Focus on Chelsea

Andre's age concerns

July 28, 2011
By Norman Hubbard
(Archive)

Win or lose, Andre Villas-Boas should be braced for a test of his politeness and his patience. There are two issues that will recur with unfortunate regularity for Chelsea's new manager. In many a press conference, he should expect to fend off questions about resemblances or differences with his former employer, Jose Mourinho, and the birth certificates of his veteran players, many of them dating to the same decade as Villas-Boas' arrival on this earth.

Andre Villas-Boas
GettyImagesAndre Villas-Boas has a plan at Stamford Bridge.

Age doesn't matter, he has said. But it does, and not merely because the marriage of wrinkled players with the fresh-faced manager is intriguing. The question of when Chelsea's greatest team will have too many miles on the clock has been a constant in recent years. Not un-coincidentally, a reminder came from Sir Alex Ferguson, who first, and erroneously, deemed Chelsea too old two years ago, and who dropped a similar hint this year.

Ferguson being Ferguson, such comments are unlikely to be coincidental but, while the Manchester United manager is sufficiently ancient to be the grandfather of many of his players, his Chelsea counterpart is the contemporary of his charges.

The issue of when one thirty-something will discard several others is part of Chelsea's generation game. The new element is being provided by Villas-Boas' acquisitiveness. The Portuguese has signed 19-year-old Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, agreed a fee with Barcelona for another 19-year-old, midfielder Oriol Romeu, and has shown more than a passing interest in Anderlecht's 18-year-old striker Romelu Lukaku.

Factor in the five-year contract awarded to Josh McEachran and Chelsea's future, long postponed, is suddenly taking shape. But, perhaps, not just yet. It was telling that no sooner had Courtois been bought than the Genk goalkeeper was promptly loaned to Atletico Madrid. For now, Petr Cech remains Chelsea's first-choice.

What Villas-Boas appears to be displaying is a blend of progressiveness and pragmatism that this most precarious of posts may require. Long-term planning and institutionalised short-termism can be almost incompatible, as previous Chelsea managers have discovered. Frank Arnesen's six years as sporting director left the first team almost unaffected, partly because the majority of his charges lacked the quality needed, but partly because too few incumbents of the hot seat were willing to experiment when silverware was a prerequisite for continued employment.

Villas-Boas' compromise, then, entails persisting with the tried and tested while preparing potential successors. It is notable that, far from instigating a clearout, he is yet to dispose of a single veteran.

Nicolas Anelka may yet see out the final year of his contract; Didier Drogba remains very much in contention for the centre-forward's berth; even Paulo Ferreira is still at Stamford Bridge. His decision, like Carlo Ancelotti's before him, may be that the old-timers have one last title in them, hoping they offer him immediate validation in the process. Ultimately, however, that did not buy the Italian time. The Portuguese's problem is that whenever transition occurs, it will have to include trophies.

Yet this summer suggests the idea is to skip a generation and base a team around four teenagers and, in David Luiz and Ramires, the more junior pair of last season's expensive acquisitions. One of the oldest teams in the Premier League, by Villas-Boas' own admission, could then become one of the youngest. This is a consequence of the comparative void in the squad, among the group who should be peaking. Possessing eight first-team players between the ages of 25 and 29 is not worrying in itself.

Among them, however, Jose Bosingwa and Yuri Zhirkov are perennially on the margins and Salomon Kalou's fine goal return last season was not enough to enable him to shed his bit-part player tag. Michael Essien is injured again and, like Fernando Torres, it is debateable if his formidable prime occurred early in his career. It leaves the solidity and dependability of defenders Alex and Branislav Ivanovic, plus Cech.

Josh McEachran
GettyImagesJosh McEachran: Tipped for the top

As Courtois' fee could rise to £7.9 million, a hefty sum for even Chelsea to pay for a reserve goalkeeper, it suggests that he is seen as Cech's successor, not his deputy. If the goalkeeper is intrinsically associated with senior colleagues like John Terry, Frank Lampard and Drogba, it is because they constituted the spine of Mourinho's side.

Villas-Boas indicates that Romeu will occupy what he deems the No.6 role, that of the passing anchorman; should McEachran and Ramires complete the midfield in a year or two, it would be notable for the absence of Lampard. In Lukaku, perhaps, he will eventually have a player who can consign the Anelka-Drogba era to the past.

There is a logic in buying young, particularly for one of the two English clubs likely to be most affected by UEFA's Financial Fair Play rules: if prices are still substantial, they are nonetheless cheaper than the cost of recruiting established world-class talents. But it also enables Villas-Boas to fashion Chelsea's next team before he has disbanded the last one. And when he does, he could be managing men 15 years his junior, answering different questions about the importance of age.