that surprising seeing as all of them – with the notable exception of the magical Juan Mata – have struggled badly this campaign. Fernando Torres’ troubles have been well documented; Raul Meireles is yet to show the quality expected of Chelsea side during the Roman Abramovich era; Paolo Ferreira and Hilario appear happy to pick up their pay cheques while going through the motions. Meanwhile the thought that Bosingwa commanded a fee of over £16m to prise him from FC Porto in 2008 now seems laughable. Having the support of those who should surely be nearing the exit door and will be desperate to hold on to their current employment status is hardly the kind of endorsement that AVB should be seeking or to which the owner should be paying any attention.
Chelsea are not out of the Champions League yet and Napoli’s fragile defence gives the Blues some hope for the second leg. But if Stamford Bridge is to witness another great night in the competition, AVB will have to swallow his pride and show a willingness to adapt if he is not to lose the tenuous faith of the club’s supporters and ultimately his job.