Season Preview: Chelsea

by Ciaran Kelly

It’s a case of déjà vu for Chelsea as they are about to begin a campaign with a new manager for the fourth time in eight seasons, and have talked about evolution rather than revolution with their current squad.

However, in paying £13.3 million for one of the world’s hottest young managers, 33 year old André Villas-Boas, Roman Abramovich has made the boldest appointment of his eight year reign and not since Jose Mourinho’s arrival in 2004 has such optimism been generated among fans. After all, without even addressing Villas-Boas’ impeccable two-year record, Chelsea have acquired a manager who is not only intelligent and fluent in English, but also a figure who is familiar with the set-up at Stamford Bridge; a hands-on manager Chelsea have lacked since Guus Hiddink; and a self-confessed tactical hybrid of Sir Bobby Robson (4-3-3 attacking style with three forwards), Mourinho (defensive organisation and pressing) and Pep Guardiola (possession football).

Manager: André Villas-Boas
Last season: 2nd
Odds: 5/2
In: Thibaut Courtois (Genk, £7.9m)
Out: Thibaud Courtois (Atletico Madrid, loan), Jeffrey Bruma (Hamburg, loan), Michael Mancienne (Hamburg, £3m), Michael Woods (released)

The set-up

While the Abramovich era has seen Chelsea achieve unprecedented succes, with some of the greatest players in the world donning the blue shirt, stability has never been a hallmark of the Russian’s ownership since 2004. Claudio Ranieri was never supported and the then Chief Executive, Peter Kenyon, met with Sven-Göran Eriksson over the manager’s job in March 2004; Abramovich tried to directly replace popular assistant manager Steve Clarke with Avram Grant in 2007, which contributed considerably to Mourinho falling-out with Abramovich; the Russian handed Grant, who was initially a short-term appointment, a four-year contract in December, 2007 but then sacked him – resulting in a massive pay-off; and Ray Wilkins, Carlo Ancelotti’s trusted assistant, was sacked in November 2010 and replaced by Michael Emenalo, whose only coaching experience was managing the girls under-12 team at Tuscon Soccer Academy in Arizona.

The atmosphere seems different with Villas-Boas. He is Chelsea’s youngest manager since their inception in 1905, when the then 28 year old player-manager John Robertson managed the Blues for a season, and Abramovich taking a gamble on an up and coming manager has been met by similar enthusiasm to when the then 41 year old Mourinho was appointed in 2004. Also, unlike Luiz Felipe Scolari and Ancelotti, Villas-Boas does not have any chinks in his record, although admittedly he has only been managing for two seasons, and unlike some of his predeccesors, Villas-Boas, who has an English grandmother, will have no problem adapting to England – with its associated language and culture – and working at Chelsea.

At just 31, Villas-Boas bravely left his role as head opposition scout at Inter to manage Académica, who were winless and already rooted to the bottom of the table when he took over in October 2009, yet Villas-Boas led them to an 11th place finish – ten points clear of the relegation zone. From there, Villas-Boas took over at Porto where his 84.48% win percentage is the best in the club’s history and with successful yet scintillating football, Porto won a Treble. One reason why Villas-Boas was so succesful with Porto was his great rapport with his players and his hands-on management style will go down well with the Chelsea squad.

Porto striker, Falcao, has praised Villas-Boas “for being fundamental to our success and making all 24 members of the squad feel relevant and important.” He is already well-liked by the Chelsea players from his previous stint as opposition scout and despite his young age, Villas-Boas has the players’ respect, as was evident in Frank Lampard’s words at Chelsea’s pre-match press conference against the Malaysia XI, where he spoke of “the fact that André is young being irrelevant and that his quality was the important thing.” The other key dressing room figure, captain John Terry, has echoed this support, saying: “I’m positive André will be around here for a long time.”

Another reason why Villas-Boas was successful at Académica and Porto was because he was able to bring in his own backroom staff and crucially, he has been allowed to do this at Chelsea. It is important to note that Chelsea, having been previously stung from paying off Mourinho’s and Scolari’s members of staff, would not let Ancelotti bring his Milan assistants Filippo Galli and Mauro Tassotti with him to Stamford Bridge in 2009. Aside from the arrival of Bruno Demichelis and the departure of Wilkins, little changed in Ancelotti’s and Chelsea’s coaching department during his reign, and the backroom staff – with regard to the first-team – remained relatively unchanged from when Mourinho and his staff left in 2007. Villas-Boas wasted no time in setting up his backroom team and this was surely a perquisite to him becoming manager.

Paul Clement, the assistant manager who had worked through the whole of the Abramovich era in various roles, was sacked along with fitness coach Glenn Driscoll and club doctor Bryan English. Jose Mario Rocha, who worked with Villas-Boas at Académica and Porto, was brought in as fitness coach; Steve Holland was promoted to assistant first-team coach; and Daniel Souza was brought in as head opposition scout. Crucially, Villas-Boas also brought in his own number two, fans’ favourite Roberto di Matteo, who shares the Portuguese man’s philosophy. From this, Emenalo has been moved upstairs to the role of technical director, where he will be responsible for matters concerning scouting and the Academy rather than the first-team directly. Having paid so much for Villas-Boas and given him the freedom to set up his own backroom team, Abramovich has put great faith in the manager but this comes at a price. Judging by Abramovich’s ‘logic’ in managerial changes over the years, sentimentality and money are of no importance so Villas-Boas will have to win a major trophy this season.

Transfers

As of yet, there have been no major ins and outs at Stamford Bridge and with Villas-Boas wanting to evaluate his 29 man squad, which incidentally includes hot prospects like Nathaniel Chalobah (16), Tomáš Kalas (18), Josh McEachran (18), Billy Clifford (18), Patrick van Aanholt (20), Gaël Kakuta (20), Ryan Bertrand (21), Daniel Sturridge (21) and Slobodan Rajković (22), the Portuguese man has already talked about untouchables and not making radical changes.

With Financial Fair Play on the horizon, it is important to remember that the Blues spent £75 million in January 2011 alone, on the signings of David Luiz and Fernando Torres, and this, coupled with Villas-Boas’ belief in his squad, has meant that expensive targets like Alexis Sánchez, Neymar and Falcao have fallen through the net. Apart from the expensive 26 year old Luka Modrić and 24 year old João Moutinho, Chelsea have instead focused their efforts on young, raw and appreciating talents like Romelu Lukaku (18), Oriol Romeu (19) and Thibaut Courtois (19). This is a refreshing change in Chelsea’s transfer policy as in recent years, the likes of Juan Sebastián Verón (29), Andriy Shevchenko (30), Michael Ballack (30) and Deco (31) arrived a few years past their brilliant best.

Villas-Boas’ patient transfer policy and apparent ‘conservatism’ is not as unjustified as some Chelsea fans may think. After all, a creative central midfielder and a right winger apart, little needs tweaking in a Chelsea team that features the likes of Ashley Cole (30), Terry (30), Petr Čech (29), Fernando Torres (27), Branislav Ivanović (27), David Luiz (24) and Ramires (24). Even though Lampard (33), Didier Drogba (33), Nicolas Anelka (32) and Florent Malouda (31) are entering their final seasons of being able to deal with the rigours of a 50+ game campaign, a quality and exciting underbelly of young talent is emerging that will, following Roman Abramovich’s multi-million investment in the Academy since 2006, bear fruition in the coming years.

Youth prospects

Five names in particular stand out: Chalobah, Bertrand, McEachran, Kakuta and Sturridge. 16 year old central-defender Chalobah, while not yet a professional footballer, captained England at the Under-17 European Championships and was one of the players of the tournament with his brilliant ball-playing ability, mature reading of the game and composed displays. Left-back Bertrand looks a perfect heir to Ashley Cole with his dribbling ability, overlapping runs and accurate crossing (as was seen in the first-team match against Birmingham last season). The fantasista McEachran, who made 17 appearances last season, certainly has the natural ability, mental strength and personality to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Terry Venables, Alan Hudson, Ray Wilkins, Micky Hazard and Roberto di Matteo in becoming a brilliant Chelsea playmaker.

Kakuta, the man whose transfer from RC Lens nearly saw Chelsea banned from transfer dealings for two transfer windows in 2009, is an elusive runner behind defences and is armed with brilliant skill, vision and quick feet. Sturridge, while technically not coming through Chelsea’s Academy, was signed as a 20 year old from Manchester City through a tribunal in the summer of 2009 and at Chelsea, has shown glimpses of his mercurial talent but his loan spell at Bolton from January 2011, where he hit 8 goals in 12 games, showed how consistently potent the forward can be when he is given an extended run in the team.

Obviously, the real test for Vilas-Boas will be using these players in competitive games but already, his refreshing use of youth in pre-season is a stark contrast to his predecessor, Ancelotti. While the Italian fielded a youthful side against Newcastle in the Carling Cup 3rd round last season, he failed to implement the quality youngsters at his disposal in games that badly needed their freshness and enthusiasm. Ancelotti never had the courage, even when Chelsea had nothing to play for, such as the games against Newcastle and Everton at the end of last season, to drop any of his underperforming first-team players. McEachran and Sturridge, for example, made just three starts each in two seasons under Ancelotti.

Keys to the season

Younger players aside, two massive conundrums face Villas-Boas this season. The first will be Michael Essien’s absence. Even though Villas-Boas’ intensive and dynamic ball-related training sessions have been welcomed, they proved too much for the fragile Ghanaian and he broke down in training with a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and meniscus. Crucially, Essien’s knee problems up to now have involved his left knee: he ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament in 2008 and tore medial ligaments in 2010. While nowhere near his powerful and marauding self last season, Essien made 43 appearances and scored 4 goals - which was encouraging for the 28 year old’s long-term recovery. In contrast, the two knee injuries he sustained in the previous seasons restricted him to just 19 appearances in 2008/2009 and 21 matches in 2009/2010.

{ David Luiz offers a phased outlet from the back, with the marauding Cole and Ivanovic supporting Malouda, who will be encouraged to stick to the byline. Anelka will be a key link for Torres, who will try to spin past his maker from through balls. Mikel will dictate Chelsea’s tempo while Ramires will cover the right flank and Lampard will be encouraged to arrive late into the box. However, without a creative presence, Chelsea’s play will remain regimented and at times predictable }

Replacements wise, Stamford Bridge bound Romeu, who is just 19 years of age, is unlikely to be a consistent starter this season despite his box-to-box tendencies, powerful shot and brilliant vision. Ramires proved himself as an effective footballer in the second half of last season, with his finesse, energy and work-ethic, but he does not yet have the strength to replicate Essien’s dominant presence. The Brazilian could be deployed as a holding midfielder by Villas-Boas if Modrić or Moutinho arrive but John Obi Mikel could yet take Essien’s place.

Incredibly, this will be Mikel’s fifth season at Chelsea. Even though he has impressed in a slightly more advanced position in pre-season, Mikel has been deployed as a holding midfield player throughout his time at Chelsea. He has never been renowned for his shooting ability, tackling or long passing range and has often struggled with temperament and concentration problems as the season has gone on, so this will be a crucial campaign for the 24 year old Nigerian to show consistency and maturity, and cement his place in the starting XI.

The other problem facing Villas-Boas is up front. It seems the Portuguese man will stick to his successful blueprint of an attacking 4-3-3 with Chelsea so the current forwards can be catergorised: Malouda and Yuri Zhirkov on the left, Salomon Kalou on either side, Anelka and Sturridge as the inside right forwards and Torres, Drogba and Lukaku (if he arrives) as the lone frontmen. With Villas-Boas refusing to pair Drogba and Torres in any of the five pre-season games so far, it seems he has already ruled out them ever playing together, which is something Ancelotti failed to accept.

With regard to Torres’ form and confidence problems, since his £50 million arrival from Liverpool in January 2011, the example of Falcao is worth noting. Last summer, Falcao failed to find the net in any of Porto’s pre-season games and Villas-Boas’ 4-3-3 was lambasted for not creating enough opportunities, link-up play and crosses. Rather than changing to 4-4-2 to give Falcao more direct support and to accommodate Cristian Rodriguez on the wing, with Hulk up front, Villas-Boas stuck with 4-3-3 and once Moutinho settled, more opportunities were set up and Hulk and Silvestre Varela fed Falcao, who went on to score 39 goals in 42 games last season.

In pre-season so far, aside from McEachran’s masterclass against Thailand All-Stars, Chelsea have badly lacked a fantasista to click the 4-3-3 into gear and from this, Torres has shown endeavor but had very little to work with. Even though the Spaniard is still growing into the dynamics of Chelsea’s play, in comparison to Rafael Benítez’s direct style, and still looking slightly off the pace from a series of right knee injuries suffered in the past two seasons, which were not helped from being rushed to fitness to play for Spain in the 2010 World Cup, a proven fantasista like Modrić or Moutinho would provide the phase and pass before the actual assist of a goal and that is exactly what Chelsea are missing.

Both Modrić and Moutinho have similar records from last season, when it comes to goals and assists, with the Croatian netting 4 goals and 3 assists in 42 games in comparison to Moutinho’s 2 goals and 7 assists in 50 games. Cole, Ivanovic, Lampard, Malouda and Anelka are all capable of providing direct assists but the Blues do not have a player to set up the initial opportunity and this has meant that Torres has not had an abundance of chances, and has often been feeding off scraps. This hold-up play suits Drogba, who is one of the best lone forwards in world football, but Chelsea’s change in playing style without the Ivorian means swift and up tempo play, with more ground passes and through balls

Tactics

In four out of the five pre-season games so far, Villas-Boas has solely used 4-3-3. With Chelsea having their greatest success playing this formation over the years, having badly struggled with a lack of width in Ancelotti’s and Scolari’s diamonds and narrow 4-4-2 variants, this makes perfect sense. Since Arjen Robben’s depature in 2007, Chelsea, despite using marauding full-backs, have badly lacked natural width in the final third of the pitch. Some leaked training notes, from a leading British newspaper, of Villas Boas’ pre-season preparations show exercises involving wing play, ala Hulk and Varela for Porto, where Malouda and Anelka are encouraged to either cut inside and shoot, or take on the full-back and cross. While this may seem simple and incredibly obvious, Anelka, playing in the unnatural position of right-wing, has a tendency to drift inward, to come deep and he rarely crosses the ball. Malouda, at times for Chelsea, has failed to send in a lot of crosses and he is known for  his occasionally selfish play.