Settling into football management at any level is not easy for anybody, least of all a 34-year old who is attempting to steer one of the world’s wealthiest clubs back to the top of both domestic and European competitions. Yet this is the charge for Andre Villas-Boas at Chelsea, with the wealth of the Roman Empire behind him. His outburst against Gary Neville, the former Manchester United defender and current pundit with England’s Sky Sports, betrayed the strain that the job is really taking on Portuguese manager.
Neville had criticised David Luiz, the Chelsea centre-back, saying he had played like a 10-year old on a PlayStation was controlling him in a recent match. An amusing simile to most and nothing more, from a man who is fast gaining a reputation as a balanced and intelligent pundit from fellow observers of the game (somewhat surprising considering his parochial passion for the red half of Manchester during his playing career) – yet Villas-Boas took exception to his words, and made a point of telling the media that he thought Neville unprofessional and overly disparaging to his player. This, meanwhile, came just a day after Villas-Boas roundly accused the British press of treating Chelsea differently to other big clubs, and being far too harsh to a team that is still alive in the Champions League, and (for the moment) still in the domestic title race.
And thus his mistake: rather than easing the pressure on the west London club, he has signposted the toll that the English game is taking on him less than halfway through his debut season. Other managers have clashed with the media; one only has to watch pre-match press conferences involving, say, Sir Alex Ferguson or Arsene Wenger, to know that the relationship between journalist and football club is rarely an entirely happy one. But to single out one pundit (Neville) and to claim a conspiracy against his club smacks of tensions and anxieties not yet banished by the comfortable win over Valencia in mid-week.
Villas-Boas endeavours to have Chelsea playing an attractive brand of football. Too frequently this season, however, his sideline antics (see: the nervous squat as the team withstands pressure, followed by the ecstatic jump and flailing of limbs whenever a goal-scoring opportunity arises) have proved better entertainment than what is being served up on the pitch.
John Terry has been increasingly error-prone, and the distasteful racial vilification accusations against him are the latest in a long line of embarrassing off-field incidents for the club captain. Meanwhile, Frank Lampard’s star is clearly fading, with substitutions and bench appearances becoming the norm for a member of England’s so-called “golden generation”. Didier Drogba’s goal scoring feats against Valencia have not changed the fact that he looks a good bet to be leaving the club in the off-season. These are just the some of the issues that Villas Boas has been grappling to deal with so far in his tenure.
Adding to the questions posed by the aforementioned players (and others) is the worrying precedent set by the Abramovich administration in dealing swift justice to previous managers who have not brought home the required results. The most recent example, Carlo Ancellotti, will certainly weigh heavy on the Portuguese’s mind: the Italian was sent packing just a season after delivering a historic double to Stamford Bridge. It was questionable, at best, of Abramovich to force that change, and it is Villas-Boas who has to deal with those memories on a daily basis as he tries to forge his own legacy for Chelsea.
Winning matches, ultimately, banishes all self-doubt, all anxieties. A confident performance at home against the runaway league leaders Manchester City will boost Villas-Boas’ morale and halt any more comparisons from ex-players to certain video game consoles. But one thing is for certain: taking to the press to admonish those comparisons does nothing to promote an image of a stable, happy club purposefully going about its business. If the inconsistent football from Chelsea continues, one must doubt whether Villas-Boas will still be there to decry the many faces of the English media at this stage next season.