Villas-Boas starts to feel the strain
Chelsea manager admits job is on line but claims Abramovich's backing
No criticism, no animosity, no insults.
No plans for a drastic revision of system or squad; no need for a change in management style or structure; certainly no call for Guus Hiddink. Andre Villas-Boas admitted for the first time yesterday that he faces a battle to hold on to his job as Chelsea manager if he cannot bring an end to the club's worst start to a season for a decade, but the 34-year-old remains defiant that whether he stands or falls, he will stick to his beliefs until the very end.
The Portuguese, such a garrulous, open interlocutor when he first arrived in the Premier League, showed the first glimpses of the strain attendant on his post at Chelsea's Cobham base yesterday. By turns spiky and sullen, prickly and precious, Villas-Boas's only consistency in a press conference watched by the club's chairman, Bruce Buck, was his orthodoxy that the reaction to his team's run of four defeats in seven games from fans and media alike has been totally out of proportion.
He retains the faith of his players, he insists, and, even more crucially, his owner, a view expressed in phone calls between Villas-Boas and Roman Abramovich this week. He dismissed the notion that Hiddink might be brought in as a director of football – the club's well-regarded former caretaker was relieved of his duties as Turkey manager this month, but Villas-Boas maintains that he "solves problems with my group of people" – and insisted he continues to "sleep well" at night, despite Chelsea's toxic form.
Most telling, though, is Villas-Boas's admission that without a prompt turnaround in form, his position is untenable. "Results in football are the key to a manager's sustainability," he said. "I have no problem with it. I didn't come here to be failure. I came here to be a success. I have spoken to Roman Abramovich, and I have his belief. Everybody wants to get out of this situation. It is nothing unique to have a run of bad results.
"My relationship with the dressing room is very, very good. There are no problems whatsoever with the group. There is a complete relationship of respect, professionalism and empathy. The manager and the technical staff believe in the players and they believe in us. We have had a lot of meetings with the players and staff. There has been no criticism, no animosity, no insults. There are no doubts whatsoever on what we are doing."
That is certainly true of Villas-Boas. His philosophy, that of intense, attacking football, will be "the last thing to die" at Stamford Bridge, for however long he is around. The idea that the high defensive line he employs is ill-suited to the players at his disposal is dismissed as a "misconception" which has not cost the club any goals this season.
"Name a goal we have conceded through our line," he demanded yesterday. Neither Glen Johnson's winner for Liverpool nor Arsenal's fourth, scored by Robin van Persie after John Terry stumbled near the halfway line, qualified. He is similarly contemptuous of the allegation that Chelsea's defeat at Bayer Leverkusen exposed a weakness at set pieces. "They had eight or nine and scored one and hit the post once," he said. "That is the first goal we have conceded from a corner this season, and it is November."
A suggestion he may need to tweak his approach to man-management to adapt to the multimillionaire superstars he is now tasked with coaxing back to form is similarly batted away. Molly-coddling, he says, is not his "style". It is a word he returns to again and again.
Seeking reassurance from Abramovich, he says, is not his style. "It is a three-year contract," he explained. "We have not discussed time. I do not ask for time. I set myself targets of trophies." He will not pick a safety-first team to beat Wolves today, temporarily suspending his appreciation of the aesthetic, because it is not his style. Indulging Fernando Torres, a player with a pathological need for appreciation, likewise.
"It has never been my style of coaching or what I believe in [to favour one individual]," Villas-Boas said. "The guy I put on the pitch is my No 1. All of them have had that status. It does not apply to my style of coaching, praising individuals or influencing them by saying they are the best in the world. It is not about an individual. It is about a team."
The Portuguese may be adamant he does not indulge players, but his persistent refusal to issue any rebuke at all for their poor form over the last six weeks offers a stark contrast. Just as his side have not conceded goals because of their defensive system or set pieces or individual errors – "it is about collective errors" – he simply will not even hint that any of his senior players are below par.
"Tell me who is not playing at their top," he said. Torres? "I don't agree." John Terry, his captain? "No, I don't agree." Ashley Cole, fit again for the visit of Mick McCarthy's side? "No." Is his team, then, good enough to compete with both Manchester clubs, to succeed in the Champions League? "This squad was put together by my technical staff to compete for four trophies."
He is equally unimpressed by former the belief of former Chelsea player Michael Ballack, now with Leverkusen, that Chelsea lack their usual mental strength. "He did not solve so many problems when he was here," he said. "Michael is very opinionated. He is entitled to his opinions. I do not agree."
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