And so it’s done. On Sunday, Chelsea FC fired manager Andre Villas-Boas. The club made the move in order to salvage any remaining chance to qualify for next season’s UEFA Champions League. In doing so, it has put its own long-term future in jeopardy.
It was just over eight months ago that Chelsea paid a record £13.3 million ($21 million) to free Villas-Boas from his contract with FC Porto. The Blues gave the boy-wonder of soccer managers a three-year £4.5 million ($7.1 million) per year deal.
His marching orders were to overhaul an aging squad, and implement an attractive, up-tempo style. However, that mandate contained a poison pill. Club bosses wanted him to develop a new crop of Chelsea stars while sustaining the on-field success to which the club and its supporters had grown accustomed over the last decade.
It was always likely to be an impossible task. Villas-Boas was just 33 years young when he took charge of a veteran-laden team. Although he had all the technical skills required to lead the team back to the top, several man-management errors doomed him almost from the start.
His first political mis-step, an unwavering defense of accused bigot John Terry, might have planted the seeds of doubt in the minds of key figures at the club. His mistreatment of respected veterans Alex and Nicolas Anelka caused a mutiny in the dressing room.
Absent these gaffes, the transition was going to be difficult. When he slipped up, the hawks in the dressing room seized on the chance to sink his project and secure their own (immediate) futures at the club.
Under Villas-Boas’ watch, Chelsea won just four of 16 games (in all competitions) from mid-December through March 3. Chelsea bosses had a simple choice to make. They could either back Villas-Boas (and miss out on next season’s Champions League) or give in to player power.
They chose the latter option, and the club’s future now lays at the feet of the core group of players whose best years are behind them. It’s possible for Chelsea to finish in the top four of this season’s Premier League, but so what if they do? The Chelsea “old guard” is not strong enough to win the Premier League or Champions League this season. The chance of lifting either trophy will be even more remote in 2012-13.
The need for a transition will only grow with time. There’s no guarantee that veterans will receive the next manager with any more warmth than they did Villas-Boas. And if it happens that the stars turn on him, then Chelsea will be in a worse position than it is now.
Despite the turmoil, Villas-Boas either recruited or had the support of a dozen or so players that represented Chelsea’s future. Had he been able to make temporary peace with internal enemies, and ensure a respectable end to the season, then the club may have been in a position to compete for honors sooner rather than later.
For now, many players age 18-27 will be considering their futures. They may not want to stay at a club that seems to relish in such a state of upheaval. And what top player (or manager) wants to join a club at which instability is constant? When the “old guard” finally steps aside, who will follow in their footsteps?
This summer, owner Roman Abramovich will hire his ninth manager in as many years in charge of the West London club. His millions helped turn Chelsea FC from a strong domestic club into a world soccer power. But his increasingly quick-trigger threatens to reverse a decade of progress.