Andre Villas-Boas - How Would He Fare At Chelsea?
By royhendo // June 20 2011
This is adapted from an earlier profile of Andre Villas-Boas, co-written with The Talented Mr Dilkington. Villas-Boas is now strongly linked with a move to Chelsea, whose fans will remember him as the “Mini Mourinho”. But he was always an enigmatic character during his stint there. This profile hopefully provides a little more insight.
This article profiles the man currently linked with the Chelsea job: Andre Villas-Boas. Should he move, it’ll make England’s domestic game that little bit spicier again. A club with resources of that scale will have an interesting man at its helm. But it’s an unexpected development, and possibly this article will explain why. If Chelsea have any sense, they’ll stick with him for the medium-to-long term and let him grow as a manager. But we know how things work at Stamford Bridge nowadays, don’t we? If they’re lucky, Roman will recognise the error of his ways in the past and allow the kid a little latitude should things temporarily go awry.
The Young Pretender
Luís André Pina Cabral Villas-Boas was born on the 17th of October 1977. My God. He’s three and a half years younger than I am, for Christ’s sake. At his age, like me, he should be thinking about maybe getting a mortgage and developing his beer belly. He should be dead set on starting his day with a full English and finishing it with at least three pints of Stella. I mean, it’s not as if he actually played the game. Why would he bother subjecting himself to any kind of career in football management?
Is he mentally ill?
Well, no (in my view at least - bear in mind I’m no psychotherapist). Not in any clinical sense. But football might have something of a laser-guided prodigy on its hands. Andre Villas-Boas might well be the Doogie Howser MD of football managers.
The thing is, it’s not as if he’s just gotten started. His managerial career formally started 10 years ago - he was 23 years old - and he managed an International football team. It’s fair to say Andre Villas-Boas is a little smarter, and a little odder, than your average bear.
It’s well known that Villas-Boas recently worked and lived in London for three years, and as his star continues to rise, it’s almost as well known that his Grandmother was a Northumbrian, and taught him English from an early age. As such, he’s another candidate with fluent English. But beyond that, it’s my suspicion that communication is what sets Andre villas-Boas aside as a manager, full stop. More on that later.
So How Did He Blag His Way In?
It’s well known that, when he was but a slip of a lad, Bobby Robson kept him in a cage in his Oporto apartment, much like a Mynah bird - in a manner of speaking, anyway.
“When Mr Bobby Robson came to Porto to be a coach in 1994,” Villas recalls, “he moved into my building. I was a small boy, but because I was so interested in football I went to his flat to try to meet him.
“He liked my passion so helped me to enrol at Lilleshall to take my FA coaching qualifications. He also arranged for me to do my Scottish qualifications in Largs and spend some time at Ipswich with George Burley to see the team train.” Villas was just 17. “I started very young in Lilleshall,” he says. “In fact, I shouldn’t really have been there, because the law doesn’t allow a minor to take qualifications. But Bobby [Robson] smoothed the way with Mr Charles Hughes [the former head of coaching at the Centre of Excellence] and I was allowed in to take my UEFA C badges.
“I was the youngest coach there by a mile, but I was so determined to make it that it didn’t bother me. I spent three weeks at each venue in the UK and then came back to Porto to do one year’s coaching with the youth teams. The following season I went on to do my UEFA B course and then, last year , I got my A licence.”
So let’s stop and have a breather. It’s pretty astounding really - it’s goal-driven behaviour - Schwarzenneger-esque, in fact. As well as no doubt teaching the young Andre how to say “who’s a pretty boy then?”, the elder statesman of World football and the young prodigy got talking tactics around the apartment block, and Robson was so taken aback with this nipper’s insight into the game that he took it upon himself to mentor the lad as a coach. He described his role as Robson’s “assistant”. All at that pimply pubescent stage. It’s incredible really.
It makes you wonder what underpinned his decisions at that age. It can only have been a burning desire - a clear, all-encompassing vision of where he wanted to take his life. An Internationally reknowned manager happens to move into your apartment block? You go and try to meet him. You make it clear to him that you’re passionate about the game. Somehow, the conversation turns to going to the UK to start your official UEFA coaching tutilege. You impress him so much he takes time out to oil the beaurocratic cogs and smooth your entry into the coaching fold. You up sticks for Lilleshall and Largs on your own (never easy as a ‘standard issue’ 17 year old who’s more used to sneaking down the park with a bottle of Merrydown Cider or saving up our wages to buy the next Farm album). And of course, the ‘rules’ tell you that at 17, you’re young too much to complete the badges - but you’ll be damned if you let that stop you.
So what would you do then? From 17 to 21, you’re working your way through your UEFA syllabus, chalking up your hours and experience, all the time working at a massive club - arguably the biggest in your country - learning your trade from people who truly know the game inside out. What next?
Well, naturally you up sticks on your own and head for the British Virgin Islands. Oh, and I’ve missed a bit out there. When you reach 21, you think “right, I’m not gonna sit back and do the standard apprenticeship nonsense - I want a taste of what the real job’s really all about. I’m going for it. I’m going to apply for the next job that comes up that I reckon I can get. And they look at your application, and they ask you in for a chat, and next thing you know, you’re bulk buying Ambre Solaire (you’re a little bit ‘ginger’ remember) and heading for the Carribean.
When you read through that and stop to consider where you have to be mentally to make those decisions, and to take those actions - all the time at a tender age - you realise that this guy has set some kind of mission for himself. “By their fruits you shall know them”, as a man with a beard once said.
“I would have loved to have played at the highest level,” he says, “but I wasn’t a good enough midfielder to make it so I turned to coaching. It did not take long, though, before I was hooked by all the aspects of management. It’s such a varied and demanding job. I love it and now I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. My ultimate dream is to be totally in charge of my own club soon.”
In between his various exams, Villas found the time to become the British Virgin Islands’ technical director of football in 2000. “I was basically the country’s coach,” says Villas, who was the youngest international manager at the time. “I was a kid, but they didn’t know that. I only told them my age the day I left the post. It was such a grand job for a 21-year-old. I was in charge for the 2002 World Cup qualifiers, and I remember Bermuda beating us very heavily, with Shaun Goater [the Reading striker] scoring five goals. It was a bad defeat, but still an unbelievable experience for a guy so young.”
The quotes in that excerpt betray vision, an appropriate and, in my view, healthy attitude to risk, and audacity. Not only that, but he’s brave. He’s not afraid of making mistakes if he feels there are valuable lessons that might be learned in the process. There are other managers throughout football’s history who have shared those qualities, and they’re the very men who have defined the game as we know it. But of course, it’s nothing if not coupled with talent.
Having completed his stint overseas, he came home and took a job coaching Porto’s under 19 youth team. At the time, Octavio Machado was manager, but it wouldn’t be too long before he was reunited with a kindred spirit, who happened to be taking the helm. It would herald the start of a tumultuous apprenticeship alongside one of history’s ultimate trophy-gathering sorcerers.
In 2002, Porto prised Jose Mourinho away from Uniao De Leiria. Now, it’s fair to say Villas-Boas’s career trajectory had been stellar to that point, but it’s no exaggeration to say this was the development that put him on the map. Much like others with vision in life, Villas-Boas is blessed by the Gods in terms of serendipity (or is it Mourinho who was blessed?). He happens to live in an apartment block? Bobby Robson moves in. He takes a job as a youth coach, in moves one of the few coaches whose entire ethos is centred around analysis, communication and education. And where is AVB more than a little exceptional? Analysing, communicating, and educating. He’s a lucky boy, you might say. But people with vision have a handy knack of being lucky at pivotal times.
As well as becoming a trusted member of Mourinho’s backroom team (Villas-Boas texted Mourinho’s instructions to the bench in Porto’s UEFA Cup 2nd leg against Lazio for example) Mourinho asked him to take on another challenging role, and him being him, he jumped at the chance. Self-belief is not an issue.
“Because Jose knew me well from his time as Bobby Robson’s assistant, he asked me to create the Opponent Observation Department.” In simple terms, the role of the OOD is to compile secret service-style dossiers on… rivals.
The role involved analysis, communication, and education. And it’s possible that this was the point when his potential started to really flower. Mourinho himself had been influenced by Robson (attacking play and planning of the coaching curriculum) and Van Gaal (actual training ground experience with some of the greatest players in the world). In turn, Villas-Boas would surely have been influenced by Mourinho. But the relationship would be a two-way street in that regard - Villas-Boas provided the key raw material for Mourinho’s work.
“Some managers prefer to concentrate more on fitness or mental,” Villas says, “but Jose likes to marry all aspects of coaching. He does a lot of physical and tactical work on the field, but believes that you can also benefit greatly from careful analysis and planning.
“My work enables Jose to know exactly when a player from the opposition team is likely to be at his best or his weakest. I will travel to training grounds, often incognito, and then look at our opponents’ mental and physical state before drawing my conclusions and presenting a full dossier to Jose.”
...“Jose is obsessed with detail… He will leave nothing to chance, even if his team are playing against the worst side in the League.”
Again, a pause to underline a few points. Aged 25, and with one colleague in the “OOD”, Villas-Boas was pivotal to Mourinho’s controlling approach. Of course there are two aspects to the exercise of control: you exert your own influence, and you take steps to address the things that can subvert that influence. Mourinho’s coaching methodology and core coaching curriculum would go a long way to enabling that kind of control; but it was Villas-Boas and his OOD that added a little extra ‘secret sauce’ - the kind that gives a team the edge it needs.
That’s a key input, and for Villas-Boas to have played such a pivotal role for seven years under the watchful eye of one of the most demanding people in the game, he must have proven himself exceptional.
In Mourinho’s biography, you read snippets that give some insight into the OOD’s output, and it’s here that the qualities I talked about in the introduction betray themselves.
As well as the planning aspects of the role, the technical expertise needed to compile effective dossiers, and the clarity to agree each game plan with Mourinho himself (you’d imagine this takes clarity and brevity in your presentations - he’s a busy man who won’t suffer nonsense), Villas-Boas actually went that extra mile or ten and thought about his ultimate audience. Who knows? If they’re football fans, the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators might one day make him an honourary ‘fellow’.
As well as producing paper materials (four to six page dossiers) for each individual player, detailing the strengths and weaknesses of their direct marks and the opposing side, Villas-Boas would produce individualised DVDs. They would produce video and multimedia content for room-based tactical sessions.
...“It takes me four days to put an entire file together,” Villas says, “so it is very comprehensive. The reports are given to all the players as well as the manager. The idea is that when the players go out on the pitch, they are totally prepared, so there can be very few surprises during the game.”
But it was maybe less straightforward than it appeared. Again, from Mourinho’s biography this excerpt underlines how pivotal Villas-Boas’s work was - this was ahead of Porto’s UEFA Cup final against Celtic.
“After dinner, we finally held our most important meeting. I announced the team, and presented the game plan on PowerPoint, situation by situation, what to do, how to react, how to adapt, how to win…”
He was clearly in the vanguard on this front, as was Mourinho himself. A game plans isn’t often presented as a ‘how to guide’, but this team worked like technical communicators. And as we’ll discover shortly, things went further than that.
Of course, we know this work continued at Chelsea (and later Inter Milan), albeit the job title changed to “Chief Scout”. But as well as diligently churning out world class intelligence materials, provoking other managerial giants such as Frank Rijkaard, and completing his UEFA A License, the media, looking for fresh angles on Mourinho and his merry band of conspirators, started trying to unravel the enigma his role represented.
When reporting Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge shenanigans against Barca in 2005, Sam Wallace described the OOD as “Orwellian”.
The role of Villas Boas in the exchanges at the end of the match is likely to bring the charismatic 27-year-old, who is head of Mourinho’s Orwellian-titled “Opposition Observation Department”, out of the shadows.
So it was that Villas-Boas started worming his way into the UK’s footballing consciousness.
Lineage And Special Powers?
Alongside Rui Faria and Silvinho Louro, Villas Boas boasts the kind of technical specialism that Mourinho, with his forensic attention to detail, trusts implicitly. But unlike the other two listed, Villas-Boas has managerial ambitions of his own.
Given that Mourinho boasts that his methods can be fully transmitted to a squad within three seasons, it’s safe to assume Villas-Boas has mastered Mourinho’s methodology to a greater extent than any other person working in the game. So what does that give him?
Well, we could write a book on that, but Villas-Boas gives us a good starting point above.
“Some managers prefer to concentrate more on fitness or mental… but Jose likes to marry all aspects of coaching. He does a lot of physical and tactical work on the field, but believes that you can also benefit greatly from careful analysis and planning.
Mourinho’s biography extends this further.
Jose Mourinho is a coach who develops constantly. His ideas, training methodology and concept of play are systematically analysed and studied, and are continuously evolving. He clearly states that he is not the same coach today as he was at practices two years ago.
That development is fed not only by the methods and experience derived from his own formative years, but also by working with his own team. Faria is an innovator in physical training methods. Villas-Boas is a prodigy in the tactical, analytical and communication-based aspects of the game. Mourinho takes these inputs at the end of each season and works to further develop his methodology - a methodology that’s both genuinely integrated and focussed on tactical balance.
The ‘integration’ relates to the fact that all lessons are learned in two contexts - a full-size training pitch, and a 20m by 20m square area for smaller tactical exercises. All work is done with the ball. Indeed, on Revista De La Liga recently, Xabi Alonso stated that the 2010 pre-season was the first he’d ever encountered where all work was done with a ball at their feet.
Communication forms a central ‘pillar’ of Mourinho’s methodology. He talks about ‘guided discovery’ - a process that frames tactical questions for the squad on thr training pitch in a way that poses open questions, and encourages them to arrive at the right answer themselves. In this way they ‘own’ the realisations as their own, which helps habituate the behaviour. It also, in theory, helps the squad to ‘buy in’ to the methods proposed.
This has undergone constant development. It was reported during his time at Chelsea that Mourinho and his staff had developed abstract coded communications for their players, for example “Mourinho’s Drills” (a training aptitude curriculum each youth player must complete before joining the first team squad), and the “colour box system”, which involves passing the team coloured pieces of paper, related to these drills, to the team during games. In a 6 by 6 grid, there are 36 coloured boxes, each of which represents one of these tactical drills - a response to a particular tactical situation.
For example, if the opposing side starts moaning and retreating into its shell, then apply the Grey box. Up the intensity. Up the tempo. Kill them off.
To reinforce this, young players are encouraged to keep training log books related to these drills, and every player receives a copy of the club “Bible”, which explains these details and what’s required of them as professionals day-to-day. Interestingly, in his book “Winning”, Clive Woodward, the man who led England to the Rugby World Cup, proposed the creation of “Teamship Rules” as best practice for any sporting project. The content covered was completely analogous to the “Bible” concept - the key point being its production and refinement by high quality authors, bookbinders, and multimedia experts.
Think I’m making this up? The man who replaced him at Inter provides a little corroborating evidence. As well as doing their normal job, these guys have a genuine technical author’s workflow in place.
Note - we also get a little circumstancial evidence that Mourinho had agreed to ‘let him go’ that season, much as Van Gaal had encouraged Mourinho years before. Inter knew they were replacing him - it just wasn’t clear when. He stayed to make sure the handover was smooth for the club he left.
“The Mourinho rang me asking if I would be interested in joining the coaching staff as an assistant because Andre Villas Boas was about to leave.” ...But the mini-Mourinho, as he was called the English, left ahead of time for Academic.
...“Mourinho is addicted to high tech: the images speak louder than words, especially in a club… with five Italian players, four Argentinians, five Brazilians, two Slovenians, a Colombian, an Austrian, a Portuguese, a Honduran, a Frenchman, a Nigerian, a Dutchman, a Serb, a Ghanaian and a Cameroonian.
“With Photoshop, with images of opponents, I move our players into the correct positions. I put shadows in strategic areas and add arrows to indicate movement.”
I don’t think it’s too ridiculous a leap to suggest Villas-Boas had a massive role in developing and refining these techniques, as well as the actual artefacts that supported them. This is an impressive man who boasts single mindedness and audacity, and backs that up not only with his own natural gifts for communication, but with seven years’ refinement of those skills by arguably the best in the business.
In the Japanese Zen tradition, they say it takes seven years for a persimmon to ripen, just as it takes seven years for the seeds of enlightenment to bloom.
Seven years is an auspicious development cycle, you might argue, and it’s now that the seeds of this methodology are starting to bloom.
Taking The Sith?
There’s a compelling ‘dark side’ to this story, isn’t there?
Polite convention tells you that you don’t bother the famous old man who lives across the apartment block, especially when he’s a footballing institution.
AVB - stuff that.
UEFA says you can’t do your C licence at 17 years old. AVB - stuff that.
The Virgin Islands might not employ a candidate if they realise they’re in their early 20s.
AVB - stuff that.
UEFA say your boss can’t communicate with his players.
AVB (and others) - stuff that.
You get the pattern.
Andre Villas-Boas has a healthy disregard for conventions and the letter of the law. Football’s a game, lest we forget, and its rules are fluid. Get caught offside and nobody’s going to give you the Electric Chair. So why not bend the rules? Corinthian Spirit? Stuff that. There are no fairies at the bottom of the garden - not unless you’re off your tits on mushrooms anyway.
However, at his core, Villas-Boas seems to have strong control over his Macchiavellian tendencies. He’s loyal, he’s prepared to fight for his group when he feels it’s under attack (just ask Rijkaard and Samuel Eto’o), and he helps build the team bond. For example, on leaving Inter to move to Academica de Coimbra in the Autumn of 2009, he went to the training ground and hugged each of the staff and players - he’s as warm and cuddly as it gets.
If he has control over those two ‘forces’, then coupled with his gift for communication, he has something very powerful on his hands.
Villas-Boas has also shown himself to be a superb psychologist. The Dragoes coach has managed to convince, and sound sincere even to the sceptics, that everyone is special at Porto, allowing him to get the best out of both the established first-teamers and fringe players…
“Every player in the squad is an important player. They all have a place,” said Villas-Boas last week. “I have praised both Andre Castro and Ukra (Andre Monteiro) publicly and privately. I don’t want to lose them. James has incredible potential and I intend to make him realise it. He will have opportunities (in the Portuguese Cup and Europa League) against Juventude Evora and Sofia, which will be good opportunities for him and they won’t be his last, that’s for sure.”
But you suspect praise is but one tool in his locker. With the apprenticeship he’s served, and the ‘darker’ moments he’s capable of, you’d think there’s little doubt that he can manipulate and balance his rapport with his group. Do that well, and you can lead them wherever you want them to go.
That ‘mentalist’ edge is, again, the thing that sets him aside. His communication skills are said to be supremely refined. In discussing who the Portuguese coach of the year should be, Portuguese journalist Luis Freitas Lobo said the following about Porto’s new man.
Dealing with ‘pressure’
What’s special about Andre Villas-Boas, the coach who invented FC Porto 2010/11? As with Mourinho, he believes that the next game starts when the referee’s whistle blows for the end of the preceding game - in the press conference. It is an understanding that results from awareness of the power of communication. At this point, he plants seeds in the minds of fans, journalists, his own players, and his opponents. For 90 minutes, the way you play has the power of projecting an image. But in football today, this image and the communication that supports it dominates over 50% of its content.
An emerging rivalry with Benfica’s manager Jorge Jesus is betrayed in the text that follows this, and it’s fair to say Villas-Boas is comfortable mimicking his mentor here, because the mind games have begun.
[Villas-Boas’s] tactical knowledge (and training) is also increasingly evident.
[Jorge] Jesus said he still needs to deal with peer pressure. ...I do not think it’s going to be a problem for Villas-Boas. On the contrary. This ‘external pressure’ is what he likes best and, win or lose, he’ll cope well with it. The real pressure he needs to deal with is ‘internal pressure’ - pressure that comes from within the club itself (the club’s supporters and direction). This is always (as for all managers) the greatest test of his strength… (tactics, communication and image)... Your club seems ‘unbreakable’. Right now, 2011 seems to be made in his image. With or without pressure.
This comfort with ‘pressure’ leaves him free to apply it to others. We already have a clear case study. Porto’s biggest rivals being Benfica, Villas-Boas has been only too happy to go toe-to-toe with his managerial counterpart. And he’s coming out on top - results tend to help on that front.
At the start of the season, after losing their first game, Jesus said Benfica would retain the league. And naturally, Villas-Boas was magnanamous about it, right?
“Without meaning to criticise others… Porto, Sporting, and Sporting Braga also want the league.
“The journalist Jorge Jesus said it and how many other people were there?
...“Monologues… are easy to pass, because they’re not confronted with questions from journalists. So in that monologue, Jorge Jesus said [Benfica] would be champions… We agree on one aspect - losing in the first game doesn’t mean anything. What matters is the regularity. Benfica are starting weak, but Sporting won’t delay their fight.”
Shortly afterwards, with Porto making its unbeaten start and charging into an early lead, Benfica raised complaints about the refereeing establishment, in steps Villas-Boas to bat it back to his rival. Not only that, he did it with a little headworm that would, no doubt, have wound them right up for some time.
“Do Benfica feel sufficiently hard done by to demand the repetition of the game? Then why not ask for that? Guimares did exactly that last year, after they played against Braga. Are they ashamed to ask for that? In my opinion, they did not dominate the game [in question] in such a clear manner.
...“Nobody should take merit away from FC Porto for what we have achieved. The game in which we played least well was against Naval, but even in this one we created enough opportunities to justify the victory. The solace of others is always the same and it’s convenient to feed this solace. FC Porto doesn’t go in for solace - its solace is its organisation and the organisation is strong.
“Institutionally if others refer to us, it seems to be an obsession. FC Porto does not make mistakes in its organisation. If people did not see our games they are just drawing unjust conclusions.
He then turned to Jorge Jesus himself, who had earlier commented “those at the top of the table will look to Benfica and start trembling”.
“I can’t distance myself from what I have always said… I am a fan of the teams set up by Jorge Jesus and the quality of their game, because he is a coach who emphasises giving a show. But I realise that in competition there are no friends. There are adversaries who use the weapons that they have.
“Jorge Jesus can put pressure on the FC Porto coach, just like the FC Porto coach can put pressure on Jorge Jesus. In this sense, it’s a war fought at a distance.”
So the marker was laid down.
An interesting aside here is to compare Villas-Boas’s words here with those of Mourinho. Mourinho wrote the following.
“I believe that when we are mentally strong, those people who seek to intimidate and disturb us have exactly the opposite effect. Instead, they give us the strength and courage to carry on our way.”
In the bolded section above, Villas-Boas is saying pretty much exactly that, along with it’s counterpoint - the man who resorts to this kind of pressure maybe betrays an insecurity of his own. But we digress.
It wasn’t too long before Villas-Boas’s team thumped Benfica 5-0, and we’ll come back to that later, but after the match, not unlike another manager we know, Villas-Boas described the tactical approach that he felt had unravelled their rivals. And we know how other managers enjoy that, don’t we?
Later, when the media began speculating that the result was partly down to poor performance on Jorge Jesus and Benfica’s part, Villas-Boas was quick to reassure people it was nothing to do with their weakness. It was down to Porto’s strength. While softly spoken as ever, he used an ironic tone when making his point.
“You have short memories in relation to a man who last season showed mystique and strength and whose Benfica side played a footballing dream, and quality of attack… This is a slight to those who work there every day… [trying to] fool people, but not fooling anyone. People in football never go to sleep.”
...”[This was a] clear attempt to discredit what FC Porto has achieved, ...a 5-0 win against the league champions is not a normal result.”
“This result should be seen in the same light as Barcelona 6-2 Real Madrid.”
The feud still rolls on. In December, Villas-Boas was quoted as follows, again in response to words from Jorge Jesus.
“I do not expect any kind of solidarity from the coach of Benfica. I have sympathy for the man and football coach who has achieved the target that Benfica sought for many years. The man who represents Benfica will always be a direct opponent… I did not expect anything different from what he said.
Actual Managerial Experience And Tic-Tacs?
In October 2009, Villas-Boas took the manager’s job at Academica de Coimbra in his native Portugal, on a contract until 2011. The club announced his appointment as follows.
“The success of Mourinho in all his clubs is closely linked to the work of Villas-Boas in his observation and analysis of teams, which has been acknowledged on numerous occasions by Mourinho himself.”
So no pressure then. But this is Villas-Boas we’re talking about. Pressure? Stuff that. One thing though - you can bet he thought “one day they’ll talk about me without mentioning Jose Mourinho”.
Starting seven games into the league campaign, he led the club to 11th in the league, and it’s clear the big guns in Portuguese football were pricking up their ears, as Phil Minshull confirms.
On paper, 11th place in a 16-team league does not look much to shout about. But when you consider Academica were looking like certain relegation candidates, lying at the bottom of the table and without a win to their name before the arrival of Villas-Boas, his success raised plenty of eyebrows in Portugal and brought him to the attention of the Porto president Pinto da Costa.
He opened his account with a narrow 3-2 loss away at Porto. After an early 2-0 win at home against Vitoria Setubal Villas-Boas was keen to keep his team calm and make sure they focussed on the season and their cohesion as a group.
“The improvement was what we wanted and we were waiting for it. We won and got out of the relegation places. It was more of a progression, but we can’t get hysterical, because we must continue to score. It was a collective victory”.
It didn’t take long before Porto and Sporting were bickering over his signature. Sporting had tried to hire him very shortly after his move to Academica, but didn’t have any joy. The mere speculation of his moving sent Sporting’s shares up 1.6%. On the 15th of November, the Porto president denied that Sporting’s failure was due to him having a pre-contract agreement in place with Porto. The truth or otherwise of that rumour isn’t out in the open, but what’s significant is that Villas-Boas didn’t move. He stayed put and finished his season. And in that respect, he behaved exactly as Mourinho had at Uniao de Leiria.
A couple of months into the job, ahead of their game against Benfica, he said the following about his squad’s progress.
“Hopefully, these wins are a source of inspiration for the players. ...Of course there is always progress to make. We have legitimate ambitions… We are aware that… with enormous concentration of effort you can achieve anything.”
But hey - Ian Holloway comes out with stuff like that. In itself, it’s insignificant. The proof of the pudding is how the team performs on the pitch. And clearly they performed ‘above their station’.
After a 2-0 win against Naval, Villas-Boas gave some insight into his game plan.
We have always had control of the game, we were always higher, with more possession and play in midfield than our opponent.
That’s much like he’s had his team do at Porto in fact.
Talking of Porto, it emerged that they’d gotten their man in late March. This despite stories the previous day saying he was moving to Sporting Lisbon.
Regardless, Academica finished the season strongly enough.
We know what happened next. He moved on to Porto with another standard two year contract. Once more, he followed the same trail as Mourinho. He even made an appropriately bold statement on his ‘unveiling’.
“I am not the clone of anyone… Bobby Robson was very important to me in the beginning when I first came to this stadium as a coach at the age of 17, and José Mourinho too. People are always mentioning how young I am, but what matters when it came to my appointment was my ability.
I want to leave my mark on this club.”
The fact he resisted pressure to move mid-season to Sporting again mirrors Mourinho’s precedent (at Leiria). It’s likely that, like Mourinho, he feels it important to keep his promises to the group he’s assembled. After all - Mourinho makes a pre-season ritual of setting group goals for each season, and talks about his group of players as if they’re his second family. You’d imagine Villas-Boas is much the same in that respect.
Porto had finished the preceding season in third, but won the Portuguese Cup. The previous manager, Jesualdo Ferreira, had previously attained three back-to-back titles. So it’s fair to say that, despite half a decade passing since their last glorious era, expectaitons were still high.
...the results don’t fool with FC Porto. The team is leading the league, still unbeaten. “Many may ask why they chose someone who has never coached in life, other than those two or three months at the academy. Everything depends on the games and the results. If you win everything, he’s the perfect coach. Now I will make comparisons to me, because when when I went to FC Porto I had already done field work”.
In pre-season, Villas-Boas commented that he was happy with the side’s early progress, and his words echoed the early quotes during his time at Academica.
“We continue to improve, but we shouldn’t be euphoric. It was a brilliant display, and we created lots of chances. But what counts most right now is the growth of players and minutes of use, “he said…
“My interest is to generate as many chances as possible and we created countless opportunities today. We do not live obsessed with heavy defeats. What We’re obsessed with is a new style of play and a new method, “he concluded.
So hints that maybe this side would have a healthy attitude towards risk. “We do not live obsessed with heavy defeats”.
“Everything involves a change of habits, a new way of training and of understanding the game. There are things we’re going to do to try to impress, but they’ll take too long to assimilate. Step by step we will get there.”
Shades of Mourinho’s “methodological beating” there. Fernando commented on pre-season as follows.
Porto’s Brazilian footballer Fernando Francisco Reges today praised the methods of new coach, André Villas-Boas, and explained that their adaptation to them was “optimal”.
“I am prepared for everything asked of me and if I have to change and become more offensive I won’t have any problems” said the player, who last season was one of the pillars of Porto’s midfield.
Fernando found that the pre-season training sessions to Villas-Boas are “very dynamic” and said that “improvements are evident"throughout the team.
On August 12th, he came close to emulating his mentor.
“We want to end the season with the title in our hands.”
However, there’s a subtle difference, and it’ll be interesting over the course of his career to see if it persists. Rather than using the imperative, Villas-Boas talks of his team’s desire. Mourinho, perhaps significantly, talked as if it was a certainty. But then, Mourinho’s opponents at the time weren’t as strong as those that Porto face now.
So what kind of squad did he inherit? Well, they finished third in a league won by a very strong Benfica side last season - and we know first hand how good that side was. They gave us quite a fright and but for a brief moment of footballing clarity from our squad, would have knocked us out. Benfica lost Angel Di Maria and Ramirez, so you might say their squad took a blow. But arguably Porto took just as much of a blow, if not more.
They sold two key players in Raul Meireles and centre half Bruno Alves. So how did they fare with incoming players? Significantly, they signed Joao Moutinho, who was the captain and talisman of Sporting Lisbon, despite being 24. But that’s it - he was the only real first team addition.
Whats maybe more significant is this - the players sold included Meireles, Alves, and Farias. Their average age? 29.3 years.
The average age of the six players bought? 21.88 years.
Other than Moutinho, these new players haven’t been ever present by any means, but it seems a good decision. As always with European clubs, you’re not sure just how much responsibility and credit the manager can take for transfer business; but given Villas-Boas’s relationship with the club and his background as a scout, it’s an educated guess to he had some input.
Porto are very well managed. This practice ties in with Mourinho’s plans made several years before, where the club’s working methods were aligned. Mourinho had persuaded the Porto president, Pinto Da Costa, to realign the club in line with his “Bible”.
“...the basis for the whole programme: ‘The concept of club is more important than any player’. This concept… is a belief that must be taken on by everyone in the club, especially in the junior ranks.”
We gained some insight into this earlier, but Pinto Da Costa signed off on that document and sponsored the programme personally - and he remains the Porto president now. So it’s maybe fair to say things are well aligned behind the scenes. That being the case, it’s easier to understand the confidence Villas-Boas has had in relying on players within their squad. Not only is it strong - they’re drilled in what’s not gonna be a million miles away from his preferred methodology.
Anyway, we digress (again). The squad. How is it? Well, this was the most interesting part to research. Mr Dilkington of RAWK was patient enough to both accomodate my questioning and provide an in-depth analysis of the way the side functions. Most of what follows is his work. On reading it, I trundled off and found two full games’ footage - Porto at home to Leiria and the big result at home to Benfica. It made for impressive viewing, and I’m resolved to watch as much of them as I can for the remainder of the season.
The squad fits his modified 4-3-3 nicely. (Or was it the other way round? There’s not enough evidence to say.)
Their keeper Helton’s form has apparently improved this season, but he was never a diddy by any means. Back four? Big lads all - all over six foot, with two strong centre halves in Rolando and Maicon (the latter particularly silky), strength on the right in Sapunaru (strong defensively, gets forward well) and a hare on the left in Pereira (regularly pops up in and around the opposing box). Having watched them twice, they seem to have strong backup at right back in Fusile.
Holding midfielders? They’re very strong again, with Fernando and Guarin both physical players with a lot of quality on the ball. On top of that, Moutinho can play this role comfortably, as well as on both the wide midfield roles, and to a high standard. Moutinho and Beluschi are not only energetic and committed defensively - they burst their lungs to support the attacking trio, and have great quality in their passing. The three work nicely as a unit, and as with the front three, set up in an interesting way. More on that shortly.
The front three are nothing short of formidable, both in the English and the French sense. The front man and reference point for the side’s attacking play is Falcao. He’s strong, good in the air, an excellent finisher, and when balls are fired in his direction, they either fall one touch to a runner, or stick. That’s a big part of their build-up play.
On the left, Varela hugs the touchline. He’s like greased lightning, to the extent that any player stationed in his vicinity’s nerves are gonna be a little ‘piqued’. Meanwhile, on the right, is Porto’s star man - the Hulk. This guy was a good player already, but this season he’s on fire - all but unplayable.
Now. Here’s the interesting bit. It’s not your bog-standard symmetrical 4-3-3. Fans of “Inverting The Pyramid” would enjoy the tweak, and, oddly, it’s reminiscent of the football I grew up with, watching Jim McLean’s Dundee United through the 80s. Variance in depth and a slight lop-sidedness rather than symmetry in both the midfield and forward lines, a high defensive line, intensity in their pressing, and wide forard players who stay posted high up the pitch, giving their defenders something to think about.
So how does it look on paper?
The big weapon in the side being Hulk, it obviously helps if he has space to wreak his merry havoc on the opposing side. Well, that’s a key aspect of how the side’s set up. Varela has searing pace, and he’s like greased lightning from a standing start. Posted wide left, and staying high at almost all times, he’s like a magnet to a side’s defensive iron filings. The mere fact he’s there out wide gives you something to worry about at the back of your mind, both in terms of space out left and of the gap in behind. Then, of course, you’re dealing with a big, muscular speciment in Falcao, and an even bigger powerhouse of a speciment on the right in Hulk. Hulk, however, tucks in. He takes up a narrower position, closer to Falcao.
So - if you’re defending against this, what do you do? Do you post a man on Hulk full-time? The centre halves have their hands full with big Falcao, so to deal with him and Hulk effectively, do you post your holding midfielder or one of the other midfielders? If you do, guess what? The hare on the left is gonna find himself with more space. And he’s the kind of player you don’t want to cede too much space to. Porto emphasise this regularly by the way - as time ticks on, the centre halves or holding midfielder will ping a long diagonal to Varela and he’ll receive the ball isolated against the right back. Porto like to post a reminder that he’s there from time to time.
Varela unsettles the defensive set-up and draws them right, and while it’s speculation, the stats back up the idea that Hulk and Falcao are the direct beneficiaries of this set-up. Both players have 17 goals for the season, while Varela has 7. Meanwhile, in the midfield ‘3’, Moutinho plays narrow, and Belluschi plays wide. This is a point supported by Zonal Marking’s analysis of the Porto v Benfica game (the 5-0 win above). Hulk gets attention, so from time-to-time Belluschi gets to sneak off with the Prom Queen. Moutinho and Fernando have one goal for the season, while Belluschi has two. You’d expect the assist stats to correlate.
The midfield three, though, work well as a unit. It’s not often, even in that offensive set-up, that the defensive four find themselves isolated, and it’s down to the energy and coherence of that three.
Mr Dilkington makes the point that there’s something refreshingly old school to the side’s set-up.
“In Villas-Boas’s team, the defenders defend, the midfielders link defence and attack, and most importantly assist, and the forwards stay high up the field and put the ball in the net. Can’t be more simple than that, can it? This is further backed up when you consider that Porto’s front three have contributed just four assists between them to date this season. Is that a bad thing? Well, Villas-Boas just wants them to snap the net in two as many times as they can.”
Amongst all this, Villas-Boas is quietly active on the touchline. He stands in his technical area, shouts instructions at his players just like most managers do - but he’s assured and calm. There’s a poise to him.
They started well, winning the Portuguese Super Cup against Benfica, and the side have remained unbeaten, save for, shock horror, being knocked out of the Portuguese League Cup a few days ago. Recognising the start he’d made and the fact that his profile was now sky high, Porto extended contract for another year. Villas-Boas commented as follows.
“[It is] a privilege to receive this kind of trust…”
The 33-year-old… has committed until 2013 having made a big impression since joining from A. Académica de Coimbra. “We are on a long road and hope to be successful… I know if we all stay together we will always win.”
In signing his contract, Villas-Boas reinforces the same team building message we constantly hear from Mourinho. He never misses an opportunity.
Game Done Change?
Gabriele Marcotti says it’s tempting to compare Villas-Boas to Theo Epstein of the Boston Red Sox. An unusually young man who hasn’t played the game himself, and who has a healthy disregard for convention and ‘rules of the game’.
Youth, in itself, isn’t that unusual in itself. Many a player has taken on a player manager role after hanging up his boots, and a few have gone on to be very successful. Then there are the likes of Thomas Tuchel and Pep Guardiola, who played the game themselves, but spent years learning their trade before taking a top level job of their own and excelling.
Increasingly we’re seeing managers enter the game with a more ‘academic’ background, and with marginal to no playing backgrounds of their own, whether due to injury or inability. Hugh McIlvanney once said managers who didn’t boast a successful background of their own in the game are fuelled by a greater hunger in management than their peers who have enjoyed success. In the cases above, there are examples in both camps. There’s very little Guardiola didn’t achieve in the game as a player, for example.
What’s clear is that the barriers to entry as a manager are in the process of being challenged before our eyes. It’s an interesting process. Villas-Boas comments on this as follows.
“I guess it is because I started coaching when I was very young,” explains the 26-year-old going on 50. “Despite my age, I have a lot of experience.”
It’s likely his example will blaze a trail for others to follow. It’ll be interesting to watch that unfold.
So is Andre Villas-Boas suitable for Chelsea? Well, yes - as much as any manager is suitable. But it depends on one thing - his ability to manage his one key stakeholder: Roman Abramovich. Give this kid time and all the signs are that he’l work wonders. But who gets time at Chelsea? The club is a swirling maelstrom of ego and power jostling. You’d expect at some stage for him to demand stability - the kind of stability that needs to be underpinned by genuine authority and control. The question is, can Abramovich cede that kind of control? All the evidence points at the answer being “No”. Mourinho, a talented man himself, thought he was getting it - but ultimately learned his authority was founded on shifting sands.
What is clear is that Villas-Boas has an affinity with England, and that he’s spent enough time there to understand who the big ‘players’ are. It’s important to remember he’s spent a great deal of time working with Mourinho; but it’s equally important to remember this fella’s headstrong. He’s his own man. So it’s difficult to second guess how his story will unfold.
Pedro Pinto, in World Soccer recently, had this to say on the subject.
“You get the feeling… that winning in Portugal won’t be enough for Villas-Boas; he craves continental acclaim. After getting a taste of International success working as a scout and assistant for Mourinho in England and Italy, he wants to make his own mark in Europe.”
In his mind, Chelsea represents a chance to make that kind of mark. It’ll be interesting to watch the drama unfold.
Posted by Jordan // June 20, 2011
Great, great article. I really enjoyed the analysis.
Posted by Craig // June 20, 2011
Bloody excellent in every aspect. Informative and fun. I didn’t know any of that stuff about AVB. knew he was opportunistic but not to that extent!
Posted by Richie C // June 21, 2011
Fantastic read, very impressive. I was looking forward to his appointment anyway, but this makes me even more excited. Hopefully with Hiddink as a DoF above him Roman might allow him to instill he ethos over the club as a whole.
Posted by royhendo // June 21, 2011
Thanks lads, that’s much appreciated.
Posted by NLKB // June 21, 2011
Brilliant article. A dossier as detailed as those Villas-Boas used to prepare.
Posted by Brett Thomas // June 21, 2011
Superb article. I’ve gone from quietly anxious to excited about his imminent arrival. I can sacrifice a trophy or two for a bit of thrilling football, something we’ve missed since Jose’s first season.
Posted by Harry Stone // June 21, 2011
Wow it’s a good thing chelsea are planning to secure his services,looking at all this facts we know he’s a good coach but the point still remains,the man at the helm of power Roman would he allow him to do his job,he needs time and am glad he’s young so he wouldn’t mind giving the younger players a chance to get on the field compared to carlo
Posted by Kevin // June 21, 2011
Impressive is an understatement. Excellent read that !
Posted by Paul // June 21, 2011
Great article, really enjoyed that! Let’s fire Football Manager up!
Posted by Greg // June 21, 2011
Fantastic piece! I wanted to read up on AVB and Zonal Marking said this was the only piece I needed to read and boy was he right.
It’s interesting to see the role of Manager develop with these younger generation coaches. I’m an Arsenal fan and Wenger brought the diet and physical preparedness but what you’ve described is a whole new level altogether.
Posted by John Maxwell // June 21, 2011
An analysis AVB would be proud of. Thanks for the read.
Posted by Talbear13 // June 21, 2011
Well done. That was a great read.
Posted by Tim // June 21, 2011
Superb article - Very comprehensive! Seeing how Villas-Boas copes with managing Chelsea will be fascinating. Only disappointing factor is that we won’t get to see him manage Porto in the Champions League. Also confirms that Sir Bobby Robson was a true gentleman whose legacy will continue to have an influence on the world of football.
Posted by dKopReds // June 22, 2011
There will be huge expectation on him. Hoping so much that Roman would never “kill” his career early.
Posted by DannyW // June 22, 2011
I knew little about AVB but after reading that it’s inspired me that I may be able to reach a decent management level in football if I work hard enough. Thanks for that, brilliant read.
Posted by Nick // June 22, 2011
This article is perfect. Point and case. Thanks so much for taking the time to put such a thorough and detailed piece together!
Posted by Jimit // June 23, 2011
fantastic read!! Keep up the good work!
Posted by David // June 27, 2011
Really interesting, having read Mourinho’s autobiography and got an insight, I’m looking forward to seeing how AVB fares in West London. English football was brighter with Jose, hope AVB adds some sparkle.
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