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Andre Villas-Boas: A Case Study In How Not to Lead

Photo by Gilyo

As a Chelsea fan, I woke to the best news of 2012 on Sunday when I read on Facebook that Chelsea had announced, only a few minutes earlier, Andre Villa-Boas’s departure and Roberto Di Matteo’s appointment as interim manager.

Watching Chelsea’s loss to West Brom on Saturday, I had suggested the very same change myself. I’m thankful that the Chelsea hierarchy came to its senses and made the change now rather than wait until Tuesday’s FA Cup replay with Birmingham or the following week’s second leg Champions League match against Napoli.

I’m aware that there were a few Chelsea supporters, players, and employees, as well as television commentators and news journalists, who as late as this week believed AVB deserved more time, but I have no idea what those people were thinking. Even from Boston, MA, a distance of more than 3,200 miles from London, I could see that Andre Villas-Boas was nothing more than an abject lesson in how not to lead.

And if the Chelsea hierarchy want to show some leadership in response, they’ll have to raise their hands and admit they made a very significant error in judgment by bringing AVB in and by keeping him in the manager’s seat as long as they did.

While there’s little question that Chelsea could benefit tremendously from stable management, it has been painfully obvious to a growing number of Chelsea fans for many months that Roman Abramovich, Bruce Buck and Ron Gourlay would be making a huge mistake in rewarding AVB’s underperformance with more time simply because the trigger finger may have been too itchy in the past.

Personally, I thought Ancelotti was a terrific manager, and the team would be far better off today, I believe, if he’d been permitted to come back for a third season. However tepid the team’s results in Ancelotti’s second season (they still managed second place in the Premier League, a whisker ahead of Man City), Ancelotti’s leadership and communication were always calm and assured, and he appeared to be much admired by the players.

In two seasons at Chelsea, I never heard Ancelotti blame a result on a referee. But when Chelsea chalked up a loss in only the sixth game of this season, after an away match at Manchester United, AVB immediately pointed a finger of blame at the referees when an examination of his own tactics – the much discussed high defensive line – might have proved a more useful place to draw lessons.

But the catalog of AVB’s mistakes is voluminous – poor team selections, mind-boggling substitutions, an immaturity when dealing with the press, pride in place of common sense, humiliating players who’d given much to the club and delighted fans for years, spending millions on players who would earn only a few minutes playing time, loaning the most promising young talent away, talking down his own players in the foreign press, and – worst of all in my opinion – pitting the players against one another. Witness David Luiz recently characterizing Frank Lampard as a mere “employee” of the club.

Recall also the January 2 match away at Wolves when, after Ramires’ 54th minute goal, the team’s Brazilian and Portuguese quartet — Ramires, Luiz, Bosingwa and Meireles — ran to AVB to celebrate, whereas when Frank Lampard scored the match winner in the 88th minute, he, Fernando Torres, and others celebrated in the far corner of the field without a glance in AVB’s direction.

More recently, AVB claimed that he didn’t need the players to back his “project” (which largely seemed to be oriented around disassembling and weakening the team), only the owner needed to back him. Today he must realize that his brand of leadership deserved support from no one.

The Chelsea hierarchy have made another expensive error, without question – but it is far better to endure that expense now rather than watch the costs mount with time, particularly if the team face the real possibility of missing out on Europe next season. To allow the risks to mount would be a case of throwing good money after bad, and that’s both bad business and bad leadership in its own right. And while the squad’s readiness to face Birmingham in the FA Cup and Napoli in the Champions League is far from assured, the team has in the past demonstrated a capacity to improve through these interim periods – as they did under Guus Hiddink.

Let’s allow Di Matteo a chance to see out the season and, hopefully, earn Chelsea a Champions League spot for next season – and perhaps even a chance at the FA Cup title. If the summer brings a Pep Guardiola or – it is conceivable? – a return of Jose Mourinho, or some other experienced and capable manager, terrific. What matters most at the moment, though, is that the players close the book on the last eight months and consider the immediate future – namely, the opportunity to make themselves and their fans proud again.

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  1. Nathan

    March 5, 2012 at 9:32 pm

    How do you expect to engage your reader when you write in the first person? No one cares about some guy’s opinion. When you personalize your article you give it far less gravitas. I stopped reading after the first sentence and I am not alone!

  2. scrumper

    March 5, 2012 at 8:35 pm

    Will everybody stop whittering on about “losing the dressing (changing, locker) room. It is ridiculous nonsense dreamed up by the media. He was way out of his depth. Abramovich knows as much about he was appointed because he won a European Trophy that carries all the glamour of winning the Albanian First Division and he occasionally stuffed Benfica 2 or 3 nil. Poor old teen wolf.

    Chelsea would do well to consider Martin Jol.

  3. Steven Ruiz

    March 5, 2012 at 12:50 pm

    Like Roman, Peter Stokes just doesn’t get it. Chelsea have to blow it up in order to rebuild–AVB understood this and was willing to throw a year away in order to do so. All of these senior players have to go, which AVB was willing to do. In just 8 months he has improved Chelsea’s future by leaps and bounds: He brought in Mata, gave Sturridge playing time, got a replacement for Drogba in Lukaku, and solidified the midfield with Romeu. It’s not his fault he inherited an uncreative midfield and strikers that can’t score.

    Because of the instability, no Chelsea manager in the past has been able to think of the future. That is until AVB, who clearly had his mind on the future: he bought young in the summer and didn’t panic buy in the winter to try to save his job.

    He had what was best for the club in mind–Lampard and the other senior players only cared about themselves.

    Sorry but it’s not 2005 anymore: Lampard, Terry and Drogba have to go. No one needs a midfielder who cannot create or help in defense, no one needs a defender who can’t keep up up with the other team’s attack, and no one needs a striker who barely scores.

    It’s because of this impatience that years like this are necessary, and now by firing AVB Chelsea have just restarted the process.

    Roman better bring in Mourinho so he can clean house like AVB planned on doing. It may lead to a bad season, but it’s worth it.

  4. raok

    March 5, 2012 at 11:29 am

    God knows what happens when roman loses interest in cfc…. With their massive debt they will be doomed.. They don’t even have a new stadium, which takes approximately 600 million to build. Who’s gonna take that risk?? Whoever is incharge of the club next season faces a huge task, ageing sqaud, and mental owner and he can’t even spend huge Because of the ffp… It will be interesting couple of seasons for the neutrals….

  5. RomaChelsea-American

    March 5, 2012 at 11:00 am

    Anyone else think the 2012 American Tour have something to do with this firing?

    Cynically Roman has to back the old guard as we American EPL groupies (sarcasm) are not going to pay to see Sturridge, Meireles or Luiz.

    Cole, Lampard, Terry & Cech will sell some tickets for the US tour, 2012/2013 will be a massive season of suck (I’m talking being booted out of Europa suck) and then Roman will realize (hopefully) that he needs stable, confident leadership (again)

    • CTBlues

      March 5, 2012 at 12:33 pm

      All those guys you said will be playing for their national teams in July.

  6. Todd

    March 5, 2012 at 10:44 am

    This article is hilarious. The leadership problem is up top with the chairmen; AVB was a puppet and any one who would have entered into that manager’s chair would have been sliced and diced. When you have an oligarch leader with a “death trail” the club is unstable. Chelsea’s billions has spent more on managers in the last 5 years than most clubs spend in the transfer market or in wages. Lack of dressing room stability is only highlighted by the fact that any manager who comes in to Chelsea is a puppet with little resource that allows the ability to build for the future. NO youth academy of note, NO scouting network of note…there game is spend money on big players and hope the billions do not run out and the fair play laws do not govern their game. As the big time players got older and there was little in the system to replace them, they had to buy younger big time players. This was always a chemistry experiment destined to explode. There is no idea of sustainable growth within the Chelsea oligarchy, it is their downfall and I do not believe it is turning around any time soon.

  7. CTBlues

    March 5, 2012 at 8:44 am

    Man imagin where the Pats would be if they had fired Bellechk before they got lucky and Bledso got hurt?

  8. David Lulz

    March 5, 2012 at 1:12 am

    Sounds like a child writing why he dislikes his school teacher.

  9. Matt

    March 4, 2012 at 11:53 pm

    When Mourinho reshaped the team the first time, Roman was all for it. Imagine if he hadn’t been as ridiculously successful in his first season as he was (winning the Prem and the Carling Cup, while making the Champions League Semis). Would Roman have sacked him too?

    Now I don’t think that AVB is on the same level as Jose, but I still believe that he has the potential to have elite status one day.

    Anyone who thinks Pep will do any better is mental. When he took charge at Barca, he started pushing for the youth players he worked with in the previous years (ie Pedro) and sent some of the more senior squad players away (either through transfers or a drastic decrease in pt). As we have all seen over the past 7 or so months, the old guard isn’t going to warm to a youth movement, even if it is through purchasing young, growing stars.

    Chelsea clearly still have the financial backing that could turn this thing around next year. But they would have to cut ties with some of the squad first. But after this fiasco, I’m not sure how many teams will want to bring players in who have visibly torpedoed a club.

  10. Jonn

    March 4, 2012 at 9:00 pm

    If anyone didn’t believe it, John Terry supported AVB all the way and went against the changing room in doing so (Duncan Castles reporting.)

    @ Jamie: Take your ridiculous troll-like rhetoric somewhere else. The “Chelsea have no history” argument is both futile and false. I would suggest several top books for you to brush up on that fact, but given your petty, childish like comments, it’d be a waste of time to assume you would read anything than the paper cartoons.

  11. gbewing

    March 4, 2012 at 8:06 pm

    Plenty of blame to go around but AVB was hired to transition an aging team yet had to play with the old guard players ? How was that ever going to work unless he’s told – “do what you can this season with the players you and have and slow the transition if you need to”

    The players as indicated in previous posts come off as children who expect entitlements they haven’t earned,
    yet who’s idea was it to bring in Torres? not AVB

    AVB also gets a hefty dose of blame for his continual statements suggesting he wasn’t ready for this move- from orders for players to come to him after goals to celebrate to the dumb comment about he didn’t need players backing just owners- the maturity of a Fergy comes to mind as an asset he didn’t have.

    Ultimately though the failure of Chelsea is management- this firing is proof they have badly managed coming into this season.

  12. Fernando

    March 4, 2012 at 6:58 pm

    As a Chelsea supporter I find this particular article to be quite shocking in its lack of insight.

    The issue here is that the senior players of this squad have ensured that Jose Mourinho, Luiz Felipe Scolari, Carlo Ancelotti and now AVB have been fired from CFC. These players quit on their manager. Their reward should not be to have another chance with the next manager of Chelsea Football Club.

    Frank Lampard instead of showing leadership and working with the manager decided it was in HIS best interests to go against the manager. He is not the only senior player to behave in this way.

    The board of CFC have once again shown how out of their depth they are by backing the players once again.

  13. Dominic

    March 4, 2012 at 5:49 pm

    @jamie, I agree with everything you said.

    “The high ranking players and your owner are”. – Key point. I followed Villas Boas short stint at Chelsea, and before Chelsea hired him, I was and still am of the opinion that he is a top manager.

    As I am not a Chelsea fan, I am delighted Chelsea sacked him. It will do more harm to Chelsea than it will to boas.

    It was unfortunate for AVB, he was left with a squad of geriatric drama queens. i.e. Terry, Cole etc.

    He needed to have his own squad. sacking him was crazy. As long as Roman remains owner I am delighted to know Chelsea will never become a dominant force with a Legacy like Liverpool, United and the other big clubs of Europe.

    Roman has spent well over a Billion since taking over and where are chelsea now? Rock bottom. They have a unsustainable business plan which keeps getting executed under roman, though it proves to be fruitless time and again.

    I have the utmost respect for AVB, and Chelsea’s problems in my opinion lie with the owner and senior playing staff.

    But like I said, as i’m not a Chelsea fan I am delighted they sacked AVB, as it puts them back more and writes them of for contending for anything this season.

    I wonder what Torres is thinking now? He couldn’t wait for the rebuilding period at LFC… oops!

  14. Jon

    March 4, 2012 at 5:47 pm

    The theory that AVB’s leadership methods are flawed sound good, until you take into account that this exact same thing has happened to the previous two permanent managers at Chelsea, two managers with lots of skins on the wall before coming to Chelsea. When this kind of thing keeps happening, everyone involved has to take some responsibility, from the players to the boardroom to the ownership. The culture at Chelsea never seems to put any blame on the players for failing to perform. Chelsea just fire the manager, and wait for it to happen again. At some point, you have to stand behind the manager and let him build a team.

    I agree that Ancelotti never should have been fired. But I don’t agree the remedy is to fire his successor before he even plays out a full season.

  15. Guy

    March 4, 2012 at 5:20 pm

    So, Di Matteo’s in charge, right? So, now all those clowns in the locker room will fall in line… long as Roberto does what they tell him. Uh oh. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

  16. jamie

    March 4, 2012 at 5:17 pm

    AVB wasn’t the problem. The high ranking players and your owner are. !st of all Ancelloti should never had been fired but your owner is a mental. AVB was brought in for the future and make Chelsea a dominate team for the upcoming years. The older players didn’t like how he was going youthful and new faces. They retaliated and many think that when AVB did give them a chance to play they purposely played like crap to lose so AVB would get the boot. Those players are the most selfish in football in my opinion. They somehow think that if they get more playing time at their old age in a sport that is for the young that Chelsea would win the treble. I bet that Lampard and Terry truly believe that they are good enough to win the treble. Sorry to break it to them but they won’t. Chelsea is gonna miss the Champions League next year and the merry go round of coaches will continue. Any smart person would never take the job with that insane owner in charge. Your a club with no history and with your owner you will continue to be one. Too bad that your owner is a double edged sword. He is the reason why your team is like this but also the reason for its success with all the cash spent. Chelsea is basically a hopeless place because with or without Roman you guys are still never gonna win the UCL.

    • Fernando

      March 4, 2012 at 6:53 pm

      How old are you 12?

      • jamie

        March 4, 2012 at 9:12 pm

        No if I were than I would most likely be a plastic Chelsea fan.

        • Fernando

          March 5, 2012 at 12:06 am

          Are you sure b/c your avatar is from Cars.

          Tell me, who do you support?

  17. Kevin

    March 4, 2012 at 4:55 pm

    I’m not a Chelsea fan but from an outsider point of view no matter what manager Chelsea get he’s going to have problems with the large egos of the players. This is not the first time it has happened at the Bridge and it wont be the last. You have a trigger happy owner and players that will sook on anything they don’t get their way, the manager is on a hiding to nothing. Look I hate Utd but look what stability has got them. Chelsea will never be in that class because managers aren’t given the support they deserve.

  18. raok

    March 4, 2012 at 4:32 pm


  19. raok

    March 4, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    I can here terry and Lampard on the phone giggling like girls….. F#@kin parasites..

  20. Matthew Reed

    March 4, 2012 at 4:25 pm

    Brien is spot on, mostly, in my opinion. The players who rule what had been a notorious dressing room just became even more set in as they won a political battle yet again. The real failure, as pointed out in the original post was the decision to bring Villas-Boas on in the first place. If it was indeed management’s wish to transition the generation, then they picked the absolute worst candidate possible, one without any real experience with a big club or credibility with the players. Villas-Boas obviously played his hand all wrong, choosing revolution over evolution. Without naivety, It is hardly surprising considering the coach was just about the same age as the senior players with none of their experience.

    In the end, the roster is older, the management isn’t any closer to having a long term plan and worse of all, another great English team is mired in disapointment. I do support another club but I am a fan of this league and it is at its best when there are multiple top class teams. It hurts the league as a whole when a big team comes up small as Chelsea have this year.

    • jamie

      March 4, 2012 at 5:23 pm

      Lets face it Porto is a bigger club than Chelsea. They have 2 Champions league Trophies and actually have a history of winning league titles from their creation.

      • Matthew Reed

        March 4, 2012 at 5:30 pm

        o.k. fair enough, can’t argue that. I’ll then just adjust my point to state that Villas-Boas had less experience in general than the players and leave out the big club part.

      • Fernando

        March 4, 2012 at 7:00 pm

        If Porto is such a big club how have Chelsea gotten two of their managers to come to England?

        • jamie

          March 4, 2012 at 7:14 pm

          Money talks Fernando. Porto is a club that basically buys cheap and sells high. Historically Porto just won League titles while Benfica were the European Cup big boys from Portugal. The fanbase for Benfica grew from that being one of the biggest on Earth. Porto was in Benfica’s shadow until these past decades where Porto began winning Champions League Trophies and Uefa Cups while Benifca could only watch. Porto still has a small fan base compared to Benfica even though Porto is technically the best club ever in Portugal by Continental trophies even though Benfica has more league titles but that will probably change in the next 10 years. In conclusion Porto does not have the money to pay AVB what Chelsea could, Porto is like the 3rd richest club behind Benfica and Sporting in Portugal. Just sayingt that having money doesn’t mean much because Porto has shown they are a big club without it while Chelsea are a small club with it.

          • Fernando

            March 4, 2012 at 7:33 pm

            Your claim for Porto is to say how big Benfica is? That makes no sense. Porto have the same number of European Cups as Benfica so historically they’re both the same in that regard.

            A big club sometimes means not selling your best players which is what Porto does a lot.

          • jamie

            March 4, 2012 at 9:11 pm

            Porto has more European trophys than Benfica which includes the European cup, uefa cup, europa league. Being a big club has nothing to do with selling your “best” players. It has to do with what you are winning as a team. Porto can be considered a feeder club yes but a feeder club that actually does better than the buying clubs in competitions.

  21. Matt

    March 4, 2012 at 4:18 pm

    So you’re excited about the idea of a man leading your team that couldn’t successfully lead the massive conglomerate that is West Bromwich Albion. Ha. Chelsea need to hire someone who can handle a club of this size. If Rafa really wants the post, I think it would be best to give it to him now. The thought of Jose returning is laughable. There is no chance he comes back to “Big Boss”.

    • jamie

      March 4, 2012 at 5:21 pm

      It would be a HUGE step down too for Mourinho to go from arguably the most prestigious club on Earth to a club with no history other than the one he created himself before Roman acted like a spoiled brat.

      • Drew

        March 5, 2012 at 10:10 am

        no history? Chelsea is not some expansion club from the 90’s

        • daS

          March 5, 2012 at 10:50 pm

          neither is it a club with >20 major trophies dating back as far as anyone can remember…

          • Drew

            March 6, 2012 at 12:12 pm

            True, but I never claimed they were that club. The Boston Red Sox have only won a handful of times but you would be an idiot to suggest that they have no history. History is about success and failure. Chelsea has a great history. From the 1971 Cup Winner’s Cup win over Real Madrid to the days in division two. The team has history, but most people are just too ignorant to admit it.

  22. Brien

    March 4, 2012 at 4:04 pm

    Exactly – you are in Boston and have little connection to the stalwarts of the stands that are there singing week in, week out.

    It is easy to see that although AVB had lost the changing room, the players never gave him opportunity to win it. Alas, another manager with another promising project has been sacked because the players did not like being told the facts: they are getting on in the years, are not as good or hungry as they once were, and it was time for a change.

    Many, many Chelsea supporters with a dose of healthy reality see this situation for what it is. Unfortunately, you have been blinded by the facts. Our interim manager, a club legend, is now helming our battle for financial futures and a turning point in the recent Roman history. The man who failed at ironically the club who defeated us at the weekend controls our destiny in two cup competitions and heading into a brutal month of fixtures.

    Welcome news of 2012? Congratulations. Start sizing up your sky blue kit for next season – this year’s challenges can hardly be swept aside by failing to commit yet again to a much needed and much postponed rebuilding period.

    • Pacific Blue

      March 5, 2012 at 12:04 am

      Brien, what does distance have to do with anything? You don’t have to be in the stands to see AVB had lost (or never had) the changing room. And in football that never ends well. I am a life-long Blue (with credentials pre-dating Kerry Dixon et al) who served my time in Div 2 and is now living across “the pond” and I can also see exactly what Peter sees. Good riddance.

      • Brien

        March 5, 2012 at 7:40 pm

        Were you there in the Clock End all those years ago? Have you have had the pulse of that day described to you by someone who wasn’t there?

        Peter’s got no pulse check on the reality of the supporters in the stands. I’m not going to fling mud and get into the gloryhunter argument but fact is, if you’re not there week in, week out, you’ve got a differing reality. Peter is not seeing what the majority of Chelsea supporters are seeing right now.

      • Peter Stokes

        March 5, 2012 at 8:12 pm

        I appreciate everyone’s comments, and I certainly agree that changing managers every season or two is no way to lay a foundation upon which the future success of a great club can be effectively built – a point I thought I’d acknowledged in the course of the article. I am surprised, though, at the extent to which readers interpret AVB’s firing to be the result of “player power.” I think this is overstated and seems to be largely the opinion not of Chelsea fans but of readers who support other clubs.

        Perhaps I should have made this point more explicitly in my article, but I don’t only think AVB was a horrible manager for Chelsea – based on the evidence of the past eight months, he’s a horrible manager period. And a truly terrible leader. What strikes me about the situation is AVB’s obliviousness to his own staggeringly poor leadership. He dug his own grave, week in, week out. Ask Jamie Redknapp for his thoughts. There’s no question AVB had great success at Porto, just as there’s no question he did substantial damage to Chelsea. I cannot imagine any situation – whether in soccer, business, or running a family – in which it would be better to keep a destructive and ineffective leader in place for the sake of continuity. The irony of the situation is that in an effort to calm the itchy trigger finger of the club’s owner, the club leadership kept AVB on board well after he proved himself to be the weakest and least effective manager of the Abramovich era.

        Certainly other factors contributed to the degree of difficulty AVB faced, and it’s understandable that some observers offer him sympathy. But the evidence is quite persuasive to my mind that his own lack of leadership – an ability to communicate a coherent vision, a capacity to inspire his players, a toughness of mind in the face of criticism – brought about this result.

        For me, this whole episode underscores a very important facet of the game – players and managers and owners come and go. The club really belongs to the fans. They outlast everyone. For my part, I get in the stands and sing as often as a 3,200 mile commute allows. Generally three or four times a season. Cheers.

    • dbm

      March 6, 2012 at 8:32 am

      What a snarky reply Brien. Just because you disagree with someone doesn’t mean you have to cut off their fanhood.

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