When Andre Villas-Boas was hired this summer, Chelsea were sending all the right signals. They'd dispensed with a win-now manager in Carlo Ancelotti and hired a dynamic, intelligent young man with staggering success in his admittedly short managerial career. It looked as though the Blues were preparing to build a new dynasty.
And then things fell apart.
If you take a look at just how the situation developed, it becomes apparent that Villas-Boas had an exceptionally long leash. We've been suffering through poor results for months - the Blues' season has been falling apart ever since the 1-0 away loss to Queen Park Rangers - we've been knocked out of the Carling Cup, are on the verge of elimination in the Champions League and our league position is suboptimal. Going by results, Villas-Boas has by far the worse record of any manager in the Roman Abramovich era. Combine that with his dubious interpersonal skills, and you have the recipe for someone who probably should have been given the boot well beforehand, especially with the club's reputation for ruthlessness with their managers.
Part of the reason lasted as long as he did must surely be because of the amount of money that was invested into the 33-year-old. Chelsea had to spend a silly sum to buy Villas-Boas out from his contract at Porto, and the £13.2M figure hovered over him like some sort of guardian, deflecting away criticism and giving him a level of security he wouldn't have possessed had Villas-Boas been grabbed off the street somewhere.
But it was also clear that Villas-Boas believed he had the owner's full backing to implement his grand design, and he wasn't shy about expressing that. It was only in the last few weeks that that belief wavered to the point that the manager started to express doubts, and by that point his fate was more or less written in the sky. I believe that Abramovich desperately wanted this experiment to succeed, and I imagine he wouldn't have been happy at all to have been forced to pull the plug.
And don't let anyone tell you any differently - he was forced. While Chelsea finishing outside the Champions League spots may not be disastrous for fans, it would blow a gigantic hole in the budget. All sensible preseason projections had Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City as the best three teams in the country, with a sizable gap between themselves and the fourth place team, so I'd be very surprised if there was a well-developed contingency plan in place in case of finishing fifth or sixth. It could very well be that the Blues simply cannot afford to finish outside of the top four while fielding a competitive side.
View through that lens, the motivation behind Villas-Boas's dismissal seem completely clear. But where did it go wrong for this initially agreeable and undoubtedly talented young manager? I have a few theories - note that none of them involve his tactics, which I was broadly ok with, or his transfer window dealings, which as far as I'm aware weren't really his responsibility.
Let's do this in bullet-point form, just so I can pretend to mask my literary inadequacies:
- Experience with failure. Prior to signing on with Chelsea, Villas-Boas had had an astonishing - if short - career. He turned Academica's fortunes around before transforming a third-place Porto team into an all-consuming machine of destruction. Literally everything went his way during his first eighteen months as a club football manager, and although he said he had some initial difficulties with the Porto dressing room, he won them over extremely quickly, presumably by winning.
It's a sad little cliche, but I'm going to use it anyway: Villas-Boas had no idea how to fail. He handled his first defeat fairly gracefully - a loss at Old Trafford is hardly an embarrassment, after all - but as things got worse and worse he got more and more wild-eyed, as though he was beginning to crack under the pressure. His first press conferences paint a portrait of an urbane (if overly corporate) young man. Compare them to the ones after the Everton loss or the Napoli one. With Chelsea, Villas-Boas was failing for the first time in his career, and it really didn't look as though he had any idea how to handle it.
- Dealing with the media. I may not like them very much, but I don't have to deal with the football media, and a top-level manager most emphatically does. Villas-Boas seemed constantly irritated by their presence, but he really ought to have played their game rather than been so difficult with them, because the way he handled the whole thing allowed them to bait him - and his players - into various traps. As has been pointed out by others on this site, the media isn't inherently anti-Chelsea, but they're definitely not above stirring up stories to feed the narrative, and it became more and more clear as time went on that this year's narrative was a Villas-Boas trainwreck. Had he been able to handle the journalists better, he'd have had a far easier time of things.
- Dealing with players. This is speculation, but I think we're reasonably well informed at this point. Part of Villas-Boas's remit, apparently, was to begin the phasing out of the older members of the squad to create something new. He went about this in exactly the wrong way.
The likes of John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba are Chelsea to the core, and would have made powerful allies had they been convinced that the project was the right move for the club. I'm not going to buy into the idea that any of them was so selfish that they'd deliberately sabotage things just because they weren't going to get the playing time I wanted - that's too cynical, even for me. Instead, my guess is that Villas-Boas simply tried to run roughshod over them, creating a divide in the clubhouse that was impossible to patch up. My guess is this led directly to more playing time for the manager's supporters, which would rather explain the Raul Meireles and Jose Bosingwa nonsense.
Combine those three elements and you get a perfect storm for the destabilisation of an entire club. When things were going well, Villas-Boas had the authority and intelligence to hold things together, but as soon as the season got slightly derailed, Chelsea found it impossible to recover. Under Villas-Boas's leadership, the disaster was self perpetuating. He went away from his principles. It didn't work. He dropped players. It didn't work. He got Michael Essien back. That didn't really help either.
We've all been uneasy about Villas-Boas's fate for months now. I think almost everyone here wanted him to work out, but at some point the club's short term needs override the long term project. We need to last until the summer to actually do anything next year, after all, and it was looking increasingly unlikely that we'd get that far with Villas-Boas. You can shift some of the blame to underperforming players, of course, but that seems far too simplistic. There's blamed to be shared and the manager is the one who paid the price. It's a shame, but that's football.