When a team is described as being in transition, it means they stink, but we kind of understand why. Chelsea were in transition for most of last season. It was generally accepted that Chelsea had relied on their established stars for too long; phasing them out was a problem they would have to confront if they wanted to challenge for silverware again. Andre Villas-Boas was the exciting choice to lead the transition – a young, ambitious and modern manager. They also recruited new players to provide Chelsea’s play with more dynamism and fluidity.
Then came the spluttering form, the increasingly desperate performances, and the rapidly evaporating confidence in the new manager’s plan. Andre Villas-Boas could not get Chelsea playing with any purpose. They played his formation, they tried a shorter passing game, but in doing so they looked as though they had handicapped themselves, and revealed their soft-spot to opponents.
When Villas-Boas was put out of his misery, Chelsea once again turned to their most trusted players, but let’s not go over that again. In short, it was a pretty disastrous spell, but not a career ending one. Villas-Boas has landed a good job at Tottenham, and now Spurs are in transition. It was inevitable that they would lose Luka Modric this summer, as well as several peripheral members of the first team squad accumulated under Harry Redknapp. Villas-Boas was expected to make signings, and although they’ve been a little slow out of the blocks, it looks as though Daniel Levy will be writing a few cheques this week. But, the questions about Villas-Boas aren’t about player recruitment, they’re about his ability to nurture a winning core.
A young manager is a risky appointment for any club, because they haven’t been scarred enough to see problems coming and know how to deal with them. The exceptions to this rule are extremely rare – there aren’t many like Jose Mourinho. Villas-Boas was very successful during a very brief spell in charge of FC Porto. But, success of this kind can raise as many questions as answers. Porto are a relentlessly successful club, so deducing how much to attribute to Villas-Boas’ personal ability is always going to be highly subjective.
During his time at Chelsea, you could argue he was willing to take difficult decisions in order to try and realise his vision on the pitch. This indicates a toughness that we associate with all the most successful managers. But, management isn’t just about being a tough guy, hence why John Sitton was never interviewed for a Premier League job.
Villas-Boas was ultimately responsible for managing the transition he started, with as little disruption as possible. That sentence might sound like middle-manager bullshit, but it means he should have been aware of other factors that go beyond tactics, like the impact of losing the support of Chelsea’s most influential players. If he was trying to force them out, he did a lousy job. If he was trying to show them who was boss, they showed him.
All managers will make mistakes, especially when they’re young and inexperienced. Providing he has some humility, you would expect Villas-Boas to have learned plenty from his time at Chelsea. And yet, already at Tottenham, there are familiar issues emerging. Most bizarrely of all, he appears determined to force the exit of Michael Dawson. This doesn’t make any sense. If Dawson is the kind of dominating influence that Villas-Boas had difficulty with at Chelsea, he disguises it well. And, although you don’t hear many voices claiming Dawson to be world class, he is arguably Tottenham’s best centre-back, certainly with more to offer at this stage of his career than William Gallas, and more experienced than Younes Kaboul and the newly acquired Jan Vertonghen.
Does Villas-Boas have to clear out more first teamers before bringing new ones in? If not, losing Dawson, and possibly Jermain Defoe, before any new recruits have proven their worth seems like an unnecessary risk to take.
Those who believe in Villas-Boas’ talent will argue that Roberto Di-Matteo has been able to benefit from his spade work at Chelsea. He dragged a fading force reluctantly towards change, but was too naive to realise the consequences of his actions before it was too late. Perhaps this is right, and he was set up to fail by forces within Chelsea who perceived a threat to their status.
Admittedly, it is ridiculously early in the season to start drawing conclusions, but the alternative theory – that Villas-Boas is too arrogant to identify any flaws on his part – is hard to ignore. We’ll know the answer in about eight months time. When things went wrong at Chelsea, they had enough of a core to dig them out of a hole; Spurs won’t have that luxury.