Villas-Boas could have to re-invent in order for Chelsea to fire

With no major change in the ageing squad, manager will have to adapt to get the most of his ill-suited players.
Villas-Boas, left, lamented his side's inability to play to a greater width.
Villas-Boas, left, lamented his side's inability to play to a greater width.
The start of any season invariably generates a flurry of facts, many concerning the newcomers, but there is one case of continuity that is as startling as any statistics about change.

Of the 16 teams in action over the Premier League's first weekend, only one named a starting XI and seven substitutes who were all at the club the previous season. The paragons of stability? Chelsea.

It does not sound right, and in a way it is not. Their debutant was in the dugout, Andre Villas-Boas, overseeing a stalemate at Stoke City. But the generalisation at Chelsea has been that the players stay the same while the manager sits in an ejector seat.

It is a reason to doubt if the precocious Portuguese can be the revolutionary force his age (33) and remarkable track record suggests, he is.

If Chelsea resembled his predecessors' side, it is little wonder. This is a recipe with the same ingredients. The closest thing to a galactico their summer has produced is the £13.2 million (Dh78.3m) manager.

There is no flagship signing, even if, in Oriol Romeu, there is an addition who may define the ethos of Villas-Boas. That is a heavy responsibility for a teenager with a solitary league game to his name for Barcelona.

Because of the Under 20 World Cup, Romeu was not at the Britannia Stadium, but his recruitment indicates Villas-Boas wants a more progressive passer than John Obi Mikel to anchor his midfield.

The Nigerian showed belated signs of ambition against Stoke, spreading play impressively once to find Florent Malouda, but his excellent pass completion rate (87 per cent on Sunday) tends to be a consequence of a safety-first approach.

Likewise, he almost broke the deadlock with a well-struck volley, but it is telling his 116-game league career is yet to yield a goal. If a quicker tempo in possession and more positive intent figure high on the new manager's wish list, Mikel appears ill-suited to his style of football.

The shame, perhaps, is that the gifted Josh McEachran remained an unused substitute, although Villas-Boas would be far from alone if he decided that a trip to Stoke was a fixture for more battle hardened competitors.

In attack, the understandable focus on the battle between Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba for the striker's spot, won by the Spaniard, obscured the fact Chelsea have less enticing options on either side.

Villas-Boas lamented his side's first-half inability to play with greater width, especially against a Stoke side who habitually defend narrowly.

Yet his new charges do not have out-and-out wingers; Malouda, quietly their top scorer last season, at least shows similarities on the left but, as Carlo Ancelotti discovered when he attempted to play 4-4-2 last season, these players are strangers to the right touchline. They ended up looking lopsided.

Salomon Kalou started in what has been Nicolas Anelka's role, ostensibly on the right, without convincing.

Perhaps Romelu Lukaku, though another centre-forward, could serve his apprenticeship in a wider role.

Maybe Daniel Sturridge, who flourished in pre-season but is banned for the first three games of the actual campaign, could cut in from the right to offer goals.

Neither, however, is anything like an out-and-out winger.

It was a source of disappointment to Villas-Boas that, to use his choice of verb, Chelsea lumped the ball forwards too often before the break. It has been a default tactic, and a decent one, when Drogba patrols the attack but his demotion also hinted at a change to the style of play.

If Villas-Boas wants to play through or around opponents, instead of taking the aerial approach, it heightens the need for a playmaker and a winger.

While Luka Modric has been targeted all summer, the quest for the former is ongoing, though the untried Romeu and McEachran may be cheaper alternatives, but since the departures of Damien Duff and Arjen Robben, natural wide men have been an unknown at Stamford Bridge.

Since then, ever unchanging, Chelsea's sense of permanence on the pitch has been a genuine strength. But, perhaps, no longer.


In one sense, it was the least newsworthy fixture of the weekend. In another, Aston Villa's 0-0 draw at Fulham offered some encouragement after a traumatic year in the Midlands.

It will take much more than a point at Craven Cottage to win over fans upset by the appointment of a former Birmingham City manager, not least one who was relegated last season, but Alex McLeish's Blues had a better defensive record than Villa last term.

And in Shay Given, the Scot has signed arguably the Premier League's finest shot stopper. The Irishman's reflexes were shown with a point-blank stop from Bobby Zamora to earn the draw. He might prove the buy of the summer.


The contrasting exits of Queens Park Rangers' full-backs in their 4-0 defeat to Bolton Wanderers were sad but, in their own way, predictable.

That Kieron Dyer was injured after two-and-a-half minutes was desperately unfortunate but, for a player who has completed the 90 minutes once in three years in the Premier League, no great shock.

That Clint Hill collected the 12th red card of his career for a bizarre butt at Martin Petrov's stomach was little less surprising.

Published: August 16, 2011 04:00 AM


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