It must be a quiet close season for transfers. It’s now August and Harry Redknapp has failed to do any dealings for t’rrifc players yet. That’s unheard of, surely? Even Sky Sports News are failing to drum up much transfer excitement with golf and cricket being deemed more thrilling than the on/off transfer sagas of Modric, Nasri and Fabregas. It’s certainly been quiet over at the Bridge but, as the anchors say on SSN, more on that later. Meanwhile the start of Andre Villas-Boas’ tenure couldn’t have gone much smoother. With one preseason match to play before the big kick off the side have racked up consecutive victories and have yet to concede a goal. While these statistics are not to be sniffed at what has been more telling is what the new management have brought to the table. In these early stages it certainly looks promising for the season ahead.
One of the big bugbears for me last season was the lack of intensity in our play. We guilty of being too slow in the build ups and a worrying lack of movement off the ball made us look stale at times. Without the ball too often we failed to press high up the pitch, winning the ball back earlier in play, à la Barcelona. What a difference a coach makes then. In the preseason games the silky passages of play and movement have slowly begun to return as if the team have been waking out of a slumber. There is a sharpness in the passing that was missing for big chunks last term. More impressive has been the collective hounding of the ball and taking back possession quicker and in more dangerous positions. Big tick there then.
Listening to the players it’s clear that they’re all on board with the management philosophy. The first hurdle for the manager has already been cleared. We’ve heard a lot about the collective, the importance of the team, and also the individual’s licence to entertain. Different systems have been trialled, from the favoured 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1. The likes of Malouda, Benayoun, Anelka and Lampard has shifted comfortably into a number of roles. (Lampard as a Beckham-like deep lying quarter back was an interesting idea given his range of passing.) Villas-Boas seems to share Mourinho’s attention to detail and at the top level it is so often the details that make the difference. Of course it was Villa-Boas who helped to compile the dossier’s on forthcoming opposition back in the Mourinho era. The night before the game each player would be given a breakdown of the strengths and weaknesses of their opposite number. It would be no surprise to learn that same level of detail is being used by the coaching staff this time around. The training sessions so far have been completely centred on ball work and high intensity passing and pressing movements. The players have now seen that these methods are working and working well. The licence to entertain mean that the players aren’t shackled and can express themselves – we can expect to see tactical switches and attacking football at the Bridge. Another big tick.
In May the squad looked as though it needed trimming of deadwood but, to Villas-Boas credit, he has started with a blank page and given everyone a chance to impress. And some have taken that chance well. Last season Mikel, Bosingwa, Anelka, Malouda, Drogba and Kalou all had question marks over their Chelsea future, whether through age or stagnant performances. What has been refreshing is how these players have responded. Malouda has looked full of energy and regained that attacking buzz, Drogba’s been at his bullying best and Bosingwa has looked confident and classy flying down the right flank. Mikel, who started last season so well then faded in tandem with our midseason slump, has also been excellent. We all know that he can break up play in the anchor role and do a job but we want more from his game. Most fans really want to see Mikel’s game develop with a wider range, with penetrative passes and maybe even a goal or two. If Villas-Boas can get more attacking threat from Jon Obi then we’ll have a better player. Likewise building on Torres’ confidence and getting the side to understand his movement could unlock a glut of goals from the striker. Getting the best out of players has to be an encouraging tick for the new boss.
Whereas on the one hand the decision to review the squad has to be applauded by the same measure we have lost out on signings that could have potentially boosted the side. Last season we were crying out for more creativity in midfield and in particular most fans would point to a pacy winger as a transfer must. We’ve seen Downing, Young and N’Zogbia make big money moves to league rivals. What these signings might lack in panache they make up with premiership experience and would have been a good addition to our squad. More high profile moves we’ve missed out on are Aguero, Sanchez and Pastore, any of which would have excelled in a forward three. There aren’t too many top class wingers available to do business with, perhaps Eden Hazard and Juan Mata the stand outs remaining. It looks as though Zhirkov is on his way back to Russia, which is a shame, as he never quite lived up to his potential at Chelsea but this is an astute decision. It would allow us to add another foreign national to the squad and also gives further opportunity for the promising Van Aanholt and Bertrand to claim games at left back. The Modric saga is dragging on and Spurs look unlikely to sell, it will be fascinating to see if Villas-Boas can pull off a transfer coup to cement his growing reputation.