Were it not for the 16-minute press conference he delivered at the end of the game, you would have been hard-pressed to know that Andre Villas-Boas was even present at Fratton Park as his reign at Chelsea kicked off with the minimum of fuss and a 1-0 victory at Portsmouth on Saturday.
He spent the entire 90 minutes glued to his seat in the dugout, only venturing pitchside once to deliver instructions, and then after the final whistle to chat with Portsmouth's former Porto player Ricardo Rocha and shake hands with Pompey's manager Steve Cotterill.
It was also difficult to yet see any signs of Villas-Boas on the pitch. He stayed true to the 4-3-3 formation that has served Chelsea so well since it was introduced by Jose Mourinho seven years ago. The only surprise was the lack of change in personnel, style and tactics. Some of the problems of last season were also still there – a lack of width, insufficient accuracy when exchanging passes, and another unconvincing performance from £50m striker Fernando Torres.
This understated, back-seat role is part of the Villas-Boas way, the 33-year-old explained after Tal Ben-Haim's own goal in the fifth minute had settled this turgid pre-season friendly. However there is no doubt who is in charge – Villas-Boas, who cost £13m to poach from Porto, is just taking stock of his assets. He has not come to Stamford Bridge to shake things up and stick a rocket up collective backsides. Instead he talks of learning from the players, and giving them freedom to play, which in itself is something new if not particularly sexy.
Villas-Boas said: "Normally people are expected to arrive at Chelsea and make radical changes but on the other hand we are taking everything on board before taking the right decisions. Our arrival here is much more about freeing these players and finding their talent than about making radical changes. It's not about taking my ideas, it's about expressing themselves and finding new ideas and new spaces, and taking better decisions.
"In the end, it's not a person who arrives and changes attitudes. All of these players are experienced and have won a lot in their careers. So it is not just this 33-year-old arriving and showing them the way. It's more them that show the way forward. You just need to find a good balance between the two, their ideas and our ideas as technical staff."
Refreshing words from Villas-Boas, who has created a positive impression in his first two-weeks in charge, placing greater emphasis on ball work in training and pursuing a policy of dialogue and inclusion.
Villas-Boas used 23 players at Portsmouth as he changed the entire starting eleven at half-time. He also called on three teenagers – 18-year-olds Billy Clifford and Tomas Kalas played the first 45 minutes, while 16-year-old prospect Nathaniel Chalobah partnered John Terry in defence for the second half.
Chelsea left for a tour to the Far East yesterday, and Villas-Boas will use the four games during the next fortnight to decide which players will not be part of his project. "I have 15 days in Asia to do the best decisions and I think I need those four games to continue to assess. Probably when we get back from Asia we have a week running into a game with Rangers and I think from then on decisions will have to be taken to be ready for the first game of the season," he said.
Chelsea continue to pursue Luka Modric and Scott Parker to strengthen midfield, where they have lost Michael Essien to a torn cruciate ligament for six months. They have signed 19-year-old goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois from Genk for £8m, who Villas-Boas described as being "one of the best future goalkeepers". Courtois will be assessed by Villas-Boas before he decides whether to send him on loan, as will Daniel Sturridge and Josh McEachran.
These are very early days for Villas-Boas, and the signs are that his changes will be subtle ones, trying to get more from the players he has inherited rather than ripping up Chelsea's team or tactics. At least he started with a victory, albeit an unconvincing one, as winning games will ultimately be the deciding factor in whether his holistic approach is successful or not.
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