Sometimes you can see it coming a mile off. There was something heavy hanging in the air well before Chelsea’s match against Napoli on Tuesday night. A lethargic draw against Birmingham City in the FA Cup at the weekend had been the most obvious symptom of the malaise that has come to engulf Stamford Bridge of late, and even taking the lead in Naples wasn’t enough to spare Andres Villa Boas from another disastrous day at the office. The chaotic nature of the rest of his team’s performance that evening served only to further prove the points made by his growing band of dissenters.
The team selection, some say, is wrong. The tactics, some say, are wrong. He has lost, some say, the confidence of the team itself, and in particular its senior players. On Tuesday night, they probably both were and Chelsea were, as a result of this, put to the sword by an effervescent Napoli team which played to its attacking strengths and exploited their opponents weaknesses ruthlessly. Over the forty-eight hours or so since the match, the grumbling has given the impression of starting to turn into a more solid form of anger. Not so long ago, Chelsea were fighting on two cup fronts and for a Champions League place for next season.
From a distance, little has changed – an away match against a side from the Championship should remain an attainable win for any Premier League club, never mind one which won a domestic double just two years ago, whilst a two-nil win against Napoli in a could of weeks time would see them through to the quarter-finals of the Champions League – but the tone of Chelsea’s season has changed over the last few weeks, fed by a sense that the squad is starting to unravel, and Andres Villa Boas is a natural target for the inevitable criticism.
Roman Abramovich’s itchy trigger finger, of course, goes before him and rumours have been starting to circulate that the management of the club is starting to think twice about the wisdom of keeping Villa Boas at the club. But, for all the problems that the club has had this season, would it be wise to replace a manager – any manager – at this stage of the season? The list of available managers that could rescue their season is about as low as it can be at this time of year, and the potential instability that a change now could bring might even cause greater problems than it solves. The transfer window is already shut, so any new manager would be working with the squad that Andres built and, perhaps more significantly, the senior players that seem to still wield too much influence within the club. For all the clamour for change now, it may be more prudent to wait until the end of this season before making any changes.
Our culture of instant gratification, however, doesn’t allow for this. It’s a common enough theme, but the culture of hiring manager and firing them at the first sign of any problems remains at its sharpest at Chelsea, where rumours of the overbearing influence of senior players continues to add another layer to the pressure of the media and the weight of expectation brought about by a decade of success that has been otherwise unparalleled in the entire history of the club. In spite of the sense of decline that has started to grow around the current team over the last couple of seasons or so, though Chelsea, however, remains what it has been for this last decade or so – one of the top five or six clubs in the Premier League, and one of the top ten or twenty in Europe.
The gap between the biggest Premier League clubs and the chasing back has certainly narrowed over the last couple of years, but talk of “the decline and fall of Roman’s empire” remains somewhat overstated and the club remains intent on increasing its commercial revenue as a defence against the forthcoming UEFA Financial Fair Play regulations through seeking a move away from Stamford Bridge, although their handling of the Chelsea Pitch Owners over this matter last year could have been better. With the club moving away from its over-reliance on Abramovich’s largesse, there doesn’t seem to be any reason for Chelsea supporters to be panicking at present, although a loss of Champions League revenue should they not qualify for it next year will obviously hurt. The cost of firing a manager just months into his contract, however, will also be high, as will the cost of bringing in a replacement of the calibre that would be expected for a club like Chelsea.
In our pre-season Premier League previews, written in August, we noted that, “The biggest single question facing the club over the next few months or so, however, is that of the extent to which Andres Villa-Boas will be allowed to build a club in his image in the same way that Mourinho was.” On the basis of what we understand to have been going on at Chelsea FC this season, this has not been allowed to happen. Perhaps Villa Boas is just too young for this position. Perhaps he is tactically naive. The ultimate responsibility for his acquisition as manager last summer, however, lies with Ron Gourlay and Roman Abramovich, and it is starting to feel as if Villa Boas never had a chance at Chelsea and that it is now a matter of if rather than when he leaves the club. What is perhaps the most concerning aspect of what has been going on at Stamford Bridge is the extent to which many people seem not have learned from the past – and we all know what they are destined to do.
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