Chelsea were right to sack Andre Villas-Boas, but…

Andre Villas-Boas’ short time as Chelsea manager has come to an end. Barely nine months after moving to the Blues amidst huge fanfare from Porto, the Portuguese has exited the club after Roman Abramovich terminated the young manager’s three-year contract.

In leaving, Villas-Boas has become eighth manager to part with the club since the Russian Billionaire, Abramovich, bought the club from Ken Bates in 2003 for £140 million.

The recriminations of the young manager’s sacking have started almost immediately with Sir Alex Ferguson calling the removal “sad,” Avram Grant telling Sky Sports News the move was somewhat expected after poor results and Robbie Savage telling BBC Sport that “the players and board” were to blame.

The truth, as ever, is somewhere in between.

Make no bones about it: Roman Abramovich and Chelsea moved mountains to bring Andre Villas-Boas to the club.

When all the compensation the Blues paid out is totted up, it comes to a cool £28 million. £15 million of that went to Porto for the 33-year-old’s signature while the other £13 million went to Carlo Ancelotti and his back-room staff after their shameful sacking just one hour after the 2010-11 season ended.

Villas-Boas coming into the club was meant to signal a direction for a new-look Chelsea with the young coach coming in at the ground floor to build a project that would become the club’s next great dynasty.

Many have pointed at Villas-Boas’ youth and his relative coaching inexperience. This may be true at the highest levels of the game, where the Portuguese has only coached since 2009. However, the 33-year-old has always enjoyed a forensic love of football which can be traced back to his teens, where he was given a coaching role at Porto by Bobby Robson.

The then-16-year-old Villas-Boas was living in the same apartment block as the English coaching legend and initiated an exchange of letters with Robson after the youngster felt that the Englishman was not playing Domingos Paciencia enough.

Taking the letter in good heart, Robson asked the youth to back up his assertions which he duly did. He not only backed up his opinion but he also supplied a statistical dossier to further emphasize it so. So impressed was Robson that he immediately offered Villas-Boas a role coaching the youth teams at Porto.

From there, Villas-Boas’ coaching career took off. At 17, he earned his full UEFA Coaching badges at Lilleshall. At 21, he was managing in international football, albeit with the British Virgin Islands, and by 22 he was coaching, scouting, analyzing and building dossiers for Jose Mourinho.

In short, Villas-Boas may only be 34, but he has been as immersed in football as the professionals he trains for almost the last 20 years.

His coaching credentials are not up for debate. Since moving into full-time management, he has guided a perennial relegation candidate away from the drop, Academica in 2009; and has won the Portuguese league, going the whole season unbeaten; the Portuguese Cup and the UEFA Cup all in one single season.

So when Roman Abramovich moved to sign the youngest ever coach to win a European trophy he did so full in the knowledge that he was buying a top-class coach.

There is, however, a huge difference between coaching and managing.

Chelsea as a club has been run on an extravagance by Roman Abramovich. Since taking over in 2003, just nine years ago, he has spent over €1 billion in transfers of one kind or another. This kind of spend is obviously unsustainable and Andre Villas-Boas was brought in with a mandate to break that culture and bring in the new self-sustaining more expansive model.

Like the differences between coaching and managing, talking about and implementing change are two completely different animals.

No matter where change is brought in, the major factor to consider is that people are people. Some will embrace the change while others will resist. This is guaranteed to happen in every environment—especially in a small, tight-knit group like a football club.

The Change Process is something that all major companies, organisations and sports clubs will have to consider at one time or another. In 1976, a way of thinking about the process was developed by Beckhard and Harris at M.I.T.

At its most basic, change comes in three parts:

  1. The Future: Where we would like to be;
  2. The Present: Where we are at the moment;
  3. The Transition: What we have to go through to get from here to there.

It was at this first building block in change that Andre Villas-Boas’ Chelsea dream came undone.

He would have agreed upon the future with Roman Abramovich, but his analysis of the “present state” and of the factors needed to bring change and of those that could cause problems was seriously misguided.

Before Villas-Boas took over, the Blues had played the same basic formation for the last eight seasons. This was for two huge reasons:

  1. It was successful;
  2. Chelsea had the players to suit the formation.

Previous managers had come to Chelsea with the hopes of expanding upon the Blues’ physical approach to the game. However, each and every one reverted to the system that suited the players best.

The main reason for each manager having to revert back to this tried and trusted system of 4-5-1 is that the club, through their director of football and not the manager, have been in charge of all purchases at the club.

In short, the director of football, through bad management at senior level, was bringing in players that suited the old system the club and manager wanted to move away from.

This meant that when results went badly and players invariably became unhappy, the manager was forced to revert to the old system to keep his job.

Take this season for a perfect example.

Andre Villas-Boas wanted to move away from the Blues’ 4-5-1 and move towards a vibrant 4-3-3. Chelsea then spent over £70 million in transfers on eight players. Of these, six were under 20 and were obviously for the future, while the other two, Mata and Meireles, did not fit the profile of the players the manager needed to implement his changes.

Instead of recognising that he did not have the tools at his disposal to make wholesale change, Villas-Boas pushed ahead with his philosophical vision and tried to play square pegs in round holes.

The first rule of football is that it is a simple game. Play your best players in their best positions and things will usually work out, especially when you have a team like Chelsea at your disposal.

From there, Villas-Boas dropped players like Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and Michael Essien and fell out with players like Alex and Nicholas Anelka. He found it impossible to get the best out of players like Fernando Torres.

The problem with Andre Villas-Boas pushing on with his vision for the future is that he did not communicate this to his players properly.

He should have started out with a meeting with the players, where he would have outlined his plan for the future and that how each and every one of them were a key part in setting up the next dynasty, thus ensuring key stakeholders with an interest in how the club develops.

These roles are normally filled by experienced staff that others look up to and should have been filled by key experienced players like Lampard, Terry, Cole, Drogba and Anelka. The next steps for change are communicating to every affected member and personalise the case for change.

From there, the key is to recognise which players need to be motivated and which need to feel valued and to deal with the conflicts through an open discussion.

Change is incredibly hard to implement when it is done properly, but even then there are always four stages:

  1. Shock;
  2. Defence;
  3. Acceptance;
  4. Action.

The first phase, shock, is hard to initially communicate because there are always vested interests in every organisation. In this current Chelsea team, or any other team with the same profile, it is the experienced players. Eleven of the current crop have been with the club since Jose Mourinho’s time and basically like the formation that suits their playing styles.

In this phase, managers have to deal with complaining, anger and withdrawal. To combat this one-on-one and group meetings are essential. Villas-Boas’ first team meetings took place prior to the Napoli defeat in late February.

The next phase is defence, where errors occur and resistance to change grows greatest where past patterns of behaviour, formations and play (in this case) become overvalued and there is constant talk of the “good old days.”

This is the most dangerous part of change for a manager, especially in the current media-driven climate. The best way to combat this resistance is to provide factual information, avoid speculation and to not let rumours of dressing-room dissent spread.

The problem with this phase for Villas-Boas is that he had already mishandled phase one and, perhaps petulantly, allowed players’ criticisms to get to him and then dropped them in the face of the fact that they are better players than the ones he was choosing.

A quick and simple example of this was Lampard, Cole and Essien all being dropped for the Champions League game against Napoli with Meireles, Bosingwa and Malouda.

Unfortunately for Andre Villas-Boas, he never got the chance to move onto the last two phases, as he was relieved of his duties following Chelsea’s 1-0 loss to West Brom.

If anything, had Andre Villas-Boas taken his own advice, he might have been all right. On joining the Blues on June 22 2011, he had this to say at his first press conference.

“Don’t expect something from one man,” he told the watching media.

“Expect us to create a group dynamic of everybody getting together, with the fans getting together, with people getting excited with the motivation that is in and around us. In the new way of communicating and the new leadership – this is the most important thing.

“It is not about my arrival. It is about the continuous success of this club.

“Let’s reflect on the success of the past six years at this club and what we have achieved and now what we can achieve in the next six years again. There is no doubt that the challenge for me is to keep winning.”


There is little doubt that Chelsea FC has handled this entire situation quite badly.

At no stage did it appear that Andre Villas-Boas was getting any kind of support from above, even though the club obviously dictated his transfer policy for him.

As the front-line manager, he should have never been put in the position where he was implementing change upon the culture of the club by himself. One wonders who was deciding upon the transfer targets and what their particular vision and philosophy was.

Even if you take into account that all the players were being bought for the future, you have to ask: for whose team?

In the end, Avram Grant, Robbie Savage and Sir Alex Ferguson are all right. The players, the board and the manager are to blame for the current situation at Chelsea both on and off the pitch. Since Andre Villas-Boas is the one in most control, the buck eventually stops with him.

Great coach he may be – his “work at Porto cannot be ignored” as far as coaching is concerned – but his work at Chelsea is forgettable as far as management is concerned.

His sacking was harsh because he is a young manager with huge potential. If the world is just, he will have learned a great deal from his nine months at Chelsea, but there is little doubt that he mishandled this entire episode, just as Brian Clough mishandled the Leeds job in 1974.

And we all know how that turned out. Disaster it may have been, but it helped shape the man who guided Nottingham Forest to two European Cups in 1979 and 1980.

If Andre Villas-Boas has learned one half in nine months of what Brian Clough learned in 44 days at Leeds United, he’ll be a very good manager indeed. All he has to do now is learn change.

The Author

Willie Gannon

Willie Gannon is a football writer with a number of coaching badges who is lucky enough to cover the greatest and most debated sport in the world for Backpage Football. He specializes in the English Premier League, Champions League, European and International football. His work has been featured on Fox Sports, CBSSports, the Daily Mirror Football Online, the LA Times Online, Tiger Beer Football, Bleacher Report and the International Business Times.

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