Wherever he may be now, upon you reading this, and whatever struggles he may be facing, you most remember that in 2011, Andre Villas-Boas was the most in demand manager in world football; a man who had pasted his name over the record books and, as equally impressive, had inspired a generation of young men who longed for a career in scouting, performance analysis and coaching.
The naysayer will argue that AVB was lucky to be where he is, that Bobby Robson moving into his apartment block and giving him an insight into the world of football was the sort of fortune provide only for a few. However, the longer you spend working in the football industry inching your way forward you begin to realise that there is no such thing as luck. Luck is a word bandied about by the casual. With ambition, persistence and a great desire to learn, you reap success. Persistence is the most crucial ingredient, as many people simply choose to just give up. Villas-Boas comes from a family who have no interest in football. He was a passionate youngster who would have heated debates in school with his classmates about the previous weekends matches, then at home would spend all of his time playing Championship Manager, learning about players. In fact, it is rumoured that right up until he came to Academica in his first managerial role, AVB had played Football Manager at FC Porto, Chelsea and Internazionale.
AVB had great courage (a trait that has resurfaced often throughout his career) to approach the former England and future FC Barcelona manager Bobby Robson and confront him on his team selection. It was only a fleeting conversation but Robson admired the youth. AVB was 16 at the time and would regularly post scouting reports and tactical notes into Robson’s postbox, which in time convinced the Englishman that Andre was obviously an ambitious and intelligent young man. The best coaches will take insight from any source, provided it is of a good quality, and this is what Bobby did, eventually incorporating some of Villas-Boas’ suggestions into his pre-match talks. Subsequently AVB, aged seventeen, found himself with an open door to heaven; watching his FC Porto idols train every day.
Villas-Boas was like a sponge, soaking in the structure of training, the psychology of the players and their physiological capabilities. His persistence convinced Robson that Andre should learn more, and within a year AVB was enrolled at the now defunct Lilleshall. All the while Jose Mourinho, somewhat older than AVB, was alongside Robson, learning too.
Over the next few years Villas-Boas would frequent Britain to gain his UEFA badges in Scotland, via an internship at Ipswitch. He was working a lot at the academy in Porto but was itching for more (a great quote from Villas-Boas is “a boat is safe in a port, but that is not why boats were made.”) Therefore, after one day reading the newspaper and seeing an advertisement, AVB applied for the post of British Virgin Isles head coach. Kenrick Grant was impressed with Andre’s CV, especially his work at Porto and his relationship with Bobby Robson, and decided to offer Villas-Boas the job. Somewhat cheekily, AVB had removed his date of birth from the application and not until Andre left the role 5 months later did Grant know that he was only 22.
When AVB returned to Porto things had changed. Jose Mourinho was soon to become the head coach and was forming his own backroom staff, consisting of Rui Faria and Silvino Brito. Porto and Mourinho needed an opposition analyst and Mourinho recommended AVB, remembering him from his time with Robson six years earlier. Jose knew that Villas-Boas had been studying extensively and was sure that his stint in charge of the British Virgin Isles would have matured Andre. Still only 23, AVB’s reports would be four A4 pages long and would cover the opposition’s: defensive organisation – transitions after losing the ball – set plays for and against – attacking organisation – transition after gaining possession – general observations and individual assessments.
The young team achieved great success, winning the UEFA Cup and then Champions League consecutively before moving to England to manage Chelsea. Here, AVB would be sent to training grounds in disguise in an attempt to gauge the opposition players morale, the atmosphere of the place and their frequently used moves – all very Soviet indeed.
Upon receiving this information Mourinho would present it to the team before matches on a flipchart. Chelsea was winning silverware season after season and the watching world was intrigued. No more so than in Portugal where people were desperate to know more about how Mourinho and his staff worked. Somewhat disillusioned with being ‘invisible’ (going only from his Cobham office to Heathrow to scout, then back again to write a report) Andre Villas-Boas wanted some attention. He was never on the training ground and therefore when SIC, a Portuguese TV channel, asked him to commentate on the 2006 World Cup, AVB gladly accepted.
AVB offered audiences an insight that they had never seen before, pausing passages of play on his tablet and showing watchers how teams should look in each phase (think MNF now), the young man in his twenties was beginning to build a serious reputation. When Mourinho’s team signed for Real Madrid following continued success at Internazionale, Villas-Boas upset his manager by announcing his intention to go it alone. Their relationship has been abrasive ever since, as Mourinho has never publicly supported AVB and in private at the time of this revelation is said to have told Villas-Boas that if he ‘wanted to work on the field [he] should become a farmer’ (Pereira & Pinto, 2011).
Nevertheless Andre was sure of his potential for success, wowing the Academica owner with a concise structured presentation on his ambitions for the club. Upon being offered his first full time managerial role AVB gathered his players in the auditorium. He explained his way of working to the team with a 30 minute presentation and impressed them during training with his use of tactical periodization. Sessions were fast paced with shorter practices built around a tactical theme such as playing wide through the thirds – to learn to play the piano you don’t run around it – every session consisted of 80% ball work, always incorporating some form of possession.
Academica were heading for relegation before AVB’s arrival, but through his leadership the club finished mid-table. Sporting Lisbon wanted AVB despite him only being a manager for several months. However, it was FC Porto, his boyhood team, who paid the money to have Andre coach them, little did they know the impact he would have.
Perfection is an aspiration that will bring success. In 2010/11 Porto achieved perfection. AVB won the Portuguese Super Cup, the Portuguese Cup, the Europe League and the Primeira Liga, going the season undefeated, winning the title by more than 20 points and conceding only 13 goals. His team that year contained Helton, Fucile, Periera, Maicon, Rolando, Guarin, Moutinho, James, Otamendi, Fernando, Rodriguez, Hulk, Belluschi and Falcao (who in sales would go on to generate £177.6m (transfermarkt.net) over the next few seasons, surely the most expensive team ever sold?) In front of these players at the start of the season AVB spoke his ambitions for the year, whilst he did so he chose to toy with their psychology and played footage of Benfica celebrating the previous years title. It worked as the group strived to achieve the most they possibly could. When his squad got to the Europa League final Villas-Boas was able to take a different approach and, instead of highlighting strengths of the opposition pre-match, he played footage of themselves winning the Liga with ease, showcasing their excellent build up play through every phase. Inspirational, no?
Villas-Boas achieved perfection only 18 months after becoming a manager. He could have stayed at Porto but his boat needed to sail. Forget what came next, AVB is still one of the finest managers in Europe. The man has courage, despite being quiet in his approach. Mourinho was 37 when he decided to step away from Louis van Gaal; by the age of 33 Andre Villas-Boas had became the youngest ever coach to win a European competition, he was only the 11th coach in the history of the game to achieve a treble and, when Chelsea came calling, he became the most expensive manager of all time, costing £15m in compensation. But by showing a generation of likewise thinkers the path to achieving such glory, this is his greatest achievement.