It all happened so fast: one day Luis Felipe Scolari was in charge of one of the biggest football clubs in the world, the next he was carrying his personal belongings down the Fulham Road in a cardboard box. From Hero to Zero, from Saviour to See Ya! however you look at it, Felipe flopped. The man who arrived on these shores with a glittering C.V. of World Cups and Copa Libertadores left as a failure, forever branded as incapable of dealing with the pressures of the Premiership. And all in less than eight months.
How can this have come to pass? How can this have happened to the bookies’ preseason favourite? Avram the Unknown had pushed his Chelsea side’s title campaign to the very last day and so memorably languished one penalty kick short of European (and let’s face it, World dominance). Surely this same squad under an award-strewn manager was a recipe for success? Well, apparently not. If the recipe was sound, then the chef was drunk, because somewhere along the line, it all went up in smoke.
There’ve been many theories as to how this happened, ranging from an upsurge of disgruntled player power, to a lack of funding; from a supposed inability to conjure up an elusive, cure-all ‘plan B’, to a lackadaisical training regime. In a way it’s reassuring that there exist so many conspiracy theories, after all the only time these are missing is when it’s a cut-and-dried case of poor management, as with the Spurs manager who, as the Sun so rightly pointed out, was a hero just for Juande. But for Scolari the failure is more oblique. As it stands Chelsea are still in with a shout at the Premiership. Admittedly it would take the unlikely event of a Manchester United slip up, but nevertheless the bookies aren’t paying out just yet. Not this time. With one of the healthiest goal differences in the league, safely into the knock-outs of the Champions League and still just about in title contention, Scolari must have got something right. But whatever that was, it clearly wasn’t enough.
It all started so well. Fast, creative, attacking football; goals, wins, confidence brimming; Chelsea were the new Brazil. Better still, with wing backs who could shoot from thirty yards, Chelsea were the modern exponents of Cruyff’s Total Football: a joy to watch, and unstoppable in victory. But there’s a bad historical precedent there because Total Football Holland had an unenviable habit of coming second, in spite of this groovy style. The problem with Total Football, the trouble with Brazil, is that most teams take one look at them and think, “Just back the coach into the goalmouth Steve, a bit more, there you go.”
The unattractive truth to the Premiership is that it isn’t won with David Ginola’s hair or Paulo Di Canio’s bubble bath, it’s won with grit and persistence. It’s won with dirty clean sheets and ugly one-nils. Roman Abramovich still doesn’t really get it. He wants sexy football, and titles. He wants his cake and he wants to eat it too. And well he may, it is his cake after all, and what use is a cake if you can’t eat it? Unfortunately, in the Premiership if you want flair, you’ve got to sacrifice points.
Why should this be the case? It seems a pretty obvious equation that whichever teams play the best football win the most games. Isn’t that how it works? Well in a word, Yes. In three, for a while. It is indeed how it worked for the first half of Scolari’s season, but unfortunately that’s where it stopped working. A direct consequence of playing open, attacking football is that it threatens oppositions. Teams take one look and decide they’re most likely to avoid nil points if they sit back and shut up shop completely.
Mourinho knew this; he knew when faced with an overwhelming opposition most teams will batten down the hatches and try to weather the storm. But he also knew how to break such resilience down. Corners, crosses, and big men in the box. It’s how he won so many one-nils; how he won the Premiership; how he lost any illusion of beautiful football; and why he got sacked. Mourinho was of the belief that the most beautiful football was the kind which brought trophies. Abramovich took the trophies and assumed he could plaster them with fancy icing, and a Shevchenko cherry on top. Well, we’re all still waiting to eat that cake.
Scolari, it seems, didn’t see this change in the opposition’s mentality coming. The seeds of his downfall were sown when he decided that, thanks to his Chelsea’s ability to pass their way through defences, he wouldn’t need Drogba in his squad. The Ivorian was injured at the beginning of the season and was never phased back into weekly matches. As all prima donnas are prone to do, he grew disaffected with the situation and looked possibly to leave. To lose the Drog was a luxury that Scolari, it would transpire, could ill afford.
The signs came early. Chelsea had a glorious away record but were indifferent at home. Why? Because no team in their right mind would try to take on Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. They put nine men behind the ball and hoofed. Soon this became the universal policy against the Blues, and the goals dried up. Of course, as Mourinho had shown us, the most likely way to break down a stubborn defence is with a battering ram. Drogba had been his (how often was he solely responsible for muscling one point into three?) but Scolari had none.
And so it was, once teams ceased to play open football against Chelsea, three things happened in quick succession that would result in Scolari’s departure. First, the wins became scarce. Without a battering ram, he couldn’t grind out results. Neat, quick, passing football saw Chelsea keep a vast proportion of possession but to little effect. In due course this led to… Second, he lost the fans. It doesn’t take long to lose the fans in modern football, which is why Premiership managers have a life expectancy of a Creme Egg. Lastly he lost the players. With Steve Clarke, the last managerial link to the Mourinho era, having left to West Ham and only a mediocre grasp of English (in Ray Wilkins) Scolari began to lose credibility. In times of strife a manager needs to be convincing, to be inspiring, to regain the trust and re-instill self belief. It doesn’t matter what language you speak when the going’s good, but when it turns sour, communication is key.
Unable to reinstate the players’ conviction; unable to win back the fans, there was an inevitability to Scolari’s demise.
So who’s to blame for his departure? Unfortunately no one but himself. He failed to lay lasting foundations while the going was good, he failed to prepare for a change in the weather. Perhaps he didn’t get additional funds, but the same squad had performed admirably the year before, and undeniably he made the mistake of forsaking Drogba.
Of course a lot of people will say that Drogba himself is to blame, that he shouldn’t have to be pampered and pandered like a fat kid in a sweet shop, that as a team player he needs to knuckle down when the going gets tough. But that’s not the Drog. International strikers who are idolised by millions the world over and who share their breakfasts with movie stars and supermodels are entitled to a little self-delusion. In fact those who aren’t a little precious are few and far between, and usually turn out to be just that when the goals dry up.
You don’t try to change your star performer, you do whatever it takes to get the best out of him. To blame Drogba is to misunderstand the job of a manager, after all, what is ‘player power’ if it isn’t just a euphemism for poor leadership?
A manager must have two qualities: to be tactical on the pitch; and to get the most out of his players. Perhaps it transpired that the culture barrier was too strong for Scolari to successfully implement the latter.