On The Brink: The Young Pretender.

Napoli: Another headache for AVB.
Similarly to ‘The Old Master’, things looked very different for Andre Villas-Boas one year ago. On the 4th March 2011 I described his unbelievable success story with table-topping Porto and how the Portuguese was destined for stardom. As predicted, Villas-Boas moved on to a bigger stage with Chelsea, following once again in the footsteps of the Special One.

However, the fairy tale move has not yet panned out. Struggling in the league, knocked out of the Carling Cup, held to a fifth-round FA Cup replay by Birmingham City, and comprehensively defeated in the first round of their Champions League last sixteen tie with Napoli, Villas-Boas is widely tipped as the next Premier League manager to leave his post, winning only two of the last eight games.

The recent run of bad results, including the throwing away of a 3-0 lead at home to Manchester United, is the reoccurrence of his side’s December form, a month in which they picked up nine of the possible eighteen points available, ending the yuletide in fifth place. The first time they have finished a calendar year outside the top four since 2001.

Villas-Boas’ team selection and transfer policy have indicated one thing since his arrival almost nine months ago; he is looking to usher in a new era at Stamford Bridge. The side selected to face Napoli last Tuesday was absent of players who have previously been pivotal to Chelsea success. Captain John Terry was sidelined through default, but the dropping of Lampard, Essien, Mikel, Kalou, and Cole was very much by design. As was the January sale of Nicolas Anelka.

Whilst Salamon Kalou, 26, and John Obi Mikel, 24, still have time on their side. The average age of Terry, Lampard, Essien and the departed Anelka, is a grand total of 31- the nine signings since his arrival have an average age of a decade younger, the eldest being 28 year old Raul Meireles.

Similarly to his north London rival Wenger, Villas-Boas’ has tied his hopes to youth. The folly of which has been all too evident in crucial games so far this season.

Senior players within the squad are rumoured to be circling the manager, and regular visits from Abramovich to the training ground signal a collapse of confidence from the owner. As each day passes, further revelations appear to surface surrounding the relationship between Villas-Boas’ and his employer. Most recently The Telegraph detailed how the former Porto boss was asked to explain his team selection versus Napoli to Abramovich via technical director Michael Emenalo. The questioning of the manager reiterates the owner’s worries, whilst the lack of direct communication appears to detail a strained relationship.

Villas-Boas is not the first manager to become embroiled in an internal battle at Chelsea. Senior players have been warranted with encouraging the expulsion of the club’s managers before- Avram Grant and Luiz Felipe Scolari both suffered at the hands of Drogba, Lampard and Terry during the Abramovich reign. The owner continues to take the opinion of his stars most seriously.

However, one thing that the owner takes more seriously than the views of his players is the Champions League, the one trophy which has eluded him since he bought the club for £140m in 2003. If Villas-Boas can make it to the return tie at Stamford Bridge, his side play Bolton, West Brom, and Stoke in the league, as well as the FA Cup replay with Birmingham City, before facing Napoli once again, he will have the opportunity of turning the tie and indeed his side’s season around. A loss before the second-leg on March 14th and he may not be so lucky.

Former Valencia and Liverpool manager, Rafael Benitez is rumoured to be in line to replace Villas-Boas should his side suffer a defeat in the coming weeks. The Spaniard’s experience is seen as the ideal antidote to AVB’s alleged naivety and many believe Benitez to be the man to reignite the faltering Fernando Torres.  The striker has found himself dropped in recent weeks following a period of backing from the manager and Abramovich is keen to see a return on the £50m paid for the forward prior to Villas-Boas’ arrival.

Unlike the signing of Torres, believed to be a direct action of the owner rather than former manager Carlo Ancelotti, the inclusion of Juan Mata and Gary Cahill by AVB to the squad has been widely lauded by fans. The £20m paid for Romelu Lukaku however has been the subject of increasing criticism- like Romeu, De Bruyne, Courtois and Bamford- the manager believes the fees will be justified in years to come.

If Villas-Boas is to oversee the growth of such players he must hope that those who take to the field in the coming weeks, whether old or new, can come together and provide the results necessary to climb back in to the top four and progress in both the FA Cup and Champions League. If they do not Abramovich will surely sack his sixth manager in nine years.

On The Brink: The Old Master.

The spotlight is on Wenger
One year ago Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal closed the gap at the top of the Premier League table to within one point of Manchester United. Four days later they would narrowly miss out on their first trophy since 2005, going on to be knocked out of the Champions League and dramatically fade away in the title race, winning only two of their eleven remaining league games.

A fourth placed finish and sixth season without a trophy spelled the end of the Fabregas-to-Barcelona saga as the talismanic Catalonian returned to his hometown club. Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy also left the club heading north to Manchester City.

The months between February and August 2011 were some of the most painful of Arsene Wenger’s reign. A Carling Cup final defeat to Birmingham City was quickly followed by Champions League exit and a slide from grace at the top of the table. The misery surrounding the transfer of the club’s two best players, and lack of adequate replacement, was cemented with an 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford. The BBC’s Chief football writer, Phil McNulty, said of the result “It was a performance, or lack of one, that proved the folly of his [Wenger’s] summer of transfer inaction”.

Although improvements have been visible, the players brought in to the replace Fabregas, Nasri, and Clichy, have so far failed to match the early promise of last season’s squad, crashing out of both the Carling and FA Cup, embarrassed in the San Siro and embroiled in a four way battle for the remaining Champions League position. Wenger’s position as Supreme Leader of Arsenal has never been so strained.

Since his appointment sixteen years ago, the former Nancy-Lorraine, Monaco, and Nagoya Grampus Eight manager has won three Premier League titles and four FA Cups with Arsenal, as well as various runners-up medals, including a UEFA Cup and Champions League. Simply, the Frenchman represents the most successful modern period of Arsenal Football Club.

However, the six, and more likely, seven seasons which have followed the club’s 2005 FA Cup win represent a period of stagnation for supporters. A period they believed would build them a team capable of challenging for major honours once again.

Following the dispersal of Wenger’s ‘Invincibles’ it was widely appreciated by fans that he was to oversee a period of renewal within his squad as youth replaced the ageing experts. Eight years on from the extraordinary achievements of Lehmann, Campbell, Toure, Cole, Vieira, Pires, Bergkamp and Henry, and following the departure of Fabregas- Wojciech Szczesny, Kierna Gibbs, Francis Coquelin , Jacks Wilshere, Johan Djourou, Henri Lansbury, and Emmanuel Frimpong, are the remainder of Arsene’s in-house youth experiment. An experiment which has seemingly produced too few players capable of walking in the shoes of the aforementioned giants.  

With many of his young pretenders failing to make the grade, Wenger has continually dipped in and out of the transfer market to bolster his squad with the quality necessary to pose a title challenge, as they did for much of last season. Since 2004 he has signed a total of 46 players, and although this includes success stories such as Samir Nasri, Thomas Vermaelen and Bacary Sagna for a combined fee of £31.8m (Robin Van Persie was signed in 2003 for £2.75m), it has been a chequered task. Good players have been bought, such as Emmanuel Adebayor, Eduardo, Alexander Song, Aaron Ramsey, Lauren Koscielny and most recently Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. But many more have severely underwhelmed, Jose Antonio Reyes, Phillipe Senderos, Tomas Rosicky, Andrei Arshavin and Theo Walcott have never lived up to expectations, whilst Alexander Hleb, Abou Diaby, and Maroune Chamakh, have all suffered similarly.

Up until August 2011 much of Arsenal’s shortcomings were masked by Wenger’s greatest success since the league title of 2004; Cesc Fabregas. The young man, acquired for nothing, became the centre piece which his manager built his side around. The degree to which Fabregas carried the team around him was subject to much debate in the years up to his exit; following the defeat at Old Trafford it was rife.

The tale end collapse of the 2010-11 season, teamed with the exit of Fabregas and Nasri led fans to call for a new rebuilding phase. One supported by the £70.7m acquired by the club through transfers that summer. Wenger did indeed go back into the transfer market. Everton’s Mikel Arteta, Ivorian international Gervinho, and Southampton youngster Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were seen as adequate midfield replacement for the departed, whilst Andre Santos and Per Mertasacker bolstered a defence which had crumbled in the close of the title race months earlier.  In total Wenger spent £53m in 2011.

However, once again, Wenger’s activity in the transfer market appears to have fallen short. The lack of quality supplied so far this season by his new signings, with the exclusion of Oxlade-Chamberlain, has amplified the glaring hole left by Fabregas. The long-term injury of Jack Wilshere, Wenger’s best hope of replacing Fabregas, has also added to the underperformance of players such as Andrei Arshavin and Theo Walcott.

Following the 4-0 defeat to AC Milan in the last 16 of the Champions League, former Arsenal manager George Graham described Wenger’s side as “a team in crisis” whilst Emmanuel Petit declared it the “worst moment of Arsene’s career with Arsenal”.

The pressure is undoubtedly mounting on Wenger. His supporters suggest that injuries and the departure of Fabregas were matters beyond his control and as such a fourth placed finish is all that can be expected. His critics call into question his handling of the squad; the youth which he put so much hope in has fallen short, as have many of the signings which he believed were capable of carrying the club forward.  The Frenchman still represents the club’s greatest successes; the problem appears to be that there aren’t many more on the horizon.