An inevitable consequence of a spell of poor form or a season where expectations are not being met is the media’s take on the cause of the maladies.
Typically, the woes will be attributed to dressing room discontent and the notion that the manager has ‘lost’ his players, no longer commanding their respect.
True to form, this is currently the case with Andre Villas-Boas and Chelsea. The club’s worst season in any recent memory has fans and journalists alike scrambling to determine the reason things have gone so badly wrong.
Rightly or wrongly, many are led by the wordsmiths paid to deliver their ‘expert’ opinions to the masses on a daily basis and the knives are firmly out for the Blues’ ‘old guard’. ‘Player Power’ is once again in vogue as the explanation du jour.
Messrs Lampard, Terry, Cole, Drogba (and occasionally Cech) are personas non grata and, all being the wrong side of 30 in football terms, must be cast aside for the long-term good of the club.
Villas-Boas was hired for what he terms a ‘project’, an overhaul of an ageing and stale first-team squad and the implementation of an expressive, attractive style of football we’re told Roman Abramovich desperately craves.
There is no doubt that this needs to happen and inevitably will, but after another sorry night in a very sorry season, opinion remains split as to who is ultimately to blame; the players or the manager?
A simple answer is to suggest both are, and certainly blame must be apportioned appropriately with failures on every level on and off the field this season.
Yet the veteran contingent continue to be victimised amidst claims that Villas-Boas cannot truly begin to rebuild Chelsea until their excessive influence and ego is long gone and forgotten.
In Naples on Tuesday night, there were starts for Cech and Drogba but not for Cole and for Lampard, whilst captain Terry is set for an operation which will extend his absence to a rough total of three months.
Drogba has only just returned from international duty, whilst Lampard can hardly be called an ever-present under the new Portuguese manager, missing more games through ‘technical decisions’ than at any stage of his Chelsea career. The core of the team is, slowly, being dismantled, whether by design or by circumstance.
And what do we have to show for it? Fifth place, an FA Cup replay against a Championship club and an uphill battle to continue in the Champions League.
In a rain-sodden San Paolo Stadium, Chelsea capitulated with Villas-Boas’ tactics (not) being executed by Villas-Boas’ signings – Cahill, Meireles, Mata – and his regulars Luiz, Ivanovic, Bosingwa/Cole, Sturridge and Ramires.
It would be remarkably churlish to suggest that some amongst that group lack talent and whilst there are obvious names who have a bleak future at Stamford Bridge, make no mistake about it: this was the manager’s team playing the manager’s way.
There was no negative influence being exhibited by rogue agents on the pitch, and whatever their dressing room influence may be, morale can hardly be high after this most disappointing of campaigns anyway.
Italian journalists reported post-match that some Chelsea players were ignoring their manager’s instructions in the closing moments of the game. Having been bold, cavalier and even a little bit reckless earlier in the season, Villas-Boas has arguably become uncertain of himself, and whereas naivety may once have been an excuse, each passing game begs increasingly pertinent questions.
Why limit Ramires’ game by asking him to play horizontally rather than vertically? Why pair him in defensive midfield with Raul Meireles, who has consistently shown that he lacks positional awareness? Why not John Obi Mikel, Michael Essien or Oriol Romeu, players far more suited to doing the job required?
Why the persistence with players who are clearly not playing to the required standard? Why renege on your very obvious tactical philosophies mid-season after the first signs of trouble rather than press on with the change you so obviously want to make? Confusion now reigns, respect is being lost and your job is increasingly under threat.
This Chelsea team is better than its current state. International quality players not far removed from a domestic double achieved in record-breaking style now defend in kamikaze fashion, attack with stagnant predictability and have little in terms of confidence. Morale is shattered.
A transitional season can only be described as such if it is has a positive direction, else it’s a waste of a season. For the sake of stability it might be sensible to retain Villas-Boas and let him continue with his project, but for the sake of the club, maybe it’s not.
Leadership must be decisive, not uncertain. The only decisive behaviour we’ve seen this season has been from the very players who have been criticised and blamed for the decline. Meanwhile, the real leader appears as uncertain as at any point in his brief managerial career.
Big decisions lie ahead.