By Ali Maxwell
Chelsea ended an under-achieving season in 2010/11 with a depressing result at Goodison Park, a sizeable gap between them and Champions Manchester United, and the subsequent footballing execution of Carlo Ancelotti who, just the year before, had raised the Premier League and FA Cup trophies aloft from an open-topped bus, while singing (a generous term for it) ‘Volare’ to thousands of incoherently ecstatic Chelsea fans lining the Fulham Road. The word that summed it all up for me? Uninspiring. With just a few days before the opening game of the campaign – on a warm Sunday afternoon in Stoke – the question being asked is whether Mr Abramovich can justify his tiresome and tetchy trigger-finger, or whether patience should have been the order of the day.
Since that day, a great deal has changed. The new man, Andre Villas-Boas, has been talked about a fair amount, so there’s not much need to go into detail on his background and/or credentials. There’s certainly no need to talk about how he was terrified about the Millenium Bug because he was about to complete ‘Pokemon Blue’ on his Gameboy. Yes, he is very young.
However, Villas-Boas seems to have instilled a good sense of discipline into a squad that, in the past, has been accused of using and abusing ‘player-power’ to stand against certain managers. Everyone at the club is saying very positive things about him (as you would expect) and about the way that every player started from Square One, with no preconceived notions of players being ‘Untouchable’. This healthy competitiveness has shown itself in Chelsea’s pre-season. While never really testing themselves in terms of opposition – à la Manchester United and Manchester City – Chelsea have won every game, conceding just one goal.
One thing that has impressed me with Villas-Boas is the same thing that has angered many frustrated Chelsea fans. The fact that he didn’t charge into town and start throwing money and bids around was completely the correct way to go about it. While many Chelsea Twitterers were bemoaning a lack of signings, or bids at least, AVB was giving every player in the current squad a chance. To my eyes, that has earned him the respect of the squad, has given some of them the kick up the arse that they needed, but also means that he know has a clear picture of who, or what, he needs to sign in order to strengthen. Not only that, but as Manchester City are finding out, it is all too easy to be held to ransom by selling clubs. By showing he will not be toyed with in the transfer market, AVB has sent an important message to his fellow managers.
On that theme, I’ve been very impressed with his signings so far. Thibault Courtois and Oriol Romeu are not the biggest names, and Romelu Lukaku? Well we’ve heard a lot about him, but he’s not the Falcao or the Aguero that the Chelsea fans wanted. However, with a real lack of value in the market, and with Chelsea’s rivals paying over-the-odds for (English) players, AVB has bought sensibly and, more importantly, with the future in mind. Courtois, if you listen to the Belgian experts on Twitter (@BelgoFoot and @TheBelgWaffle) had a fantastic season in the Jupiler League and will only get better, especially whilst gaining vital first-team at the highest level (on loan at Athletico Madrid), which Chelsea and Petr Cech could not offer. Oriol Romeu, aka ‘The Bulldozer’, has been schooled at La Masia (can’t argue with that), and man-child Romelu Lukaku, although expensive, has already played 75+ games for the biggest club in Belgium, at just under the Holy Grail 0.5 goal/game ratio.
Just before the last game of the season, I wrote a blog post about how I felt Abramovich and Chelsea fans were better off being more patient, and I pleaded (in vain) to keep the faith in Ancelotti. Alas, it wasn’t to be, but I have to say I couldn’t be happier with the appointment. During the manger-less summer days, I was struck by how many of the names that Chelsea were being linked with were names that I actively didn’t want to manage my club. Hiddink was the favourite, but my main worry was that he is considered a Chelsea hero, merely from those post-Scolari months and that FA Cup win. I’ve never been a believer in re-signing ‘Messiahs’, it ends it tears more often than not (Liverpool fans beware) because there is so much scope for disappointment. A lot has been said and written about Villas-Boas’ age and experience (or lack thereof), but in terms of excitement for new seasons, his appointment certainly put it up more notches than any other manager could have, except perhaps Pep Guardiola.
In summary, I and most switched-on Chelsea fans, am looking forward to this new season. The return of the prodigal Daniel Sturridge, the arrival of 3 youngsters (plus Lucas Piazon arriving in Jaunuary), the well-rested squad (apart from David Luiz and Ramires at the Copa America, no established first team players had a major international competition this summer, which hasn’t been the case for a while). Having said that, even as an inherent optimist, I do not predict, and I do not expect for Chelsea to win the Premier League this year, nor the Champions League. The strength of Manchester United, Manchester City make this year’s Premier League Title Race™ hugely competitive. I believe that Chelsea is a football club in transition. But unlike Arsenal, who have been saying that ever since Henry left, I expect this transition to be swift. As everyone knows, Chelsea have an ageing squad. But the amount of youthful replacements being signed or groomed through the academy, means that although Chelsea may have an almost completely new squad in 2/3 years, they will have an established and ambitious manager in Villas-Boas, a well-balanced and modern backroom staff and, hopefully, a real culture of winning. It starts here, it starts now and *puts on stupidly loud Martin Tyler voice*, IT’S LIVE!