At what point during Chelsea’s season did the difference between symptoms of discomfort and symptoms of illness become clear? For some time, they looked and felt the same. It was a bit like trying to figure out if you’re getting sick or just feeling a little crappy that afternoon.
Michael Ballack put it best in November. After Chelsea’s Champions League defeat to Bayern Leverkusen, the former Chelsea star’s experience pointed to the encroachment of something significant:
“We could feel it on the pitch every minute. They were not as strong as they normally are. Even when they went 1-0 up we could sense it. They didn’t have the strength, mentally, that they usually do. We knew before the game they were in a difficult moment, but it’s only when you play against a team on the pitch that you see what is really happening.”
Is the problem the squad’s ageing spine or the young manager’s flaws obscured by the unpredictable combination of success and inexperience?
Roman Abramovich’s hiring of the thirty-three year old Andre Villas-Boas indicated that the seafarer was tacking in a different direction. His strategy for immediate success and total control had been to spend money, but this has been replaced by a philosophical and measured approach presented by a new manager who has been handed an unusual degree of control.
Villas-Boas wasn’t hired to succeed where Carlo Ancelotti failed. No one is better than Ancelotti at maximizing a bag of established egos and decaying bodies. On these terms, there is no replacement. Expectations that Villas-Boas would lead a squad full of sediment to immediate success depend on the owner’s continued pathological impatience. A tepid half-season is not considered ground for dismissal under an owner who seems anything but ruthlessly impetuous.
Paying Villas-Boas’ £13m release from Porto is big spending, but it resembles strategic planning instead of impulsion, investment in human resources rather than purchase of expendable object. Villas-Boas has not been sacked because lowered expectation has been balanced with a vision of the future that defines the owner/manager relationship.
Even recent doubts raised about his capability to manage at this level have also been opportunities to reiterate support and belief in his potential. Abramovich’s silence and inaction tacitly agree.
The rarity of recent visits to training may be ominous or just a visit to see the guys, but it does highlight a distance that granted the manager a broad margin of error to accommodate the mistakes of measured decisions in difficult circumstances.
The season began by creating time and space for the epic death throes of José Mourinho’s great squad and the growing pains of a successful, but unproven manager. Yet Chelsea’s struggle cannot be reduced to questionable management of transition or age finally laying claim to the body; both are burrowing through the club, occasionally in sharp conflict. But Chelsea’s primary problem is age, and will remain so, unless the manager’s great promise fails to meet minimum expectation that most believe is Champions League qualification.
The Age Problem or, The So-Called Age Problem
Recent pre-seasons have raised questions about Chelsea’s age. Fair, but inconclusive, they remained suggestive and a little silly: Now that the players are three months older than they were in May, are they too old to win?
Age was elusive, in part because failures were pinned on inadequate managers. But the turn to the future has forced the club to address age indirectly, as if it was taboo. Age is a silent killer.
Ballack, with a little Chelsea still in him, believes that Chelsea still has what it takes, “There are enough big players, experienced players, still in that dressing room.”
After his game-winner against Wolverhampton, Frank Lampard cited the rediscovery of the old spirit—“the Chelsea of a few years ago” as Ashley Cole put it—that winning mentality forged by the club’s big players, “something we’ve prided ourselves on at Chelsea for many years, it won us titles…It’s something we can’t lose. If you do lose that then you can’t be at the top.”
Two days earlier, Villas-Boas offered something different after losing to mediocre Aston Villa, “Our squad is not good enough to win the league. Not this year…”
Incompatible perspectives both illustrate how age is talked about, a pattern going back to Torres’ “very slow” comment and Villas-Boas’ reply that proved as clever as his slumping striker at pointing to what is not being pointed to, “I don’t think it’s a perspective that the manager shares…I think we have competence, apart from the ‘age problem’, which for me is not a problem.”
There’s that age creep, lurking between what is lost when declared not lost, then glimpsed between the admission of a problem that is a so-called problem he doesn’t share, and again just below the surface of a squad that can’t win this year.
On arrival, Villas-Boas assured every player would be given a well-earned opportunity to prove future value. Terry would remain captain, “as long as he can perform to the utmost of his ability, as he has in the last six years”. The same standard applies to Lampard, Cole, Peter Cech, and Didier Drogba who have all been recognizably out of form this season.
Inevitably, discontent would follow the injustice of meritocracy, paving the way for the purging of the “disaffected” (the old?). Nicolas Anelka was first, excluded from the first team and later the Christmas party before departing on the ageing star’s route to an exotic football locale. In Shanghai, he can continue feeling important as he disappears from all that was familiar.
Anelka exemplifies Chelsea’s unique age problem, which is the emerging collective split between ego and performance. Backed by good results, the “big egos” remain alive and dynamic, free to move between titles and entitlements. But as performance drops and veers toward a cruel reality, belief in an out-sized self fights on from some calloused refuge, preserving exceptionalism by rejecting a reality it is losing touch with.
Anelka fled to the far-flung corner of the frontier like a shooting star. Compare Lampard, who stayed to fight against the twilight. He has been gracious, but the struggle with a substitute’s role is worn on his sleeve.
The tranquility of Villas-Boas’ first months allowed him to be philosophical and introduce himself through a worldview. The preseason was part retreat, focused on nurturing the “group dynamic”, of which he was part, preferring to be called the “Group One” instead of another “Special One”.
Equality and interdependence aimed to contain the destructive narcissism of ego that weakens cohesion. The group could self-govern, blunt sharp edges and fuse splintering, through a problem-solving strategy based on honest, open communication, which, when first tested, was betrayed by Villas-Boas’ authoritarian suspicion and unilateral interrogation of the truth in Fernando Torres’ interview, “We are going in-depth to regain the tape of that interview…We’ll see if things play exactly as they are in that interview.”
Torres spoke broadly about style and transition, hardly inflammatory, but Villas-Boas somehow heard “too old”. Strangely, he diffused criticism of the group with another indirect reference to age. Perhaps the interrogation aimed to test the viability of coded language that Villas-Boas also used to slowly confront age and dynastic end.
If owner and manager felt that the squad was too old, then why not make changes in the summer? Not for financial reasons, austerity is a choice for Abramovich. Perhaps it is his unflagging support, attachment, and protection of a group of senior players that have repaid him with three titles in seven years—the precedent to feed the hope of a glorious swan song. This senior group reached their prime together, solidified Chelsea’s global brand, but look to be fusing into one great dowager hump rather than the stuff of champions.
Why the double-talk? Coded language seems to function like an open secret, protecting the squad from criticism and loss of confidence while whispering the truth into their ears. If anything, Torres’ alleged crime was surrendering the advantage of ambiguity by disrupting the sensitive management of age within transition, and quite possibly dampening the irresistible hope of one last great run. Villas-Boas’ ambition could certainly embrace this challenge.
Reality can’t be dictated to the threatened and irascible without a fight. Villas-Boas has no intention to impose what he calls his “radical self”. Instead, the opportunity for each to prove future value was also designated as one to prove obsolescence, to self-interrogate and gradually reveal the reality from week to week as they slipped further behind table leaders.
Chelsea could accept the fitful growing pains of transition, but no longer the fitful twitching of life in the midst of slow decline. Six months in, one wonders how long the future of Chelsea will be fresh faces, a young seasoned manager (three months more seasoned than in May), and—a Champions League place?