He was to be a prominent leader who would usher in a new generation of football coaches; a generation which was to embrace technology and objectify football like a fast paced chess game, one which would further inspire the average ‘geeky’ Football Manager player, and perhaps most importantly redefine football management and help move away from “the old ex-pros who couldn’t quite let go of the game they loved”, and towards a profession which required dynamic, youthful and forward thinking coaches. But instead, Andre Villas- Boas has set this generation back a few years. Last week he was relieved of his duties at Tottenham Hotspurs, leaving from his second English club in two years. One must wonder where it all went wrong for football’s “wonderkid” manager who was the man who won the treble with Porto in 2011 and was excitedly talked about as being “Special too”(pun intended), with clubs all over Europe in relentless pursuit of his signature.
Andre Villas-Boas’s journey into Football Management is truly remarkable. Having never played football professionally at any level, it is now a fabled tale of how he as a 16 year old questioned the great Sir Bobby Robson’s player selection at FC Porto during a chance encounter with him at the twos common apartment complex. Sir Bobby who was so impressed with the teenager’s reasoning and questioning, decided to send him to Scotland to complete his coaching badges, and later appointed him on Porto’s observation team. It was there he met the then “not so special” Jose Mourinho, another of Sir Bobby’s protégés. Together the two grew under Sir Bobby winning back to back league titles and perhaps even more importantly were passed down invaluable knowledge from one of Football’s finest gentleman. When Mourinho decided to venture into management, Villas Boas followed him as his chief opposition scout. Together the pair met success after success at Porto, Chelsea and Internazionale. AVB was one of the most trusted members of Mourinho’s staff, which he manifested by calling Villas Boas his “eyes and ears”. A splendid example of one of his comprehensive opposition scouting dossiers is this one, found by the Daily Telegraph on Newcastle United.
It was all merry for any man willing to settle in the shadows of success, but Villas Boas was not that man. As his experience grew, Villas-Boas was beginning to have his own management ambitions and after a year at the San Siro, much to the annoyance of Mourinho, he left to return to Portugal and take control of Academica, a team struggling against relegation and having not won a match, until Villas-Boas arrived and hauled them back to safety. In 2010, he got his big break and was appointed manager of Porto. Andre Villas Boas’s return to the club where it all started for him was a hugely successful one. He presented a dynamic and versatile team, with the high pressure and attacking fluency leaving the rest of Europe in awe. Falcao, Hulk and Joao Moutinho all became stars in a season where they clinched the treble of the Europa League, Portuguese league and cup. All this at the age of 34, as a manager! His management netted him the plaudits praise with teams vying for his signature, amongst which was another one of his former employers, Chelsea FC.
Andre Villas-Boas’s time at Chelsea was at the least, a huge disappointment. He was sacked after just nine months of coming to the English shore. Much was expected of him on his arrival to England, perhaps too much with the pressure of being a José Mourinho clone too high. An interesting point to be noted was despite his time with Mourinho, AVB was philosophically different. The system came first, not the players. He has even shown open admiration to pep Guardiola, Mourinho’s arch tactician. The change in philosophy proved to be too hard to implement in a club like Chelsea which was steeped in Mourinho’s pragmatic DNA. It involved heavy pressing which expectedly led to playing a high defensive line, which would suit younger more dynamic players. Naturally the key senior players like John Terry and Frank Lampard were not too pleased to find themselves frequently warming the bench. AVB was only a couple of years elder to them and found it an uphill task to win their respect. Given below is a display of his highly obdurate tactics, against Arsenal in October 2011.Historically, in this fixture Chelsea were the ones who sat back, often reaping benefits off the counter.
However AVB preferred an attacking set up. Take note of the high defensive line. The match ended 5-3 in favour of Arsenal with Chelsea’s high line ripped apart by Van Persie and co. Both the centre backs were very uncomfortable with the high line, especially John Terry whose pace hadn’t kept up along the years.
AVB was sacked in March 2011 after a poor string of results and dressing room unrest. His assistant Roberto Di Matteo took over as interim manager and of course as we all now know, went ahead and won the Champions League. It surely must have been agonizing for AVB watching as “his team” (in his words) achieved crowning glory, when only months before under him they were a foot outside the champions league.
Mistakes hopefully learnt, AVB yearned for a second chance. That Chance came when Tottenham Hotspurs appointed him “head coach” in 2012.Spurs like the man himself were a highly ambitious outfit and wished to break into the European football berths. Together manager and club enjoyed a great first season. Despite not finishing in the top four, they ended up 5th with a record points haul of 72 for a team who finished outside the top four as Arsenal edged them out by a single point. His relationship with the players seemed to be fantastic contrary to his time at Chelsea earning praise from his players .Gareth Bale established himself as a superstar enthralling all with his performances throughout the season. Superb wins such as beating Manchester United at Old Trafford seemed to make AVB’s time at Chelsea a distant memory. The high line which failed ever so dramatically at Chelsea begin to yield benefits as the compressed play. All in all; he looked to be taking the club in the positive direction with the future looking ever so bright.
However as we all now know, that didn’t turn out that way. The biggest problem at the start of the 2013/2014 season (the first of many) was the future of Gareth Bale. A player of Bale’s quality was always going to find it hard to stay content with playing in the Europa league. A huge transfer saga ensued with Bale eventually being snapped by Real Madrid for a reported 85.3 million pounds. Tottenham now had money on their hands, enough money to launch a huge threat to the “top four”. A raft of new signings such as the renowned Roberto Soldado from Valencia, and Erik Lamela from AS Roma followed as Villas Boas looked ready to perfect his attacking style of football. It seemed to have worked initially with spurs consistently maintaining top four form within the first couple of months but it all went sour quickly. The most straightforward problem was that they couldn’t score goals. New signing Roberto Soldado seemed to be able to score only from the penalty spot. The inverted wingers meant Soldado barely received enough service as a lone striker. AVB also rather controversially contributed the lack of goal scoring especially at home to the atmosphere at White Hart lane, which only served to worsen the situation. AVB’s compression of play up the pitch which had often pressured opposition into conceding was now overly predictable with the opponents easily adapting and accustoming themselves to this pattern, which meant all it took was a simple through ball to get in one on one with Hugo Lloris, who even though is arguably the best sweeper keeper in the world, can save only so many.
Michael Dawson is an exceptional defender, who unfortunately is not blessed with pace Dawson proved to be just as disastrous in the high line as John Terry was, a lost soul in the centre as strikers ran through with ease .The game against Manchester city on the 26th of November. The high line was exploited from start to finish as City romped home 6-0 victors. Walker and Vertonghen looked misplaced up the pitch as highly advanced fullbacks and often clashed with Lennon and Lamela’s play, while Kaboul and Dawson were left to fend city’s front four. It’s not too hard to find parallelism with Chelsea’s 5-3 defeat to Arsenal.
That sort of performance was surely one that an owner who invested 107 million into summer signings would want to be presented with. They looked to have sorted things out when they played Manchester United the very next week, adopting a more stable defensive approach which earned them a well earned 2-2 draw. Unfortunately for Daniel Levy, he was treated to another devastating performance, losing 5-0 to Liverpool at Spurs’s own backyard on the 15th of December. AVB had reverted once again to his now infamously suicidal high line. That proved to be the end of line for AVB and his vision at Spurs as Daniel Levy had seen enough, as AVB was sent packing.
What does the future hold for AVB?
Andre Villas Boas’s time as a premier league manager has most likely come to an end for the foreseeable future. His management style was also seen as a bit too continental for the Physical premier league, and one which was difficult to grasp for both Chelsea and Tottenham, who had a far less robust approach to the game. He was always under high expectations at both the clubs, and as a manager who had never been in a sticky situation before found it extremely hard to react. The best option for him right now would be a break from the game, with time to reflect on his mistakes and reassess his thinking. A sabbatical year out could do him a world of good. It is easily forgotten that he is still only 36 and has many years ahead of him, the resource he has is in his favour is time. Andre Villas Boas’s career still has many unwritten chapters. His footballing journey is surely not over as he has much more to offer to the world of management. He will continue to be criticised for his “Football Manager”-esque perception of football. For those attacking AVB for having not played professional football, I can only leave the words said by the Great Arrigo Saachi, arguably one of the greatest tacticians the world had been blessed with,
“I never realised that in order to become a jockey you have to have been a horse first”
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