NAPLES, ITALY - FEBRUARY 21: Andre Villas-Boas manager of Chelsea FC whistles during the UEFA Champions League round of 16 first leg match between SSC Napoli and Chelsea FC at Stadio San Paolo on February 21, 2012 in Naples, Italy. (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
It's been a common refrain over the past few months: "Roman supports the project". Andre Villas-Boas goes back to this basically whenever Chelsea have a poor match, and it's starting to grate upon the ears a wee bit. The Blues, says the manager, are in the midst of a three-year project to overhaul the culture behind the football club.
Now, I can get behind an overhaul. It's obvious that this Chelsea side needs help, and that the spine of John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba can't possibly last forever. The club needed a manager who could completely change what the side was about, bringing us back to where we were a genuine European power rather than, say, the Ottoman Empire in the late 1800s. It was for that reason I supported Carlo Ancelotti's dismissal at the end of last year.
For me, Ancelotti is a guy who was milking the last bits of productivity from a squad focused around the 'old guard', which is a rather insulting term considering that by and large they're more competent players than those ostensibly replacing them. He wasn't going to be able to start a project (for want of a better term) that would completely revolutionise the team, and that's what we needed.
Andre Villas-Boas looked like the man to do it. He'd come in at Porto and turned their fortunes around, winning a triple in his first year while playing beautiful attacking football. No, the Primeira Liga isn't at the same level as the Premier League, but Porto were probably one of the eight best teams in Europe last year and would almost certainly have ripped Carlo Ancelotti's Chelsea to shreds had they faced one another.
Villas-Boas was known as a tactical mastermind - he was the head opposition scout for Jose Mourinho's Blues - and he drew rave reviews from his players as well, who spent ages talking up his motivational ability. There were some warnings about his inexperience and youth, but his qualities were enough to convince Roman Abramovich to pay silly money to take him away from Portugal last summer and install him at Stamford Bridge.
Since then, things haven't gone so well. Instead of adapting his tactics to the Premier League and squad, something that he should be easily capable of doing, Villas-Boas tried the opposite, which had the initial effect of turning his elite centre backs and goalkeeper into something approximating a pumpkin patch. The only player to flourish under his new system has been Ramires, and the Brazilian's emergence as a genuine force appears to be more to do with inertia than anything else. Villas-Boas's tactics have been a mess throughout the season and show very little sign of improving.
Has he gotten Fernando Torres to come out of his shell? Nope. A more fluid attack? Not really. A strong defence? Hah! Results in the league? Nope. Results in Europe? Not really. Villas-Boas has been more successful than last year in terms of the domestic cup runs, but that's like putting frosting on a landmine and calling it a delicious birthday cake. The players aren't happy and the fans aren't happy, and the only aspect of his tenure that we can be remotely pleased with is a transfer policy that's seen Chelsea bring in some elite young talent - which will be ready in two or three years. Yay!
The amazing thing is that that transfer policy isn't really anything to do with the manager. When asked about, say, Kevin de Bruyne, Villas-Boas had no real opinion. He's a player for the future, he said. Nothing to do with me. If anything has gone well under Villas-Boas's tenure, it's been the aspect of running a football club that he's had least say in. No matter how you measure it, the first eight months of The Project have been a dismal failure.
Now, that doesn't mean I don't believe there needs to be a change. Clearly there does, because otherwise we're no longer even the third best team in the country. I think Michael Emenalo is doing good work as Director of Football, and I've got high hopes for the next generation of Chelsea players.
But then if those players are the lynchpin of the project, why is Villas-Boas even necessary? What is it about the manager that makes him the right man to run the club as it retools itself for the future? I understand that every transition must include a rough patch, but so far all we've had from out new manager is a slide down the table with very little in the way of hope. At some point - and that will be soon unless the results start to get better - Abramovich will decide that although he believes in The Project, he no longer believes in Villas-Boas.
And I'm no longer sure that would be such a bad thing.