x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Pragmatic Villas-Boas ready to prove worth at Chelsea

Chelsea's new manager concedes his resources are not ideal. He talks to The National.

Andre Villas-Boas, the Chelsea manager, right, has kept a tight leash on his players during pre-season so far.
Andre Villas-Boas, the Chelsea manager, right, has kept a tight leash on his players during pre-season so far.

People are obsessed with age: the players are old and the manager is young. Andre Villas-Boas.

Still not 34, he has heard it all before. Larynx frayed by the 10-hour training ground days required to recover Chelsea's winning ways, Andre Villas-Boas growls at assessments of his chances.

Consensus has it that this fresh-faced manager of a jowly football team will fail to reassert their status in the domestic game; instead of overhauling Manchester United, they will watch Manchester City supersede them as contenders-in-chief.

"I had the same in Porto," says Villas-Boas of predictions that Chelsea will finish third. "Exactly the same. 'This guy is done'. 'This guy is no age'. 'Player power'. 'The pressure'. Exactly the same, because it's normal. 'This is a 33 year old leading Chelsea. Are you crazy?'

"But why? Why cannot people be competent at a young age?"

If three major trophies from his single season at Porto demonstrate his competence, Villas-Boas has also mastered the pithy retort. To Graeme Souness's assertion that Roman Abramovich had indulged in "an enormous gamble" in triggering his £13.2 million (Dh78.3m) buyout there, he cheerily compares results.

"Souness made comments about it being easy to win at Porto," says Villas-Boas. "It was easy to win at Liverpool in the '90s and the '80s, wasn't it? But he was five years there and didn't win anything."

Villas-Boas is done a disservice by that birth certificate and those freckled features. In person, his words and actions convey a maturity and assuredness expected of an elite Champions League coach.

A flurry of fines have introduced Chelsea's notoriously fractious dressing room to a strict disciplinary code. Villas-Boas locks players out of the training ground if they do not arrive in proper time to prepare for sessions. Others in Chelsea's messily political organisation have seen he is no soft touch.

In his first week, Villas-Boas removed Bryan English, the unpopular medical director, and dispensed with two assistant coaches.

Dissatisfied with the schedule for their Asian tour, he went head-to-head with Ron Gourlay, the chief executive, to lessen demands on his senior players.

An integral part of the most successful Chelsea team of the Abramovich era, who was laid off at the premature end of it, Villas-Boas is aware of the requirement to deliver immediately. Dispensing with the usual shadow play, he says he will not be satisfied if he does not win the Premier League straight away and recognises the owner demands significant silverware.

"There is a prerogative, which I don't want to share with you because it's a personal conversation," he says. "At the end, I know exactly what the owner asks me to do."

Delivery is the complicated part. Villas-Boas is conscious of the importance of sprinting into the season's first three months. In his previous incarnation as tactical scout, Chelsea's first game was a 1-0 defeat of United that set a psychological precedent. on Sunday, he faces the most demanding of debut fixtures: Stoke City away.

Against a direct rival for the title with an incomplete squad still learning new methods, dropping points would be acceptable. Headlines will offer scant consideration of Stoke's strengths should he take less than three this afternoon. "The test is the Premiership, not the Stoke game," says Villas-Boas.

For a manager expected to deliver the title, his resources are not ideal. Reprising the frustrations of his two predecessors as permanent manager, Villas-Boas enters the season without the level of recruitment he had been promised. The absences of a creative midfielder (Chelsea's bids for Luka Modric have merely antagonised Tottenham Hotspur) and a winger are a concern.

"I think we might add in those positions," says Villas-Boas. "The sense of urgency in midfield is there because it's the reality. We play 4-3-3, we have a squad of 25. To prepare for a game, you need at least six midfielders. We only have four."

The interim solution has been to take Frank Lampard aside, emphasise the Englishman's importance to his plans, and ask if he would be comfortable taking over the holding role. While Lampard is keen and capable, the attack is a thornier issue.

Romelu Lukaku's signing will inflate Chelsea's contingent of central strikers to seven when the manager's default formation starts just one. Didier Drogba has impressed him in pre-season and is negotiating improvements to the club's offer of a contract extension, yet Fernando Torres remains the problem.

Abramovich expects Villas-Boas to extract a return out of a £50m (Dh 298.9m) investment that has delivered one goal from 18 appearances. Though he knows Torres is physically not the player he was, Villas-Boas has to argue the Spaniard's difficulties were psychological.

"It became a complex media obsession," he says. "A small problem became a bigger problem and a bigger problem became an even bigger problem. You have to challenge this player, you have to get back to his confidence."

Like everyone else, Torres will be dropped if it benefits the team. In an interview for future tactical scout Daniel Sousa's Masters thesis, Villas-Boas once argued that "things became too easy for players. They have high salaries, they have a good life ... Their life is so easy now that when they go to a game and they don't understand it, don't know how to defend spaces and not even to read the spaces."

Passing on his tactical message at Chelsea has proved unexpectedly difficult; training ground lessons only slowly absorbed. Villas-Boas is sure his new charges are capable of applying the high-tempo, high-pressing "domination" game he loves, but not that they can do it every match. Has he had to adapt his philosophy?

"If I fail to adapt I think there would be something wrong," he says. "The impact of this culture, and all of the past of these players, plays the biggest part in this.

"I cannot be stupid enough to get across my own ideas, or my single idea, in a radical way to players who have been successful at this level.

"That would be committing a big mistake. I have to be open-minded enough, which I am, to shift it, regarding structure, regarding principles, regarding formation, regarding behaviour."

sports@thenational.ae


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