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- The Series
While this website has made its name focusing on the lesser known youth of this beautiful sport, and combined it with a tinge of tactical flavour meant for the football enthusiast, we found a large gap to be exploited in terms of combining the two. This mini-series thus focuses on young managers (below the age of 45) and their tactical philosophies, deriving what got them here and where they could go. In this piece, Jack Coles studies the methods of the divisive figure that is Andre Villas-Boas.
André Villas-Boas is still only 37, but it feels like he’s been a football manager for a very long time. Indeed, the 25th of October, 2015 will only be the 6th anniversary of Villas-Boas’ first game in charge of a senior, professional football team, discounting a brief stint as Technical Director of the British Virgin Islands at the age of 21. Villas-Boas has taken first team management roles in Portugal, with Académica de Coimbra and his beloved FC Porto, then in London, with Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, and he is now currently working for Zenit St. Petersburg, in Russia.
Villas-Boas’ route into football was allegedly through Sir Bobby Robson. The famous anecdote is that when Robson was employed as FC Porto’s new manager in 1994, serendipitously the English manager and his family became the Villas-Boas’ neighbours. This apparently gave André the chance, aged 16, to ask Robson why his idol, Domingos Paciência, was on the bench so often. From then on, Robson is said to have encouraged Villas-Boas to take his coaching badges, orchestrated internships for him at Ipswich Town, and found work for him with the FC Porto youth team, where he climbed the ladder.
Villas-Boas left FC Porto for his short British Virgin Islands experience at the turn of the millennium (where he managed a senior side that lost 14-1 on aggregate to Bermuda), and returned to retake his position at FC Porto when he left his international post.
José Mourinho was unveiled as the manager of the FC Porto senior side in 2002, and within months of this appointment Villas-Boas joined the first-team staff. Villas-Boas produced detailed tactical reports on FC Porto’s opponents for Mourinho, a job Villas-Boas continued to do, among other things, at Chelsea and Inter Milan. Villas-Boas left Mourinho’s staff in 2009, and later that year set off for Coimbra in his first role in senior management, having celebrated his 33rd birthday 8 days prior to his first match.
Incidentally, Villas-Boas’ playing career was modest, playing as a goalkeeper for two junior teams – Ribeirense and Ramaldense – and also in midfield for a side called Marechal Gomes da Costa later on. As a player for the amateur team, Villas-Boas was already working as an assistant in FC Porto’s youth side and it was clear his future lay in coaching, not playing.
There are obvious themes to Villas-Boas’ tactical preferences. He has never really strayed from using a back four, two wingers and a single striker as the main shape of his team. But the midfield three has shifted over time, from one holding midfielder, in his FC Porto and Chelsea days, to two holding midfielders – the double pivot – whilst with Tottenham Hotspur and Zenit. There have been very few exceptions. Villas-Boas, like Mourinho, places huge importance on transitions as well – the moment the ball is lost or won by the team.
The young coach has also set his stall out for a preferred marking system too, “No way. For me, man-to-man marking doesn’t exist.”
Another consistent feature of every team Villas-Boas side is the high defensive line. This is the tactical distinction that defines Villas-Boas – and maybe not for the right reasons. At FC Porto and Zenit St. Petersburg, teams in leagues with little competitive balance, the high defensive line was rarely tested. But at Chelsea and Tottenham in the Premier League, a league with a higher level of competitive balance, the high defensive line was exposed too often. This is particularly true if the pressing from the front is lax, as it was with Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur.
As Villas-Boas is a young coach, it’s easy to split his career into two distinct eras. The watershed moment in Villas-Boas’ coaching career was in December 2011. The first era, with Académica, FC Porto and the first half of the season with Chelsea was when Villas-Boas was more of an idealist. After December 2011, this gave way to a more pragmatic approach, predominantly, at Tottenham Hotspur and Zenit.
At Académica, Villas-Boas played an attacking 4-3-3, and this brought him results in the 8 months he was in charge. He took the club from bottom of the league to 11th place, and contested a Portuguese Cup semi-final against FC Porto, where they unfortunately lost. Villas-Boas transformed the team aesthetically that season.
With FC Porto though, Villas-Boas had the most talented squad he has ever managed. The ability of the playing staff at FC Porto in the year Villas-Boas coached them was frankly sickening. The likes of Nicolás Otamendi, Fernando, Beto, Hulk, Radamel Falcao García, and João Moutinho were in the squad, and younger players like Rúben Micael and James Rodríguez complemented the team, and with players in the form of their lives like Álvaro Pereira, Fernando Belluschi, and Fredy Guarín, the team won almost every tournament they entered, losing only four times all season. Villas-Boas’ win percentage was a staggering 84%. FC Porto’s 2010/2011 season was very close to perfect.
The tactical system was attacking, with the full-backs providing width, and with licence to go up the pitch to disrupt the defensive stability of the opposition, although Álvaro Pereira did this a lot more than Săpunaru, the right back. This was mainly due to the position of the two wingers – with the left winger a lot more tucked infield than the right. At their best, the midfield rotated as a three, also creating chaos for opposing defenders and picking up whatever zones they occupied if the ball was lost. The front three generally featured a striker (Falcao), a winger who stayed wide and cut inside (Hulk – on the right), and a winger who stayed tucked in, letting a midfielder or full-back break into the space out wide (Varela – on the left). Sometimes the two wide players swapped roles. Hulk was the difference when FC Porto found it tough to break down defences, with a focus on finding him with quick, direct balls into space, and Porto always made use of runners from midfield to play alongside Falcao in attack. FC Porto stuck steadfastly to 4-3-3 for much of the season.
It was this system, and the momentum from his success with two teams in Portugal, that Villas-Boas brought to Chelsea. But it didn’t work. Two articles were published online in December 2011 demonstrating the struggle the Portuguese manager had changing the philosophy of the Chelsea team, in the Independent, and on zonalmarking.net. Villas Boas had suffered a shocking defeat to Arsenal at home at the end of October 2011, which ended 3-5, and the club had struggled to get through the group stages of the Champions League. After December, as Michael Cox pointed out ‘[Villas Boas] appears to have adapted his approach to suit the players he currently has at his disposal. The home game against Valencia saw Chelsea sitting much deeper and playing the ‘old-fashioned’ Chelsea way. Villas-Boas admits that he has adapted some aspects of his game, particularly in midfield.’ Chelsea kept the same shape, a 4-3-3, but the ‘micro-tactics’ were altered. Villas Boas remarked at the time ‘”Our No 6 sometimes became a more attacking midfielder [at FC Porto] and we tried to do that here. We decided it doesn’t work here, so that’s one of the things I have adapted, you lose a little bit of balance in the Premier League if you play that way. Transitions here are much more direct, making the importance of the No 6 to stay in position most decisive.”
Villas-Boas had changed his tactical focus to start the second era of his tactical compulsions. His focus on possession, the attacking 4-3-3 and the high defensive line subsided, and was replaced by a team that didn’t prioritise ball possession, could sit back to defend, and could grind out results. Villas-Boas also occasionally introduced a second holding midfielder. After 22 games, Michael Cox wrote, ‘Chelsea have been outpassed in five of their last six games – before that period, only twice in Villas-Boas’ 16 games had Chelsea not dominated possession.’ After 27 Premier League games, Villas-Boas was dismissed. Roberto di Matteo took over the team in 5th place in the Premier League, and it fell one place to 6th by the end of the 2011/2012 season.
The great contradiction of Villas-Boas’ time at Chelsea was that he had been an opposition scout for arguably the most successful eras in Chelsea, Inter Milan and FC Porto’s histories, yet seemed to pay absolutely no attention to the opposition’s tactics as a manager. Villas-Boas also made some decisions around the club that seemed unpopular. He asked the youth team to leave the training facility used by the first-team whilst at Chelsea, and took down all the pictures around the training complex honouring the success Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea team achieved.
At Tottenham, Villas-Boas changed to the double pivot, the 4-2-3-1, from day one. The high defensive line remained. It appeared though, that Villas-Boas still did not encourage any pressing from the front. Whilst Villas-Boas had grown more savvy with his shape, Colin Trainor used Opta Statistics and on his website statsbomb.com, and wrote “During the period that AVB was in charge of proceedings at White Hart Lane (from the start of the 2012/13 season until 15th December 2013) his Tottenham team operated the second highest defensive line in the Premier League – only Man City’s defenders had their average defensive touch higher up the pitch than Spurs’. However, on the PPDA pressing metric Tottenham were just the 7th most pressing team in the league. So it does seem that there was a mismatch in the height of Tottenham’s defensive line in comparison to the pressure that his players further up the field were able to put on the opposition.”
Villas-Boas’ Tottenham tenure is still the longest he has managed a single club (you’d expect his time at Zenit to surpass this however). His first season was the best domestic campaign Tottenham have ever had in the Premier League. They got their highest points return ever, Villas-Boas won manager of the month twice in December 2012 and February 2013, and Villas-Boas still has the 3rd highest win percentage of any Tottenham manager. He made astute tactical changes, such as a switch from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3 in a 3-1 win at White Hart Lane against Manchester City, and clever substitutions to earn a 2-2 draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. They beat Arsenal (with a high defensive line) 2-1 at home, and beat Manchester United 2-3 at Old Trafford, playing great defensive football. Villas-Boas appeared to have come of age.
Villas-Boas used the 4-2-3-1 a lot at Spurs. He also relied on the brilliance of Gareth Bale, as he did with Hulk at FC Porto. Villas-Boas maybe thought two holding midfielders would offer greater protection to his two centre-halves if they stayed high, and Hugo Lloris’ sweeping ability could occasionally by relied on, but not always. Eventually though, in his second season, Villas-Boas was dismissed again after a 0-6 thrashing at the hands of Liverpool. Tim Sherwood took over from Villas-Boas, but did no better, suffering just as many thrashings himself against Manchester City and Liverpool again. As a political aside, there’s fairly credible suggestions that Sherwood manipulated the press to help remove Villas-Boas from his post.
Zenit St. Petersburg were next for Villas-Boas, commenting he did not want to expose himself to the pressure of the English league any longer. Villas-Boas had picked up where he left of with the London club, a 4-2-3-1, which seems now to be Villas-Boas’ formation of choice. Although the team have been very successful, ending Benfica’s 51-game unbeaten run in all competitions (Benfica seem to have suffered the most by Andre Villas-Boas’ managerial career), and winning the Russian Premier League in his first year, Villas-Boas has received criticism from fans and commentators over the team’s style. With the sharp learning curve, Villas-Boas experienced when first coming to London, it’s not a surprise he’s evolved into a more cautious manager.
Portuguese Liga 2010/2011 – FC Porto 5 – 0 Benfica
November 7th, 2010
This game was the first major sign that it would be very difficult to stop FC Porto in the 2010/2011 season, having already beaten Benfica 0 – 2 in the Portuguese Super Cup a few months before. Porto remained unbeaten for the entire domestic campaign and finished 21 points above their perennial rivals. It was also the first sign that it would be very difficult to stop Hulk too, who enjoyed his best season under Villas-Boas. Fernando Belluschi too, was outstanding on the night. The game encapsulated everything that FC Porto did well that year. The game also relied heavily on some inept defending at left-back from David Luiz, and each goal Porto scored came from the right hand side. FC Porto won the treble that season, including the Europa League and the Taça de Portugal.
FA Premier League 2011/2012 – Chelsea 3 – 5 Arsenal
October 29th, 2011
This match was very odd, and it lives long in the memory. Chelsea’s suicidal high defensive line was exploited by the pace of Gervinho and Theo Walcott, and some generally awful defending led to 8 goals between the two teams. As Michael Cox, of zonalmarking.net, stated at the time, ‘the most interesting feature of the game was the difference in pattern from the usual matches between these two. For the [previous] two or three seasons, the storyline was predictable: Arsenal dominated possession and Chelsea sat back, then played on the break (and often won). Here, the roles were reversed. Chelsea had the majority of the ball, Arsenal were more direct.’ Then added, ‘Villas-Boas has clearly changed how Chelsea play.’
It seems a little harsh to highlight a loss as a defining game in Villas-Boas’ career, but it perfectly captures his tactical short-comings during his time in England, and there’s little evidence Villas-Boas learnt from this defeat.
FA Premier League 2012/2013 – Manchester United 2 – 3 Tottenham Hotspur
September 29th, 2012
Simply put, this was Villas-Boas’ best result in England, and should be the performance he is remembered for at Spurs. Tottenham, on winning at Old Trafford in this match, recorded their first victory at the stadium for 23 years, and, it being Tottenham’s 6th match into Villas-Boas’ reign, gave reason for Spurs fans to be very optimistic. Gareth Bale’s performance also indicated Tottenham would have a very enjoyable season. It could be argued the 2012/2013 was Tottenham’s best ever Premier League campaign.
Gareth Bale – Villas-Boas could have benefitted from being in the right place at the right time with Bale, but the player’s reaction when scoring a 90th minute winner at the Boleyn Ground as Tottenham Hotspur tried desperately to secure the last Champions League qualification spot for the 2013/2014 tournament showed the relationship between the Welshman and his Portuguese manager. Gareth Bale had his best scoring season under Villas-Boas, and went a long way to earning his €100 million move to Real Madrid under his tutelage.
Hulk – Hulk still plays for Villas-Boas at Zenit St. Petersburg, but at FC Porto in the 2010/2011 season the pairing was more potent – admittedly, Hulk was in better form. The two had issues early in the season when Hulk was substituted in two consecutive Europa League matches at home against Rapid Wien, and again against CSKA Sofia, away. When Villas-Boas was asked if he was concerned by Hulk’s obvious discontent, he replied, ‘No, absolutely not, as long as nobody hits me.’ So often, in crucial games, Hulk was the deciding factor in the only season the two were together at FC Porto. Hulk was said to be very happy to find out that he would be reunite with Villas-Boas at Zenit, and the cries of discontent in Russia from the Brazilian have died down since he arrived.
Helton – Perhaps not an obvious choice of the litany of stars Villas-Boas has coached, but the young manager undoubtedly had a huge impact on Helton’s career as soon as he returned to FC Porto in 2010. Somewhat surprisingly, Villas-Boas chose Helton to be the captain of FC Porto when he arrived at the club, overlooking other stars in the team, and Mariano González, already a vice captain. Helton had been shaky the season before, even being booed by the home fans, but the captaincy restored a lot of confidence for the Brazilian ‘keeper and he had a fantastic season, and is still captain to this day, having joined in 2005.