Villas-Boas faces his first big EPL test
However you look at it, Sunday's trip to Old Trafford is Andre Villas-Boas' first real test as Chelsea manager. Just five games into his tenure, he faces the fixture that has effectively decided the destination of the league title in the past two seasons; in 2009-10 Chelsea won 2-1 in April to leapfrog United at the top, and last season United won by the same scoreline to put itself a point away from the title.
Villas-Boas should be thankful that he's had some time to prepare for this clash because an amazing number of his predecessors have started their Chelsea careers with a game against United. Claudio Ranieri began with a 3-3 draw at Old Trafford, Jose Mourinho's opening game was a 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge, Avram Grant took over on short notice for a 2-0 reverse in Manchester, and Carlo Ancelotti's debut was an eventful draw in the 2009 Community Shield. Four games to prepare for United is a rare privilege for a Chelsea manager these days.
His results so far have been decent -- no outstanding performances, but 10 points from 12 in the league, and an opening-day win in the Champions League. Off the pitch, however, Villas-Boas has quietly gone about his business well, particularly in the transfer market. The acquisitions of Juan Mata and Raul Meireles have revolutionized Chelsea's midfield, Daniel Sturridge is finally being given a chance up front, and the use of young Oriol Romeu shows Villas-Boas wants a more technical game plan. Meanwhile, Frank Lampard and John Terry were rested for the Champions League in midweek, and Didier Drogba doesn't seem a first choice. Chelsea needed freshening up, and the 33-year-old Portuguese manager has done that very well.
This is the first big game, though, and Villas-Boas has a good record in important encounters. With his first club, Academica, there was probably only one fixture you could describe as "big" -- the bottom-of-the-table clash with Vitoria de Setubal, which Academica won 3-0 to move off the bottom and leave the relegation battle behind it.
Villas-Boas' move to Porto saw some huge games, in fact -- notably the Classicos against Benfica, the biggest fixture in Portugal. Villas-Boas' first Classico was a legendary 5-0 win at home, and his second saw Porto win 2-1 to clinch the league title at the Estadio da Luz. Porto's performances in its successful Europa League campaign also indicated its manager was up for the big occasion.
So what will his approach be against United? It is well known that Villas-Boas is a keen student of the game, someone who uses scouts and videos extensively in order to pinpoint weaknesses in his opponents. In that 5-0 win against Benfica, he believed Benfica was vulnerable in its left-back zone, where David Luiz -- ironically, now one of his own players -- was being played out of position. Therefore, Villas-Boas pushed his right-sided midfield, Fernando Belluschi, higher up the pitch, and he combined with Hulk to constantly unlock Benfica's defense. All five goals came from Benfica's left, the area that was targeted. That is Villas-Boas' trademark -- he imposes an open, positive style of football, but also varies specific tactical elements from game to game.
Manchester United has started the season strongly, but Villas-Boas will have noticed some areas of weakness. The Red Devils often look too vulnerable between the lines of defense and midfield (amazingly, they've conceded more shots than any other Premier League side so far), while Patrice Evra looked shaky even in the crushing 8-2 defeat of Arsenal. Concerns about David De Gea have been exaggerated, but Villas-Boas might attempt to come up with a tactic to trouble him.
The key man is Mata, whose Chelsea career is off to an extremely strong start. He can drift in from the left flank to cause United problems in front of its defense, and his combination play so far with Fernando Torres has worked well. Torres continues to look out of form in front of goal, but two assists in the Champions League show that he is contributing to the side, and he has a decent record at Old Trafford. On that note, Ramires is another important player in this match -- he needs to provide the drive in midfield to help Chelsea play a more "vertical" game, in Torres' words.
ESPN FC on Twitter
Don't miss a moment of the latest soccer coverage from around the world. Follow us on Twitter and stay informed. Join »
The biggest factor, though, is motivation. How much command does Villas-Boas have over the Chelsea players? It has been a dressing room notorious for being dominated by one or two star players, and we're still yet to see how much the Chelsea side is prepared to work for its new coach. How much do the players trust him? How closely will they follow his instructions? The likes of Norwich, West Brom, Sunderland and Stoke were unlikely to highlight any weaknesses here, but United certainly will.
No other side in Europe starts big home games as strongly as United -- Chelsea will know that from Javier Hernandez's goal after 36 seconds last season -- and Villas-Boas will have to get his players fired up from the first whistle. It is early in the season, but this is a crucial game in Chelsea's new era.
Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He also runs zonalmarking.net.