Andre Villas-Boas is at the wrong club
A quick note: I’ve decided to broaden my horizons and write about more than just Arsenal. This doesn’t mean I won’t ever write about Arsenal – in fact, this post actually has quite a lot to do with the Gunners – but I may write about other clubs from time to time. This also means you’ll probably get more articles. Lucky readers!
When Andre Villas-Boas joined Chelsea from Porto, the comparisons between Jose Mourinho were predictable (as was this first line) but as many have pointed out, the similarities aren’t as prominent as others would have you believe. He had been vaguely linked with Arsenal, and although nothing came of it, it would probably have suited Villas-Boas more.
Tactically, much was made of Arsenal’s 5-3 victory over Chelsea. For one, it exposed both team’s high lines – with Arsenal managing to cope with the drawbacks of pressing high up the pitch significantly better, after an early wobble. This triumph showed that Arsenal are better equipped in terms of the squad to pull off the high line that is so central to Andre Villas-Boas’ style of play.
Another hot topic in terms of Villas-Boas’ first half-season at Chelsea has been the situation of Frank Lampard. The Portuguese manager has left Lampard out of several games, and persists with this stance despite the midfield veteran performing well when given a chance. This would suggest that Villas-Boas feels that Lampard doesn’t fit into his system, and instead chooses more mobile players in midfield such as Ramires and Meireles.
The midfield is where there’s an intriguing difference between the sides. While both Wenger and Villas-Boas play a basic 4-3-3, there are differences. For example, Arsenal play with a 2-1 pivot, while Chelsea use 1-2. Still, the flexibility of the pivot and the midfielders used means that the shape of the midfield three changes often. The normal midfielders employed currently by both managers are also quite different: Arteta, Song and Ramsey are quite multi-functional, being creative and solid simultaneously. Meireles, Ramires and Romeu, usually Villas-Boas’ midfield of choice, are rather lacking in the creative side of things.
This is one of the reasons that Juan Mata usually starts on the wing – he can come inside and create things for Chelsea, especially when the midfielders are struggling to carve out chances themselves. Another reason for Mata playing out wide is probably that he isn’t quite as defensively solid as the current midfielders, and would usually be more advanced, meaning the pivot didn’t function as well. If Villas-Boas was to use a 2-1 pivot like at Arsenal, Mata could play in front of the two, being allowed more freedom.
Villas-Boas has had to experiment at Chelsea and find the right balance between his own style and what has worked with this set of players previously, and deserves credit for finding the middle ground between the two – although he draws the line at incorporating Lampard it seems. He tried John Obi Mikel and Raul Meireles in what he calls the “number 6 role” – the holder in front of the defence – but has eventually found someone suited to the role; ironically, their number 6, Oriol Romeu.
At Arsenal, Alex Song is the established holding midfielder. While he isn’t completely defence-orientated, this can be easily seen as a positive thing – he gets forward to good effect and is quite adept at threading through balls. Two high-profile examples would be Robin van Persie’s goal vs Everton and Thierry Henry’s recent matchwinner against Leeds, which were both assisted by Song. If Villas-Boas had such a player at his disposal, Mata would have less of a creative burden.
Ball-playing, mobile centre halves are key when playing with a high line, and although David Luiz is usually excellent on the ball, he’s still lacking defensively, and while John Terry is a superb defender, his lack of pace sees him occasionally exploited, and unlike Per Mertesacker at Arsenal, he’s unable to compensate.
David Luiz has been criticised for his mistakes, but people would be foolish to write him off. Laurent Koscielny was similarly dismissed, only to prove all of his critics wrong (those that were willing to give him another chance, anyway) with a spotless start to the season. Not that he was as bad as they said in the first place. Luiz needs time to adapt, but once he does he should find his feet – and Villas-Boas’ system suits him down to the ground. He can come out of defence with the ball as he likes to, which contributes to the pressure he feels is so vital.
With such a high-pressuring system, it’s natural that teams will camp in their own half, and at extreme times even in their own box. Some teams struggle to break walls like these down, and seeing as Villas-Boas prefers to press high up the pitch, his sides need ways of breaking down stubborn defences. Arsenal have Gervinho – Wenger has repeatedly spoken of his ability to accelerate over small distances, meaning he’s able to beat defenders inside the box to cut the ball back. A player with such an ability would be very valuable to Villas-Boas, although Daniel Sturridge has similar qualities, if not as effective.
After giving Fernando Torres chances to establish himself as the lone striker, Villas-Boas has given Didier Drogba the chance to nail down a starting place as the spearhead of the Blues’ attack. He has fared quite a bit better than his Spanish counterpart, who has only shown brief flares of something resembling form. However, at Arsenal there is the ideal player to play in that position – Robin van Persie. He links up play, drops into midfield and gets into the ideal positions to help his team – whether that’s to assist or score. While Didier Drogba is doing a decent job at the moment, van Persie is playing the same role to perfection.
A key difference to the formations of Villas-Boas and his mentor Mourinho are the wide players – at Chelsea, Mourinho basically played a 4-5-1 with wingers who dropped back when possession was with the other team. Villas-Boas’ system also uses a single striker, as mentioned above, but the wide players act more like inside forwards than wide midfielders – Sturridge especially.
These observations (although admittedly the above paragraph has little relevance to the point) all lead me to this conclusion: Andre Villas-Boas would be better suited to Arsenal. It’s not just differences on the pitch though – Villas-Boas had admitted he’ll need time to mould Chelsea into what he wants them to be, and at Arsenal he would undoubtedly be given more time to do so. Even though he wouldn’t really need to mould Arsenal much - as I’ve outlined, it was pretty much set up for him here.