It’s interesting that, at a time when José Mourinho is in danger of being left behind by football, his protégé, André Villas-Boas, is in danger of being forgotten altogether.
At one stage AVB was the hottest managerial prospect in world football. Now, having been out of the game for well over a year, we’re wondering if we’ll ever see him back at the highest level.
It’s now over five years since the Portuguese was dismissed by Spurs and, while he has since coached Zenit Saint Petersburg and Shanghai SIPG, what is AVB’s future in football?
Before we think ahead, let’s first look back.
By the time Villas-Boas was appointed Carlo Ancelotti’s successor at Chelsea in 2011, he had earned his label as ‘the next big thing’. To many, he had the charisma, intelligence and arrogance of a young Mourinho, and comparisons were only helped by the fact he started out as an assistant to ‘The Special One’ at Porto, Chelsea and Inter having been discovered by Sir Bobby Robson, the man credited with launching Mou’s career.
Villas-Boas breezed through his first two years in management. After an impressive year at Académica, he was quickly snapped up by Porto, following in the footsteps of his mentor Mourinho.
There, only 33 and still virtually unknown to most outside Portuguese football, he guided the country’s second-most decorated team to four titles, which included going the whole Primeira Liga campaign unbeaten – becoming the first team since Benfica in 1973 to do so – and capturing the Europa League to become the youngest coach to win a European title. Quite a CV.
But Villas-Boas was far from a Mourinho tribute act. Whereas his predecessor at Porto became synonymous with pragmatism, AVB espoused a more attacking brand of football, one that mirrored the hypnotic possession-based model of Pep Guardiola more closely than anything Mourinho had built.
When Chelsea came calling in the summer of 2011, it felt like a natural progression. Clearly gifted, Villas-Boas had wasted no time in smashing through the ceiling of Portuguese football and, by accepting Roman Abramovich’s overtures, had the chance to make his own mark on the English game, seven years after Mourinho had taken it by storm.
Of course, Villas-Boas was no stranger at Stamford Bridge. During Mourinho’s first spell at the club, the boy genius garnered a reputation as an exceptionally skilled opposition scout. His work preparing for upcoming games often produced immensely detailed dossiers, replete with statistical data, analysis and opinion.
A long time in the making
Scouting and analysis were his bread and butter, and had been for many years. By 16, an age at which most of us don’t know what to do with ourselves, Villas-Boas was working for Porto’s scouting and statistics department after impressing Sir Bobby Robson with a letter asking why the veteran coach wasn’t starting club favourite striker Domingos.
He had his UEFA Pro Licence in hand at just 21, and had a short-lived spell as technical director of the British Virgin Islands national team.
It was then that AVB got his big break; assistant coach to Mourinho at Porto.
At the Estádio do Dragão, Villas-Boas quickly earned his boss’ trust, who would soon refer to him as his ‘eyes and ears’. As Mourinho’s chief strategist, in charge of the uninspiringly named Opponent Observation Department, Villas-Boas had a lot of responsibility, but regularly blew the rest of the coaching staff away with the meticulous detail of his scouting dossiers.
When he wasn’t loitering in the bushes of training grounds up and down Portugal, however, Villas-Boas was busy impressing pretty much anyone he met, exuding the utmost confidence and erudition when discussing his work.
After following Mourinho from Porto to Chelsea and Inter, Villas-Boas continued to bolster his reputation as one of football’s brightest minds chose when he pursued his own managerial ambitions by accepting the Académica job.
Positive results and attractive football earned him the call from Porto where, turbocharged by the extraordinary firepower of Hulk and Radamel Falcao – 74 goals between them – they won four trophies.
The road became rocky
But from there, Villas-Boas’ relationship with football grew increasingly complicated. After being personally handpicked by Abramovich as Carlo Ancelotti’s successor, his eight months at Chelsea were a chastening introduction to the Premier League.
After a promising start, AVB’s high-line was ruthlessly exposed in a 5-3 home defeat to Arsenal while his in-game management was questioned when the Blues squandered a 3-0 lead to draw with Manchester United. He then made a series of critical errors during his attempts to salvage their season.
First, following a limp 2-0 defeat at Everton, he cancelled the squad’s day off to conduct a post-mortem of the game at Goodison, which prompted senior first-teamers to challenge his tactics.
Indeed, he had been taunted by his own disillusioned fans on Merseyside, who sang ‘you don’t know what you’re doing’ as he stiffened up in his technical area.
From there, AVB was guilty of signing his own death warrant, losing 3-1 to Napoli in the first leg of their Champions League last 16 clash after benching Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and Michael Essien.
A few days later, his position was weakened further by an interview he gave to Portuguese radio in which he expressed doubt over whether he’d be given time by Abramovich and compared Fernando Torres’ struggles to that of Mateja Kežman and Andriy Shevchenko.
He was sacked a few days later in a face-to-face meeting with Abramovich, but only after also having compared Chelsea’s squad unfavourably to Manchester City’s.
A learning experience?
AVB left Chelsea with the lowest win percentage (47.5) of any manager under Abramovich and there were certainly question marks when he was appointed Harry Redknapp’s successor at Tottenham just four months after his dismissal.
Although he lasted more than twice as long at Spurs, many of the same problems that had contributed to the malaise at Chelsea resurfaced at White Hart Lane; a frayed relationship with the playing personnel and stubborn tactics leading to negative football and catastrophic results against the best teams, like 6-0 and 5-0 defeats to Manchester City and Liverpool respectively.
But, despite this, AVB’s time in North London was not a repeat of the unmitigated Chelsea catastrophe.
The 2012/13 season saw Spurs pick up 72 points, then a club record. While much of that was down to the brilliance of Gareth Bale, Villas-Boas earned credit for recording victories over Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United, the latter ending the club’s 23-year wait for a victory at Old Trafford.
It was a decent return, especially considering both Luka Modrić and Rafael van der Vaart left the club the same summer AVB arrived.
The summer of 2013 proved decisive. Spurs’ response after selling Bale to Real Madrid for £86million was scattergun, with well-connected director of football Franco Baldini overseeing a lavish reconfiguration, with £100million spent on Roberto Soldado, Érik Lamela, Paulinho, Christian Eriksen, Étienne Capoue, Vlad Chiriches and Nacer Chadli.
Any manager would struggle with incorporating such an eclectic range of players into his squad and yet, four months into the 2013/14 season, Daniel Levy sacked AVB.
Reaction was split into two distinct camps. There were those who bore little empathy; here was another wasted opportunity, they thought, from a hyped-up manager, whose rigid tactics and ‘project’ turned Spurs into a chore to watch, having learned nothing from Chelsea and who blamed everyone but himself until he was out the door.
Then there were those who took a different view; while he was far from perfect, Villas-Boas had been hard done by at White Hart Lane, the fall guy for Baldini’s lavish spending who wasn’t afforded – like Mauricio Pochettino – the time to fully make it work.
It’s been over five years since he was in the Premier League. He has since spent two years in Russia with Zenit Saint Petersburg, guiding them to the league title in 2015, and a year in China, with Shanghai SIPG. Now, 15 months after leaving that post, he is in danger of being left behind.
Having expanded his coaching horizons and taken an extended sabbatical that has included following in his uncle’s footsteps by participating in the Dakar Rally, is it time for AVB to come back to football? He divides opinion, yes, but he did not become a Premier League manager at 33 by mistake.
He remains one of the more fascinating characters; intelligent, philosophical, driven. He also came off as hubristic and detached during his time in England, but one thinks that, after doing some soul-searching by way of an endurance race through South America, he may return seasoned, rueful and ready to prove his doubters wrong. He certainly won’t walk back into a job as big as Chelsea or Spurs any time soon but perhaps a smaller club could be an appropriate setting in which to revive his career.
Assuming he doesn’t take up extreme marathons or something like that, he will be back, eventually. And I, for one, will follow his progress closely.