This prescient piece first appeared on SB Nation at the end of November.
When Jose Mourinho joined Chelsea from FC Porto in the summer of 2004, Ricardo Carvalho and Paolo Ferreira went with him. When Luis Felipe Scolari took over from Avram Grant after leading Portugal at Euro 2008, he was joined in West London by the Portuguese internationals Deco and Jose Bosingwa.
‘Big Phil’s time at Chelsea was, of course, considerably less decorated (and much shorter) than ‘The Special One’s, but it wasn’t the unmitigated disaster it is generally remembered as being either. After 12 league games, Scolari’s Chelsea had dropped seven points; after the same number of fixtures, Villas-Boas’s side have dropped 14. Which means that, at this stage, Villas-Boas is (by some distance) the least successful of Chelsea’s Iberian managers.
When considered in the context of the above, Villas-Boas’ current travails are logical (perhaps even unavoidable). Of course the former Porto boss spent a deal of money in the summer but none of it went on any of his actual players. Both Mourinho and Scolari had the benefit of this: Mourinho brought in two intelligent but fierce defenders already assimilated to his compact defensive system while Scolari arrived with a Brazilian style full-back and an actually Brazillian number 10 both whom were familiar with his Europeanized style of pragmatic samba football. Mourinho and Scolari were thus able to begin their jobs with 20% of their outfield players already familiar with their tactical systems. Villas-Boas (as much as Juan Mata or Oriol Romeu may look like ‘his type of player’) has had no such head start. Consequently, every single one of his players, and it is most notable with the defenders, has had to adapt to a new system and has been made to look a bit silly as a result.
It is because of this that Hanson and Lawrenson have harped away at the futility of Chelsea’s high backline. When John Terry falls over near the halfway line and has to chase Robin van Persie back towards his own goal then the high line does look absurd – but it is only half the problem (that it appears as more than this is a consequence of the Match of the Day highlights model and the individual prejudices of its pundits). The other half of the problem is the players. It is hard to think of a pair of centrebacks less suited to this type of defending than Terry and David Luiz. Terry, one of the finest penalty box defenders in the world over the last ten years, is too slow to press that high up. Luiz, a fine and exciting footballer, lacks, at least at this stage of his career, the self-control to manage himself in such high-risk/high-reward system.
But defenders’ pushing up is not a bad thing in itself. In fact, Villas-Boas’ success at Porto depended, in significant part, on the defence condensing the space in which opponents could operate. This is similar to the feted ‘pressing game’ of Barcelona and operates in accordance with Arrigo Sacchi’s principle that there should never be more than 40 yards between defence and attack.
It is not, then, a radical tactical innovation. Heck, Arsenal even do it (though Wenger – regarded as something of a tactical troglodyte in some circles – tends to justify it in quite English terms: I tell Song to play higher up the pitch so he can win the ball closer to the opponents’ goal). Nor, given that he’s only been a manager for two seasons for two clubs both of whom have played this system, is it surprising that he’s adopted it.
All of which, makes it the more remarkable that Villas-Boas came in without the revolutionary insurance of players already comfortable with his system. Chelsea, having seen the benefits of such acquisitions for the previous Portuguese, really should have ensured that a manager for whom (and for whose backroom team) they reputedly paid around fifteen million pounds was provided with some kind of on-pitch, tactical safety net.
That they didn’t, though, is typical of the West London club. Routinely described as a ‘revolving door’, Chelsea operate a cyclical recruitment policy alternating between rev and ev-olutionary managers. Mourinho, the radical, was replaced by safe-hands Grant. He was supplanted by the exotic World Cup winner Scolari, who in turn gave way to the fixer Hiddink. Ancelotti, really, had two spells at Chelsea. For the first, in 2009-2010, he was perfectly qualified: getting the best out of an aging squad had been his MO at Milan for years, doing the same at Chelsea was straightforward. Last season, the job changed. It became (once again) a rejuvenation brief for which Ancelotti was never qualified. Villas-Boas is, and was a logical appointment for that reason.
The logic evident in Villas-Boas’ recruitment has not, though, extended into the transfer market and the Portuguese has, as a result, to convert an entire squad. That this squad contains the likes of Terry (and Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Peter Cech, etc) only makes his job more difficult. Chelsea have a choice. The right option at this stage would be to call time on Mourinho’s generation and replace the core of his team with one of Villas-Boas’ choosing. History suggests, though, that the alternative path will be taken and that Guus Hiddink will be back in January to stoke the embers of a fire that should have been allowed to go out.
For a little bit more on Villas Boas’ temporary replacement, see Gavin’s piece on then West Bromwich Albion manager Roberto di Mateo.