Chelsea are once again expected to be there or thereabouts when the silverware is handed out at the end of the Premier League season, but this is a presumption that ignores three key issues regarding the manager, the club’s out-of-form record signing and a distinct lack of creativity in midfield.
Fresh-faced former Porto boss Andre Villas-Boas may have arrived at Stamford Bridge in the summer clutching a trio of shiny trophies – the UEFA Europa League, Portuguese league title and Portuguese Cup – but his entire experience as a club manager consists of just that single glittering debut campaign at the Estadio do Dragao and half a season at Portuguese also-rans Academica de Coimbra. Odd though it is to say of a treble winner, the talented young manager remains unproven.
While Villas-Boas’ record-breaking achievements in his homeland are exceptional, the Premier League is a step up in terms of quality, pressure and scrutiny for the 33-year-old, who is untested outside the borders of Portugal – if we ignore a brief stint as manager of the British Virgin Islands that included a 14-1 aggregate World Cup defeat to Bermuda – and has little worldliness to draw upon should his masterplan misfire.
A man as meticulous as Villas-Boas is sure to have ‘Emergency Plan B’ already on the drawing board but the Portuguese knows his time to implement it will be limited if Chelsea stutter and has spoken of his need to make an instant impression on trigger-happy owner Roman Abramovich, who has already seen off six other managers since buying the club in 2003 – Claudio Ranieri, Jose Mourinho, Avram Grant, Phil Scolari, Guus Hiddink and Carlo Ancelotti.
“What you expect from this club is to be successful straight away,” Villas-Boas said at his unveiling in June. “There’s no running away from that challenge. That’s what I face. I’d be surprised to be kept on if I don’t win.”
As a young coach Villas-Boas must also quickly ensure he radiates authority in a dressing room full of mature and powerful players in order to convince them to adopt his methods. Chris Coleman, who was a Premier League manager at just 32-years-old with West London rivals Fulham, warned that he faced the very same issue when he took control at Craven Cottage. “If there is a hint of fear in his voice or in his body language, the Chelsea players will recognise that and jump on it,” he told the The Guardian.
Coleman opined that if the new manager’s methods bear instant results, as at Porto, his decisions and tactics will earn the trust of the players, but if his changes take time to provide positive results then a lack of experience as either a player or coach will be used as an excuse to make things even more difficult.
Abramovich has taken a £13.3 million punt on Villas-Boas and gambled that Jose Mourinho’s former scout will bring the same Midas touch as his one-time mentor, who made a similar switch from Porto to Stamford Bridge in 2004 and delivered the Premier League and League Cup double in his first season. However, it is equally possible that Villas-Boas could be confounded by the same issues that cost the vastly more experienced Ancelotti his job after finishing second last term, nine points behind champions Manchester United.
Despite waving increasing amounts of cash at Tottenham Hotspur in a desperate effort to sign Croatian playmaker Luka Modric to provide the creativity that was glaringly absent from midfield last season, Villas-Boas has much the same group of players that former AC Milan boss Ancelotti failed to cajole into champions.
The addition of 19-year-old Barcelona B midfielder Oriol Romeu and the emergence of Josh McEachran gives Chelsea alternative options to the pedestrian John Mikel Obi in the holding role, with the dynamic Michael Essien sidelined with yet another knee injury, but neither can provide the velvet touch required to supply a plethora of expensive strikers, which will be further augmented by the arrival of £18 million striker Romelu Lukaku from Anderlecht.
Of the current squad only Yossi Benayoun, who signed for the Blues from Liverpool in 2010 but was injured for the majority of last season, has the potential trickery to unlock opposing defences from the centre of the pitch and a further playmaker is clearly required at Stamford Bridge.
But perhaps key to Villas-Boas’ and Chelsea’s success this season will be coaxing Fernando Torres back to anywhere near his best. The Spanish international set a new record for the most prolific foreign goalscorer ever in a debut season when he arrived in the Premier League but has been woefully out of form since before the 2010 World Cup and subsequently since his £50 million move from Liverpool in January.
It could be even be argued that Ancelotti’s attempt to shoe-horn Torres into an already struggling Chelsea side last season further unsettled the team and hastened his own exit. Villa-Boas must find a solution to the same problem as Abramovich will be unwilling to see the Premier League’s record signing sitting on the bench.
The discouraging signs in pre-season are that the striker, who scored just one goal for the Blues last term, continues to struggle despite a summer of rest and recuperation. Yet the 27-year-old remains the kingmaker at Stamford Bridge.
Villas-Boas is keen to stick with the 4-3-3 formation that served him so well at Porto so it could well be possible to play Torres into form in an attacking trio, rather than as an isolated striker. In pre-season, Torres and Dider Drogba have both led the line with Daniel Sturridge, who has returned from a loan spell at Bolton with renewed swagger, Nicolas Anelka and Florent Malouda fighting it out for the wider berths.
Choosing between Drogba and Torres is certainly a headache worth having. And with the Chelsea’s back five of Petr Cech, Branislav Ivanovic, David Luiz, John Terry and Ashley Cole as strong as any in the Premier League, if Villa-Boas can get the best out of Torres he will certainly have a side more than capable of winning the title. The question is, can he?