Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Mouve over, Jose
There is certain inevitability to Andre Villas-Boas's arrival at Chelsea. Portuguese football has been taken aback by the London club's willingness to pay to the full €15 million (£13.25 million) release clause stipulated in the head coach's contract, an unforeseen twist which has forced the move a year earlier than even Villas-Boas himself had envisaged. Yet while some will point to the 33-year-old's post-Europa League final pledge that he would remain at the Estadio do Dragao into next season, England has always been on his agenda.
The connections are as plentiful as they are well documented. Villas-Boas's paternal grandmother was from Lancashire, and he was first alerted that his talents may lead him to a future within the game by Sir Bobby Robson, who invited the teenage student to observe training sessions while Porto boss. Sir Bobby later used his connections to get Villas-Boas onto a UEFA coaching course in Scotland whilst too young to apply himself.
As recently as April, Villas-Boas identified the Premier League as "the best in the world", and admitted his own eventual arrival there would "be a sign that I know what I'm doing." After a first full season in a head coach role that saw him end with a haul of four trophies, guide Porto to a first unbeaten league season in their history and become the youngest man to coach a side to a European trophy, that last statement could well be the understatement of this still-young century.
It is easy to see why Villas-Boas is such an enticing prospect for Roman Abramovich. He speaks perfect English, is meticulous, successful and already knows Chelsea inside-out having worked as the opposition scout at Stamford Bridge under Jose Mourinho. The 33-year-old has charisma and presence, but practises a style of football far closer to the vision of entertainment that Abramovich has long since yearned for - and had, for a time, under the recently-departed Carlo Ancelotti. In Villas-Boas, the UK press will find a real gentleman, far closer in temperament to the calm of his immediate predecessor than the self-aggrandising statements of his fellow countryman. Essentially, he represents Mourinho without the ugly bits.
It was Villas-Boas's ambition to make it on his own which led to the eventual cooling of his relationship with Mourinho, who had employed him at Porto, Chelsea and then Inter, before he left to take charge of Academica da Coimbra in October 2009. While he may lack the bravado of his Chelsea predecessor, Villas-Boas does have the same crucial knack of making all of his squad members feel needed. He was well-known for his closeness to his players in his first head coach job at Academica, and impressively managed to recreate the same atmosphere behind the scenes at the Dragao - a considerable feat at a big club which is renowned within the game for its peculiar coldness.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of his smooth transition to life in the fast lane was his ability to foster a closeness and mutual respect with players either in or close to his own peer group. His goalkeeper and captain Helton, for example, is just seven months younger than Villas-Boas, but his loyalty to his coach was steadfast. "He's our friend," was Helton's description of the boss at the Dublin final against Braga.
Nevertheless, there was never any doubt about who was boss when it came to the crunch. Porto forward Walter told ESPNsoccernet back in April of a dressing-down from Villas-Boas in front of his team-mates for being overweight, with the coach warning the Brazilian that his future at the club was at risk if he didn't shape up. It was the wake-up call Walter needed, and he returned to the squad towards the end of the season and found form.
It would not be a surprise if Villas-Boas began to establish a similar regime at Chelsea by picking off the dressing room old guard. He was brave enough to move on stalwarts Bruno Alves and Raul Meireles shortly after his arrival at the Dragao, and Frank Lampard may be one of the first big names under threat. Whether Abramovich would sanction the shifting of John Terry (were Villas-Boas to desire such a move), given that the England captain has had his Russian paymaster's ear for a considerable length of time, is another question. It would certainly give us an indication as to what level of control Villas-Boas could expect in England.
He will certainly have a less football-savvy boss than Porto president Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa, who has seemingly moved on from filling the Dragao coffers with the proceeds of player sales to doing the same with coaches. Pinto da Costa is nothing if not a wily operator, and has made the best of a tricky situation. By publically revealing the existence of the release clause when shunning Internazionale's advances at the weekend, he not only challenged Chelsea to meet the asking price, but made himself practically bulletproof from criticism. The president has - technically - stuck to his guns. There can be no accusation that he went back on his word and let his trainer go because, as he has pointed out, "we can't do anything if someone puts the €15 million in our account, because it's in the contract." There has been, and will be, no negotiation over the figure.
Neither should Chelsea feel burned by the financial side of the move. €15m may be an unusually high figure to pay for a coach, but pragmatically, it makes sense. Having the wrong man in charge will hamper the club's prospects far more than, say, a duff midfielder who can simply be replaced by another squad member.
History can be very selective with the truth. It is easily forgotten that Mourinho was not a household name when he arrived in west London. Respected, for his achievements with Porto and as a European champion, yes. Acknowledged for being a thorn in Sir Alex Ferguson's side, yes. Yet he was still an up-and-comer; the flavour of the month following his then-recent exploits in Europe, and Chelsea struck lucky. With Villas-Boas, they might be about to do so again.