Those same key figures responded by embracing the pair, and showed the 34-year-old manager who they think runs the show at Chelsea FC.
When Villas-Boas took over last summer, Chelsea was in an awkward position. The team was capable of challenging for honors in England and in Europe. But it was also nearing the end of an era, and a transitions was (and still is) inevitable. The only question was how smooth and orderly it would be.
Villas-Boas’s arrival was always going to be met with skepticism by senior Chelsea players. He arrived at the age of 33 — just one or two years older than players on whom his immediate future would depend.
They had seen top managers — Jose Mourinho, Luis Felipe Scolari, Guus Hiddink and Carlo Ancelotti — with one FIFA World Cup and five UEFA Champions League trophies among them come and go through the years. They may have given Villas-Boas the benefit of the doubt, but it’s only natural that they would watch his every move, compare him to his predecessors and judge his ability for themselves.
Chelsea breezed through the first two months of the season, and it appeared the Blues would remain a force. But when John Terry allegedly racially abused a black opponent, QPR defender Anton Ferdinand, Villas-Boas backed the Chelsea captain. It is unknown if it created divisions in the team, but Chelsea began to slip. Three home losses, one to Arsenal and two against Liverpool, exposed Chelsea’s vulnerability.
It looked like the Blues had regained their footing in early December when two little-used veterans submitted transfer requests. Anelka and Alex wanted to leave and find a place to play regularly in the twighlight of their careers. Villas-Boas accapted their requests, but his next moves cost him dearly.
He could have seen their desire to leave as an indication that they did not believe in his project (and by extension in his ability). He excluded them from practice (with the first team), cleared out their lockers, made them park in the public parking lot and change in the youth academy facilities. He added insult by refusing to allow them to attend the club’s Christmas party — the annual Silver Service luncheon — leaving Anelka distraught and his teammates fuming, according to The Mail.
“To make up for the snub … the rest of the Chelsea players entertained Anelka at London’s renowned Chinese restaurant, China Tang, at the Dorchester Hotel,” the report said. “The blatant disregard for Villas-Boas’ stance is the clearest sign yet that the young Portuguese manager is struggling to keep on top of his star names.”
A source added, “The lads thought banning [Anelka] from the lunch was petty and spiteful. AVB [Villas-Boas] has lost the dressing room and it’s become so bad several players want to get away now.”
Alex and Anelka weren’t just two squad players. They were accomplished professionals whose career achievements spoke for themselves. More important, they were close friends of the other Chelsea veterans, having each spent over four years with the club.
The young manager’s treatement of the pair sent a strong signal to the team. Many veterans, especially top earners like Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, Didier Drogba, Michael Essien and Petr Cech, may have seen their own futures in the way Villas-Boas froze Anelka and Alex out of the picture. So they fought back.
Since Chelsea’s win over Manchester City on Dec. 12, the team has played 10 Premier League games and won two. Within six months of Villas-Boas’ arrival, it was clear that Chelsea transition would be messy and explosive. The players’ power move signaled that the veteran-heavy squad was in open revolt against the 34-year-old manager.
Villas-Boas’ future as Chelsea manager hangs in the balance, as the effects of a decision he made less than three months ago are there for the world to see. The ability to manage men (or women) — as groups and individuals — is an essential part of the job of manager. Villas-Boas stumbled in his first big test of management.
The problem wasn’t that he allowed Anelka and Alex to leave the club. It was the way he pushed them out the door that lost him the support of key players. This misstep may prove to be a fatal one, as far as his reign as Chelsea boss is concerned.
Photo via Flickr/jaymeydad