One of a few semi-disappointments to come from Andre Villas-Boas’ sacking is the lack of time in which the casual, benevolent fan was afforded to grow attached to him. Less than a season of AVB means that he leaves only a smudged, slightly bizarre impression of what he’s about: a collection of mannerisms, not a personality; a set of affectations, not a person; a well-groomed beard, but no face.
If he’s missed, then, it’s not out of sympathy – not even that half-arsed, 2D public sympathy which is so fashionable; it’s filthy curiosity. Now that AVB isn’t Project Manager at Chelsea any more, no-one gets to know how The Project might have worked out had he been given more time or more of a chance to operate his way. The public’s been cheated out of a full story.
Maybe he’d have spent the summer transfer window buying up players from his old FC Porto side – like Hulk and Alvaro Pereira, who are top, top, top, top, top footballers and who radiate the kind of youthful energy which Frank Lampard must imagine he does too, but definitely doesn’t. Or maybe AVB would have just done what the whole world thought he should do all along and offer Chelsea the signing that they really deserve to replace Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba: welcome to Stamford Bridge, Michael Owen! He’s fit again, you know.
The point is, whilst it’s theoretically possible to construct a delicious fantasy involving a Michael Owen-Art Garfunkel strike partnership and opening day hatricks for both, it’s impossible to know for sure the kind of post-Mourinho Chelsea that AVB would have gone on to create; it’s limited to the guesswork of World Football Experts—like myself—that won’t ever taste reality—unless I get the break I deserve.
Left over instead of the possibility of a more radical Chelsea future is the bland middle-ground that represents sticking with the old guard (John ‘JT’ Terry and Frank ‘Lamps’ Lampard) – so feeble compared to those ill-thought out daydreams of AVB’s Chelsea, all involving Michael Owen. Who, apart from the egomaniacs in the dressing room, wants the current version?
Even the best guesses as to what might have happened under AVB are too shallow to be satisfying. Preliminary attempts to construct an alternative reality where AVB was never sacked—perhaps you spend your day off writing out possible lineups, perhaps you don’t—reveal that there’s not much to go off: how many first team players was AVB allowed to sign last summer? Just four: Oriol Romeu, Romelu Lukaku, Juan Mata and Raul Mereiles, and the first two of those have hardly been central figures for him. Would he have given Frank Lampard and the rest of the Mourinho Lot more chances or waved them off with two-fingered salutes over the summer? There were mixed messages on that. Would he have created an attacking team? There were the early signs, but look how few goals his Chelsea team scored towards the end. Who knows.
No-one has much of an idea what the project was meant to involve, because it didn’t ever happen. For the cool £28 million it cost to bring him in, and the spicy £14 million it could take to have him go away again, nuffing’s changed. A club that really fancied its new manager might have spent the horrendous amount of money it would have taken to nick Luka Modric from Tottenham, the summer signing AVB really wanted. A set of players who really respected their new manager might not have publicly turned on him at the first hint of change. An owner who trusted the man he chose to be his manager might not have turned up at training at the first sign of trouble. But Chelsea wussed out of backing AVB enough to make things interesting.
In the end, there was never really a new story to play with. The manager and his on-off relationship with pressure became the story out of necessity, but that’s not really a good one; you can find it anywhere. Wouldn’t it have been more captivating had the young AVB masterminded some radical, yet always sensual football? Worth a go at least? Answer: Yah.
This isn’t the first time that Chelsea have ruined stories before they’ve really taken off, but at least with the early goodbye to Luis Felipe Scolari there’d been a glimpse of his The Project: Deco, Joe Cole and Nicolas Anelka were buzzing around up front and stuff: it was ambitiously attacking but ultimately flimsy. Rightly or wrongly, there was a sense that Scolari had been worked out: he could attack like that with Brazil in international football, where everyone is a little less organised, but he was exposed in the club game.
Nothing so obvious as that comes forward from Villas-Boas. From his time at Chelsea we know more about Frank Lampard’s ideas on football than we do his own. Now, the players are meant to have had a telling off from Roman Abramovich for that spiteful dissent, but, actually, there’s a much better punishment than that for their role in ruining Villas-Boas’ project for the rest of us: let’s have Frank Lampard enact his vision of a Chelsea team and we’ll all enjoy the results. With him and JT up front, they might not finish fourth.