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Chelsea preview: Refocus, not rebuild

Andre Villas-Boas brings back much of the same squad that faltered as season's end.
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Andy Brassell

Andy Brassell is a regular contributor to FOXSoccer.com, covering Europe and the UEFA Champions League. He is also the author of All Or Nothing: A Season In The Life Of The Champions League.

 
   
 

One of two teams to win the Premier League since 2004-05, Chelsea's finish to the 2010-11 campaign has league-followers wondering if they're in the middle of a regroup or foolishly putting off a reload. Continuing FOX Soccer's look at this year's Premier League, Andy Brassell discusses where Chelsea sit in their success cycle.

It took two months for Chelsea to haul itself back into the English Premier League title race – but it took a mere 36 seconds to ruin all that hard work. Eight wins in nine games, starting with the March 1st win against Manchester United in the return fixture at Stamford Bridge, had seen the champion arrive at Old Trafford knowing a win would take it back to the top of the table with just two games to go. In the London meeting, United led through Wayne Rooney before iconic new signing David Luiz leveled with his first Chelsea goal, a fizzing volley. Frank Lampard’s penalty later completed the comeback.

How unfortunate then, after making such a huge impression at his new club and having a key role in lifting morale, that Luiz should be the central figure in Chelsea’s disastrous start to this key game. As Ji-Sung Park sent an uncharacteristically approximate pass through the heart of the Blues’ defense in the opening seconds of the match, Luiz’s ghastly misjudgment ended with him stretching vainly at the ball, and left Javier Hernandez with a clear run on goalkeeper Petr Cech. Chicharito was merciless, and United led with its first attack. Sir Alex Ferguson, one imagines, could not believe his luck. The result was never in doubt from that point onwards. A 2-1 loss flattered Chelsea and left United needing a maximum of one point from two remaining fixtures (with Blackburn and Blackpool) to seal the deal.

ENGLISH PREMIER LEAGUE
PRESEASON PREDICTION

 
PL CLUB
1 Manchester United
2 Manchester City
3 Chelsea
4 Arsenal
5 Liverpool

Despite FOX Soccer's editors and writers picking the Blues for a third place finish, there's general consensus there there's little the separates Chelsea from Manchesters United and City. Chelsea has the pieces in place to reclaim their crown.

 

The wise-after-the-event brigade called for Luiz to moved into midfield in future after his blunder, but short cuts – rather than working to improve and iron out mistakes – were not the answer. His signing, along with that of Fernando Torres, has been a vain attempt to paper over sizable cracks in Chelsea’s make-up. The charm of Carlo Ancelotti in his first season at the club had been built around a renewed joie de vivre, and a positive philosophy that saw the Blues rattle in an astonishing 103 goals in 38 league matches. Yet Chelsea was hardly faultless in that 2009/10 title season, losing six times and being alarmingly outplayed by Tottenham during the run-in. Arguably, United’s renewed durability in 2010/-111 closed the gap, a virtue juxtaposed by the injury to Lampard and the illness suffered by Didier Drogba, absences which saw Chelsea shorn of the peak form of its two previous season's stars for considerable periods.

The pre-Old Trafford run had been an extended placebo. One point from the last three matches – taken in the following week’s draw with Newcastle United at Stamford Bridge - left United nine clear at the top and gave a fairer reflection of the season.

The late season swoon leaves Chelsea with a clear – but very specific - rebuild job on its hands. The divergent fortunes of Luiz (a huge success) and Torres (a near-disaster) since their respective arrivals had shown that regenerating such a successful squad would not be an easy task and would take time. Whether notoriously-impatient owner Roman Abramovich could grasp that revolution wasn't the answer in order to achieve his ambitions was open to question, but it was clear the coach needed to understand that.

CHELSEA SQUAD WATCH

 
MOST EXCITING Didier Drogba
MOST VALUABLE Branislav Ivanovic
BEST ACQUISITION Oriel Romeu (Barcelona)? Yes, Abramovich still owns this team.
OTHER INS Nobody that's going to be with the club this season.
LOSSES Yuri Zhirov (Anzhi Makhachkala)
PROSPECT TO WATCH Josh McEachran
 

Sadly for the admirable Ancelotti, the feeling at the club was that the man in question was not him, and he was fired almost immediately after defeat in the final league game, at Everton. A man of great loyalty, Ancelotti was never comfortable spending huge wads of cash. Unfortunately, neither did he have a specialist director of football onside, who might have liaised with him over purchases rather than presenting him with players as a fait accompli. That Ancelotti turned to Drogba ahead of Torres at his hour of need last season showed firmly nailed his own colors to the mast.

In the cold light of day – and outside the Chelsea boardroom – 2010-11 was a disappointment, not a disaster. So judicious tweaking of a formula that has taken Chelsea to three titles, three FA Cups and in touching distance of the longed-for Champions League is the order of the day, rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Hence the change in coach. Much as Ancelotti deserved better treatment, and much as Chelsea may be taking a shot in the dark with his successor, Andre Villas-Boas, there should be an overhaul in approach. Expectations at the club will remain insanely high, but Villas-Boas has admitted this is the main aspect that attracted him to take the job, a year earlier than most observers expected.

RIVAL WATCH

 

Chelsea is a bit of a strange one on the rivalry front. They're the second most prominent club in the league right now, yet they aren't a part of a major derby. Fulham and Queens Park Rangers are traditional rivals, but the gap that's opened between Chelsea and the other West London clubs has taken something away from those derbies. Matches with the two big North London clubs, Arsenal and Spurs, can inspire as much excitement.

 

It always seemed destined that Villas-Boas would return to west London and take the reins at some point – not so much because of the rather tiresome Jose Mourinho comparison, but because Villas-Boas’s rising star has been inexorable during his time at Academica de Coimbra and Porto. The young Portuguese already had the respect of Chelsea’s megastars from his spell as chief opposition scout, under Mourinho.

Whereas Ancelotti employs a laid-back, less-is-more approach which conveys a strong degree of trust in the professionalism of his senior players (just as at AC Milan), Villas-Boas is unbelievably thorough, and a stickler for detail, having an analytical approach to the game borne of a lack of playing background. The accomplished footballer Ancelotti is far more intuitive. This will be no surprise to those in the Stamford Bridge locker room who already know Villas-Boas from his the detailed dossiers he provided on their direct opponents before every match, an aspect that prompted much gratitude. A born communicator, Villas-Boas proves that authority and open dialogue can co-exist.

Villas-Boas is a managerial Womble - an inveterate recycler turning other people’s trash into his own trinkets. Pre-season form is by no means gospel, but the prominence of Yossi Benayoun (injured last season), Daniel Sturridge (loaned to Bolton last season) and Salomon Kalou (notoriously inconsistent every season) has suggested he could repeat the trick of his spell at Porto, where he incorporated presumed deadwood such as Fernando Belluschi and Christian Sapunaru and made them into important players.

AUGUST FIXTURES

 
DATE TIME OPPONENT
August 20 12:30 P.M. ET West Bromwich Albion (live, FOX Soccer)
August 27 10:00 A.M. ET Norwich City (live, FOXSoccer.tv)
 

All those players fulfill potential needs of the team. Benayoun can provide craft from the right flank, but also has the imagination to play as the No. 10 that latter-day Chelsea has always lacked, with the monolithic nature of the Blues’ midfield being a recurring weakness. Sturridge is a very different striker to either Torres or Drogba, combining trickery with his pace and loving to make fools of defenders. Kalou, meanwhile, is the exact type of forward that Villas-Boas loves; a wide man, who can stretch play with his pace, and drop into the middle to score goals. Maybe, under a coach who sees him as more than a stop-gap, he can truly begin to fulfill the potential he showed at Feyenoord.

Yet we should not think Villas-Boas is completely wedded to 4-3-3. This worked at Porto partly because it was the existing formation that the existing players knew and were comfortable with. He gave that familiar shape a completely different dynamic and attitude, and he could do the same with Chelsea; but his players could easily export their talents to 4-4-2 as well. Torres frequently complained of the battering he took as a lone striker at Liverpool, and in Drogba (and, as a back-up, new boy Romelu Lukaku), he has the foil to take that punishment for him. Villas-Boas is an arch-democrat and will take notice of his senior players’ opinions, so adaptability and creation of room for self-expression will be a key motif of Villas-Boas’ tenure.

General consensus has been for a few years now that Chelsea’s squad is on the turn, and soon to go out-of-date. The January purchases of Luiz and Torres, two assumed new cornerstones of the team, appeared to acknowledge this, but Chelsea’s ability to make a contest of the EPL title in the final weeks of last season suggested that something more is in the tank. Villas-Boas’s ability to condition extremely fit sides could extend the careers of some players in the way that Arsene Wenger did in his early years at Arsenal. The spirit of this set of ‘mercenaries’ has never been in doubt, and if Chelsea does not win the title, it will be mighty close.

Andy Brassell is the European correspondent for BBC 5Live's World Football Phone-In and a contributor to FOXSoccer.com. His work appears in titles including The Independent. Andy is also the author of 'All Or Nothing: A Season In The Life Of The Champions League' and can be found on Twitter at @andybrassell.

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