PARIS – Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas either hasn't read Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" or didn't quite understand it. Because one of the central tenents of that ancient Chinese military treatise on how to win is that you should avoid your enemy's strengths when you can.
In soccer terms, that means Chelsea should never have gone to Manchester United's fortress of Old Trafford expecting to beat Alex Ferguson's team in an O.K. Corral-style shootout. As Sun Tzu undoubtedly would have said had he been in the terraces on Sunday, all-out attacks on United's goal without resolute defending against its counterattacks, speed and vision will often end in tears, especially if you take a misfiring popgun like Fernando Torres to the fight.
Torres' miss of United's wide-open goal in the 83rd minute was as tragically comic as the drunken gunslinger who reaches for his holster only to find that he left his pistol on the bar. Having rounded goalkeeper David De Gea, Chelsea's 50 million pound striker needed only to keep his cool and tap the ball in. Instead, somehow, he left-footed it wide.
Torres buried his head in the immaculate turf after that failure, which again suggested that Chelsea isn't going to win silverware this season if he leads the attack.
His neatly taken second-half goal — a right-footed looped poke over De Gea at the end of a prescient run that foresaw a fine pass from substitute Nicolas Anelka — could not redeem Torres for his other squandered chances. Rather, it served only as a jarring reminder of the goal-hound and Golden Ball candidate that Torres used to be for Liverpool. With every passing week, its decision to sell Torres looks like one of the smartest pieces of business done on Merseyside since Brian Epstein signed the Fab Four.
Like a neon sign, Torres' erstwhile speed, touch and skills now only come in momentary flashes. His ability to light up a whole match has gone. He opts to pass where he previously would have shot, a telltale sign of a man who no longer fully trusts his instincts. On Sunday, Torres worked hard to get into dangerous positions and to test United's backline. But, without goals, that won't be enough to wrest the Premier League trophy from United.
Yet Chelsea's 3-1 defeat was not an individual failure, but a strategic one. Sun Tzu teaches that a clever general fights on his own terms and takes great care to know his enemy. Villas-Boas appeared to do neither, leaving wide open spaces across the Old Trafford pitch that played into the hands of Ferguson's squad built for quickness and movement.
Three months of Villas-Boas' tenure is too soon to judge him, the type of football he wants at Chelsea and how this loss might cause him to rethink. But after the more studious, methodic and at times plodding philosophies of Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti, Chelsea's billionaire Russian owner Roman Abramovich now appears to have a manager more willing to throw caution to the wind and simply go for it.
Yet falling pointlessly in a hail of shots like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid surely isn't what Abramovich and Villas-Boas aspire to long-term. Chelsea allowed Chris Smalling a free header for United's first goal, failed to close down Nani for its second and couldn't contain Phil Jones' industry that set up Wayne Rooney for the third.
Back and forth the two sides went, hammering at each other like prizefighters, their eyes fixed on reaching each other's goal, instead of trying to prevent each other from getting there. For neutrals, it was hugely entertaining and heady stuff. Post-match, Ferguson likened it to basketball game.
"You attack, we'll attack, retreat, counter. Oh, it was agony," he said.
"Let your rapidity be that of the wind, your compactness that of the forest," Sun Tzu teaches. Too often, Chelsea's defending was neither.
Villas-Boas signaled as much by yanking off the pedestrian Frank Lampard at halftime for Anelka. That decision suggests that Villas-Boas isn't afraid to ditch Chelsea's old guard if they underperform. That showed decisiveness, a willingness to try different approaches and considerable self-confidence from a man who, at 33, is little or no older than some of his best-known players.
As he helps Chelsea transition to a younger team, those qualities could bear fruit if Abramovich breaks the habit of a lifetime and actually gives Villas-Boas sufficient time — as Ferguson has had so much of at United — instead of simply replacing his manager after a season or two.
Villas-Boas is now another entry in the huge encyclopedia of managers that Ferguson has outfoxed in his 25 years at United. And this one, the 69-year-old noted, is young enough to be his grandson.
"I like youth. I like young people," Ferguson said pre-game.
Surely because, as Villas-Boas showed, they can also be naive.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at twitter.com/johnleicester