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 His strategy for immediate success and total control had been to spend money, but this has been replaced by a philosophical and measured approach presented by a new manager who has been handed an unusual degree of control.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.