Human failings of Villas-Boas

There was good reason why Mourinho and Ancelotti stuck with the English core they inherited at Chelsea

I once studied, if that’s the word, human resource management; a pungent cocktail of common sense, meanness and bullshit. In some ways, an introductory guide to badness.

Because the moment a man is able to see another human as a resource, if only for the purposes of getting an essay in on time, a small part of his own humanity is lost. And from a dark place like that, there is every likelihood that, one day; he will use the word ‘stakeholders’. From there, even if he’s talking about Frankie Lampard and friends, it’s a long road back to the light.

But if there’s one thing we learn — and there might only be one — from HRM, it’s that managing change is the toughest gig of all. Dirty words and phrases follow; ‘transitioning’, ‘securing buy-in’, ‘changing mindsets’. Then even less palatable ones like ‘redundancy’.

Or, if you prefer Bowie’s stuttering synopsis: “Turn and face the strain… ch-ch-ch-changes.”

All we know is that change is a messy business for which you need the heavy hitters, the tough nuts and, by all accounts, it pays the big bucks. While Andre Villas-Boas got the big bucks all right, he didn’t get much time to change Chelsea. But then he never truly secured the buy-in, let alone got started on the mindsets. And by the end, there were barely any stakeholders left on-side.

It seems that Roman Abramovich asked a lot of Villas-Boas when he paid Porto’s ransom to fetch him back to Stamford Bridge, where he once built dossiers on opponents for Jose Mourinho. Not alone was the Portuguese expected to return Chelsea to the winners’ enclosure, his brief extended to refreshing an aging squad and jazzing up the playing style.

From the outset, you wondered if Villas-Boas could ever exert enough authority to push this serious agenda in a dressing room where he first carried a clipboard as Jose’s lackey.

At Liverpool, when Dalglish first became ‘Gaffer’ rather than ‘Dugs’ in a dressing room where he still togged out among his peers, he needed a statement or two to introduce himself all over again. So Phil Neal, after 11 years’ service, had his armband given to Alan Hansen. Alan Kennedy, another stalwart, was released to Sunderland. Distance created.

For all that, Kenny’s job then wasn’t really to change anything, just oil a conveyor belt of success. It wasn’t distance Villas-Boas needed, it was trust. When he made Alex and Anelka his human sacrifices; maybe some of that was lost. And when he tried to take on as powerful a figure as Lampard, there would be only one winner.

There may have been another way. Somewhere in one of those foul texts lay the weasel words; ‘initiating change in an organisation requires a foundation of stability’. To allow your ideas run up their flagpole, people need to feel secure. For now, at least.

There was good reason why Mourinho and Ancelotti stuck with the English core they inherited at Chelsea, why even Alex Ferguson took time to disband the United drinking club.

When Arsene Wenger arrived at Arsenal in ’96, change was desperately required. But Wenger appreciated that his name didn’t carry the cachet to slash and burn. So he introduced new ideas and injected fresh blood but surprised most people by retaining the old defence.

After Wenger won his second title in 2002, Tony Adams agreed that the manager deserved the credit for this one, but felt the players more or less won his first. It was a sign that change had almost gone unnoticed. They had bought in.

Others, like Graeme Souness, whose name allowed him do pretty much what he pleased, were less patient. Strong men like Beardsley, McMahon, and Houghton left Anfield before stronger were found. The old boot room became a press centre. Change became chaos.

In the aftermath of Villas-Boas’ departure this week, many fingers pointed at Chelsea players, at Lampard in particular. Unfairly, because no footballer can be blamed for refusing to vote for his own extinction. Similarly, a man with failing pace will never truly buy in to playing the high line.

Did Villas-Boas quite appreciate that? In his impressive old dossiers, players were chiefly described in mechanical terms and rarely afforded human qualities. In his refreshingly honest post-match interviews, he often laid bare Chelsea’s failings with dispassionate detachment.

Maybe the old Championship Manager addict never truly saw his players as anything more than a resource, a package of statistics. Perhaps Villas-Boas just lacked the human touch.


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