Chelsea's poor form looks dangerously like turning into a genuine slump, after their 2-1 home defeat to Liverpool on Sunday.
Suddenly Andre Villas Boas finds himself under real pressure, and the Chelsea boss will be hoping that his team can find some form, and some defensive nous, quickly.
Poor Villas Boas. To say he is stuck between a rock and a hard place would be somewhat underestimating just how hard the hard place is, and how sharp the rock may be. He is faced with a profound choice; pragmatism designed to win games quickly to ensure short term success, or intransigence, and a stubborn commitment to the long term, and a more attractive style of play designed to bring success in a different way.
Given that Roman Abramovich dispensed with Jose Mourinho despite his success would warn the Portuguese off taking the first route. Similarly, a number of managers have bitten the dust since, but Villas Boas likes attacking football. English football has been surprised; a man previously known for his meticulous attention to detail has somewhat discarded pragmatic virtues and tried to institute a radically different and more entertaining style of football at the Bridge.
Some have said he should abandon his high defensive line, and go back to basics to some extent. This would be to misunderstand the problem at Stamford Bridge. It is not the system to blame; after all, this brought his Porto team an unbeaten season and glory both at home and in Europe last season. It is the players – though not all of them. Juan Mata has been sensational and a superb signing, but Sunday demonstrated a problem. Starved of the ball out wide and on the right, Mata was brought into a more central role, and this should raise questions about just how much they had been dominated in midfield, and how ineffectual their passing had been, as this had prevented Mata from getting the ball and having influence. John Mikel Obi went off, and it is hard to imagine him lasting long if Villas Boas, as is reported, has the long term backing of Abramovich. The Nigerian is limited technically, and not particularly mobile – precisely the opposite of a Villas Boas player.
But unfortunately for the Portuguese, he has no player better at breaking up the play than the Nigerian. This is an irritating dilemma he is grappling with. Similarly, he is trying to implement a high defensive line with two ageing defenders; John Terry and Ashley Cole. This has exposed them. Neither have been good enough to cope with the change. Cole looked to slow when being beaten to the ball by Glen Johnson for the crucial second goal, whilst much of the play seems to bypass Terry these days. He is little more than an animated, loud nuisance in the heart of the Chelsea defence, occasionally throwing himself to the floor in the hope of a heroic clearance.
Frank Lampard remains useful at least, but his powers are also on the wane. His stamina and intelligence should ensure he can go on for a while yet, but it is time to stop relying on him from midfield. Up front, Chelsea are desperately trying to create a system to suit Fernando Torres, whilst Daniel Sturridge at least has shown significant promise. His pace, technique and finishing make him an ideal Villas Boas player, and a potential symbol of the new Chelsea.
Some faith in Villas Boas and his methods, and this Chelsea team can develop back into a force. But it will take time, and probably money to buy replacements for the ageing squad. The latter has always been in plentiful supply at Stamford Bridge, but not the former. How much Abramovich is committed to the long term vision, particularly if Champions League football comes under threat, is open to question….