André Villas-Boas was long linked with filling the vacancy left by Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool and many fans – including myself – were excited by these rumours. Villas-Boas was sacked by Chelsea on March 4th 2012 following a league defeat against West Brom. The ex-Chelsea manager though was still in high demand with top English sides Tottenham and Liverpool emerging as the two front-runners to acquire the former Porto boss’ services. His very successful run with Portuguese giants Porto is the source to much of his interest, winning a total of 45 wins in 51 games (88%) and when he was available he was a very young manager at just 34.
Fenway Sports Group were reportedly very keen on Villas-Boas, so much so that they arranged a meeting with him and his agent. When he spoke to the press about the possibility of joining Liverpool he said that he was looking for the “right project” and that he wouldn’t be rushed into making a decision. Just a couple of days later Liverpool reportedly offered the position of sporting director to Louis van Gaal and almost all talk of Villas-Boas joining Liverpool soon vanished. A couple of weeks later, the Portuguese boss was at the Lane.
But, just for a moment let’s imagine Villas-Boas did join Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers stayed with Swansea City.
Villa-Boas prefers to prepare his team around an axis of three in the midfield, each complimentary of one another. While he was at Chelsea, Frank Lampard represented a type of player that Villas-Boas doesn’t see fit in any one of the three roles. His approach sees a defensive midfielder with two players who are comfortable at playing further forward in possession, one of whom is still capable of functioning as a box-to-box midfielder.
This was a typical 4-3-3 Chelsea formation that Villas-Boas regularly fielded:
Notice how Malouda would have acted like the box-to-box midfielder in this formation, Villas-Boas plays a formation that when successful will see his team dominate in possession and will then make a break from the midfield in an attempt to score. His time at Chelsea was mostly unsuccessful; he was critiqued for using his formation. It may have been unsuccessful due to the lack of creative midfielders that could make that vital break from the midfield that could link up with the attack. A player like Luka Modric or Rafael van der Vaart would have been much more successful in that position compared to Malouda, perhaps this wasn’t the best formation for Chelsea who’d probably suit a 4-2-3-1 better. This 4-3-3 formation can easily be seen again when Villas-Boas took charge at Spurs:
It’s easily noticeable that this looks a more ‘natural’ formation for the players in the squad, van der Vaart is in a position where he could pick the lock of the opposition with his partner in crime – Modric, if there was one thing that stunted Villas-Boas at Chelsea it was the lack of creative midfielders like van der Vaart and Modric.
Now, this is how Villas-Boas may have fielded his Liverpool squad:
It’s uncertain what players Villas-Boas may have bought for his Liverpool roster but we’ll assume that he would have kept the players seen on the above formation. I have also thought that he may not have loaned Andy Carroll out to West Ham, and believe that Dempsey and Sturridge may have been high on his shopping list. So we’ll have one of those guys as the central striker for argument’s sake.
As Jordan Henderson is a ‘box-to-box’ midfielder by description, I believe that Villas-Boas would have employed him in that role alongside his captain, Steven Gerrard with Lucas being the anchor in the midfield. The midfield trio looks pretty solid, Lucas has been an effective defensive midfielder in the past for Liverpool; making a vital ‘2.8 interceptions per game’ (ThinkFootball.com) the previous season, the most out of all Liverpool players for that year.
Back into reality, it’s clear that Gareth Bale has worked extremely well for Villas-Boas at Tottenham in the LW position. This position is where I’d presume Luis Suárez would have been employed, to feed balls to the central striker and to perform some of his many exhibitions of trickery to put himself into goal-scoring opportunities. Something that he has done very successfully with Liverpool this season.
DA: Dribbles Attempted, SD: Successful Dribbles, TC: Total Crosses, AC: Accurate Crosses, (Feb ’13).
Graph comparing Robin van Persie to Luis Suárez [Source: bleacherreport.com]
However, Suárez has played most of his Liverpool season as a central player so whether he would recreate these statistics in the LW position is something we’re yet to find out.
Steven Gerrard, Liverpool’s heartbeat. Gerrard is a master of the pass, when he hits it right he could hit a clay pigeon being flung across the sky. From the more defensive position that Villas-Boas would have potentially played him from, he could have pulled the strings in Liverpool’s midfield and attack whilst contributing to the defence.
Overall, the formation that Villas-Boas may have implemented at Liverpool would have been similar to that of Brendan Rodger’s, the only differences I could see would be a change of position and tactic for Luis Suárez and Jordan Henderson, two factors that could have affected the players very well or very poorly. Jordan Henderson has proved himself this year for Liverpool in a more central role, something that he could have done much earlier under Villas-Boas.
Would he have played the youngsters?
Suso (19), Raheem Sterling (18) and Andre Wisdom (19). These guys are players that have played under Brendan Rodgers at a senior level for Liverpool, something that not all managers would have done. Kenny Dalglish played Raheem Sterling 3 times during his time as Liverpool manager, albeit that he was 16/17 at the time but Brendan Rodgers included the 17-year old Sterling in his first team choice and has since played the youngster 35 times in all competitions, scoring 2 goals. Suso made his first senior appearance at Liverpool under Brendan Rodgers and has made 18 appearances all year under him, although he is yet to get his first senior goal and assist he has made an impact on the watching Liverpool fans who believe he could easily become the “next David Silva”. Andre Wisdom is another young footballer that as given his first chance in a Liverpool shirt by Brendan Rodgers. He has been used as a stand-in for Jose Enrique and Martin Kelly, he has also made 18 appearances for Liverpool this year under Brendan Rodgers.
Back at Chelsea, Romeu played 24 games in the 2011/12 season which was mainly headed by Villas-Boas. He made an impact in the squad instantly and was employed as a defensive midfielder in the squad.
Looking at this it’s unclear whether Villas-Boas would have played the younger players at a senior level as even Romelu Lukaku spent the majority of his Chelsea season in the reserves, yes, Lukaku who has scored 13 goals this year [so far] for West Brom.
These are the positions I feel that Villas-Boas could have employed the same Liverpool youngsters in:
Of course Andre Wisdom may not have played for Liverpool at all this year if Jose Enrique and Martin Kelly were 100% fit. When looking at Villas-Boas’ way of playing it looks like Suso may have been a player that would have made the larger breakthrough, not Sterling as he could have been employed in the midfield and either of the two wings which are key features in Villas-Boas’ 4-3-3 formation.
Formations are important very important to squads but they are useless without players to fill the formation out! Let’s look at players that Liverpool and Tottenham have shown interest in and assess what players may have ended up where and if it would have been a good or bad thing for Liverpool.
Whether Dempsey and Sigurðsson have had more success at Liverpool is impossible to determine but I can say with confidence that I believe they would not have bettered the bar that Sturridge and Coutinho have set at Anfield.
Player comparisons [Statistics sourced from: EPSN]
Andre Villas Boas has had a wonderful season with Tottenham Hotspur. He’ll definitely finish the season better than Rodgers does at Liverpool. But with the young squad at Rodger’s disposal, the future is definitely bright. As for “What if AVB did join Liverpool?”, we may never know.
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Steven is one of Outside of the Boot's Liverpool FC reporters and brings readers a track on all matters Anfield. He also writes the odd piece on Juventus. Steven is studying Journalism at John Moores University in Liverpool, he will complete the course by 2016 and currently lives in Knotty Ash. He follows the Reds as often as he can, brings you exclusive interviews and insightful, independent analysis. Find Steven on Twitter: @stevenjrcarson.
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