Wrong man, wrong club?
The end of Villas-Boas' brief tenure at Chelsea hints at his ill fit for the job
The guy never really had a chance.
Andre Villas-Boas, Chelsea's manager for just eight months, was fired Sunday after a fatal 1-0 loss to West Bromwich Albion kept Chelsea in fifth place, 20 points adrift of first-place Manchester City.
If there was any surprise in the move, it was that it hadn't happened earlier. The club's trigger-happy billionaire Russian owner, Roman Abramovich, had been lurking over his manager regularly during practice in recent weeks -- a rarity -- and was even caught with a rare smile on his face as recently as Chelsea's 3-0 win over lowly Bolton a fortnight ago. But he, like the fans, evidently and understandably couldn't abide the West Brom loss and the 3-1 first-leg defeat to Napoli at midweek, which will probably knock Chelsea out of the Champions League prematurely yet again.
"Unfortunately the results and performances of the team have not been good enough and were showing no signs of improving at a key time in the season," explained a Chelsea statement. "With that in mind we felt our only option was to make a change at this time."
It is the third time in less than four years that a Chelsea manager was fired before celebrating his one-year anniversary at the club, with AVB joining Avram Grant and Luiz Felipe Scolari in sharing that unhappiest of honors.
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Rafa Benitez, who was humiliated after succeeding Jose Mourinho at Inter Milan last season, was reported by ESPN Soccernet to have interviewed with the Blues during the week, though the club announced Villas-Boas' assistant Roberto Di Matteo will succeed Villas-Boas in the interim and finish out the season.
In recent weeks, Villas-Boas' exit seemed less possibility than inevitability. He said he would never resign, but he must have been keenly aware by then that he'd taken on an impossible job for which he was entirely unsuited.
He'd inherited from Carlo Ancelotti an old, mutinous squad used to getting its way and having its ego stroked. Several over-the-hill players with considerable locker room clout like Frank Lampard expected, and were expected, to play. Captain, eternal threat to team chemistry and manager executioner John Terry appeared unimpressed with the Portuguese boss, while the albatross of acquisitions like Fernando Torres and David Luiz were forced on Villas-Boas with the understanding that he got them to yield dividends on their collective $113 million investment.
As if the above weren't enough, AVB's own brilliant acquisition of Juan Mata was offset by mediocre signings like Raul Meireles and, from the early looks of it, Gary Cahill. This stodgy group, much of it on its last legs and already skeptical of the new boss -- who was hardly the first man to attempt to bring a hyper-modern approach to English football and fail -- would have been challenging for even the most seasoned of managers.
And Villas-Boas wasn't exactly that. His obvious authority issues were down not just to his mere 34 years of age -- less than a year older than key players like Lampard and Didier Drogba -- but his lack of pedigree too; the grand total of his experience was arguably limited to a single year with a big club, in which he rode FC Porto's domestic dominance and nearly unrivaled transfer savvy to a league, cup and Europa League treble last season. And while it had underperformed the year prior, the Porto squad left by Jesualdo Ferreira was very strong and almost identical to AVB's.
The former Jose Mourinho protege looked, sounded and performed much like his mentor, making him attractive to Abramovich, in a tacit admission that driving Mourinho to resign four years earlier had been a terrible mistake. But their respective moves upon joining Chelsea were wildly different. Granted, Mourinho had been at Porto only two seasons -- just one longer than Villas-Boas -- but he'd also been in charge of Benfica for six months, where he resigned because of a dispute, and had served an eight-year apprenticeship under Bobby Robson and Louis van Gaal at Sporting Lisbon, Porto and Barcelona. Not only that, but Mourinho had competed in and won the Champions League, a decidedly better preparation than the one Villas-Boas enjoyed. Chelsea isn't the club to make your Champions League debut with, after all.
In hindsight, it seems clear that AVB and Chelsea were ultimately a poor match. So poor, in fact, that Chelsea disregarded the scrutiny of UEFA Financial Fair Play regulations that will mandate solvability in two and a half seasons (based on the figures starting this season) at the peril of being excluded from continental competition. It had cost the club some $23 million to buy out Ancelotti and his staff. Extracting and signing Villas-Boas from Porto had set it back another $21 million. Now it faces another hefty payoff on the two years and change remaining on AVB's contract while somehow keeping its books balanced.
Sources told ESPN Soccernet that Abramovich will now pursue Barcelona's super-successful manager Pep Guardiola. The money will be good, and the buyout for a year or so of work, even better. But surely nobody with a résumé free of major blights could be tempted to drink from the poisoned Chelsea chalice now.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderESPN.
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