Why isn't Villas-Boas's philosophy working yet?

Rory Smith assesses how the Portuguese's style has got lost in translation at Chelsea

Andre Villas-Boas, the thinking went, did not need time. He did not need time at Porto, where he oversaw a transition from mediocrity to magnificence in just a few weeks. And he would not need time at Chelsea, or so it seemed, when he arrived to fulfil the simplest, starkest of briefs: a complete reinvention of the way the club played, the way the club won.

He was, of course, the natural choice: a 33-year-old in a hurry, the alchemist Roman Abramovich required, the manager who could replace Stamford Bridge's creaking base metal while keeping up a supply of gold sufficiently steady to sate his benefactor. That is what he did at Porto, after all. This time last year, they were champions elect, sweeping all before them. Chelsea, surely, would be the same.

Five months on, the revolution has been televised, and the revolution has been criticised. Chelsea's progress has been halting, uncertain. Only victory against Valencia tonight will stave off yet more talk of crisis. So why, after his gilded beginning, is the clock starting to tick on Villas-Boas?

 

Undermined in the middle

The Chelsea manager himself admits that the most important tactical facet of his Porto side was the rotation of his midfield. "Our No 6 sometimes became a more attacking midfielder and we tried to do that here," he says.

At Porto, the system worked like this: a 4-1-2-3 formation, in which Fernando, the Brazilian, nominally filled the deeper-lying defensive role. Joao Moutinho, Fernando Belluschi or Fredy Guarin were stationed ahead of him. Villas-Boas's twist, though, was that his system permitted his three midfielders to interchange that role at will, unbalancing their opposition, breaking forward unexpectedly, adding pace and urgency to attacks.

"We decided it doesn't work here, so that's one of the things I have adapted," he admits. "You lose a little bit of balance in the Premier League if you play that way. Transitions here are much more direct, making the importance of the No 6 to stay in position most decisive." The issue is that, in switching to a more static No 6 – initially John Obi Mikel, now Oriol Romeu – his side's sharpness has been blunted.

 

The high line and the high wire

English football does not react well to those who attempt to change its lexicon. Claudio Ranieri and Rafael Benitez never recovered from their perceived foibles of squad rotation and zonal marking; Villas-Boas may live to rue the phrase "high line".

The Portuguese is adamant Chelsea's defensive problems are overstated. "Is your organisation called into question because you have conceded four more goals than the leaders [Manchester City]?" he asked, bemused, last week.

It is not, though, the quantity so much as the quality of the goals that have caused concern. Fingers have variously pointed at the previously unflappable John Terry, the eminently flapping David Luiz and even Ashley Cole, but Chelsea's problems speak more of a system failing, rather than any of its constituent parts.

Villas-Boas is evidently concerned by the "relationship between the line and the goalkeeper". It is here that much of the confusion starts: Petr Cech is not a sweeper-keeper, meaning there is a huge area behind the defence – pushed up to press in midfield – to exploit. The absence of a specialist, trusted right-back means the line is split – Ashley Cole pushes up on the left, but the more defensive Branislav Ivanovic does not – and the team lacks balance.

 

The irreplaceable Hulk

Porto's defining characteristic was the speed of their transition: the rapidity with which the ball travelled from back to front. "There are different things [in my philosophy] that are related to building up from the back, opening up spaces in your build-up, the rotation of the midfield, the movement, the strikers working within the lines," says Villas-Boas, when asked to describe the central tenets of his teams' play.

All came together perfectly at Porto, and in a side built to maximise the talents of Brazilian striker Hulk: playing wide on the right but equally adept at coming inside or attacking the flank, his role was to occupy the opposition's left-back, dragging him out of position. The right-sided midfielder – Belluschi or Guarin – would then attack the space left behind, giving Porto a front four.

It is no wonder Daniel Sturridge is thriving under Villas-Boas: the young striker has, effectively, been handed Hulk's role. One problem, though, is that Sturridge tends to head to the middle rather than out wide. Another is that Chelsea do not possess players with either the instincts or the conditioning to get the ball to him at the speed at which it arrived for the Brazilian. Two years of Carlo Ancelotti's more patient style has created a side, more contemplative, more ponderous in possession.

One glance at Villas-Boas's ins and outs list is enough to bear that out: on the one, Salomon Kalou, Florent Malouda and Nicolas Anelka, all slow movers of the ball, and the other the likes of Eduardo Vargas, quick and direct. So too his behaviour on the touchline: Romeu makes far more risky passes than Mikel, but each one is applauded by his manager; each one is a little revolution in itself, a step toward the future Villas-Boas has planned out.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neil Young performs on stage at Hyde Park
musicAnd his Hyde Park set has rhyme and reason, writes Nick Hasted
News
Women have been desperate to possess dimples like Cheryl Cole's
people Cole has secretly married French boyfriend Jean-Bernard Fernandez-Versini after just three months.
Arts and Entertainment
AKB48 perform during one of their daily concerts at Tokyo’s Akihabara theatre
musicJapan's AKB48 are one of the world’s most-successful pop acts
News
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
people
News
The headstone of jazz great Miles Davis at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York
news
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll has brought out his female alter-ego Agnes Brown for Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie
filmComedy holds its place at top of the UK box office
News
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
Extras
indybestThe tastiest creations for children’s parties this summer
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Arts and Entertainment
Paolo Nutini performs at T in the Park
music
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily World Cup Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

Meet Japan's AKB48

Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
In pictures: Breathtaking results of this weekend's 'supermoon'

Weekend's 'supermoon' in pictures

The moon appeared bigger and brighter at the weekend
Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor