Fresh-faced pragmatist articulates his collective vision
Andre Villas-Boas talks a good game, now he has to deliver one, writes Paul Hayward
Andre Villas-Boas is the first to laugh at the incongruity of his appointment. "This is a 33-year-old leading Chelsea. Are you crazy?" he says. The question is whether he will be cracking that gag at 34. Or 35, anyway.
Chelsea's new manager is 34 on October 17 and not even Roman Abramovich could lose faith in him that fast. Villas-Boas, the youngest coach to win a European club title, at Porto in May, goes along with the comedy until pride compels him to defend the young.
"I had the same in Porto. Exactly the same. 'This guy is no age, player power, the pressure'. Whatever. Why can't people be competent at a young age? Why are certain people branded? Why can't Brendan Rodgers at Swansea be one of the great future managers? You tell me. Because he shows all the competence to be one." The first test of whether Villas-Boas can control a notoriously, erm, influential Chelsea dressing room and justify his own £13m managerial transfer fee arrives at Stoke, a ground where the young are obliged to grow up fast.
On the eve of the team's journey north from Abramovich's culling ground at Cobham, Villas-Boas had decided to charm the media by surrendering an hour of his time.
Parrying questions about pressure, Abramovich's megalomania and Fernando Torres' capacity to remember where the goal is with the added complication of concussion sustained in mid-week, Villas-Boas uses the words emulate, communicative, pragmatic, impetus, transition and prerogative, and promises not to inflict "my radical self" on John Terry and co. He also calls Frank Lampard 'Lamps' -- a perhaps telling lapse into bonhomie.
At the heart of the spectacle was an academic type whose managerial cv runs to the British Virgin Islands, Academica, Porto and now Chelsea, where he replaced Carlo Ancelotti, winner of the League and FA Cup double in his first season but zilch 12 months later. The excellent grasp of his adopted country's tongue comes via his English grandmother, a connection that emboldened him to pronounce on last week's riots ("sheer criminality," he calls them).
Sufficiently fresh-faced to be mistaken for the club's new Portuguese right-back, Villas-Boas still has a few preconceptions to lance. Reminded of a 9-1 defeat for the British Virgin Islands, he says: "I wasn't manager, I was a technical director. But I take collective responsibility." And reacquainted with a disparaging remark made recently by Graeme Souness, he responds: "Souness made the comment -- it's easy to win in Portugal. But when Souness arrived at Liverpool it was easy to win, in the 1980s and 1990s, wasn't it?"
His devotion to youth is such that his backroom staff include a 26-year-old scout who may turn out to be his mini-me, just as Villas-Boas did under Jose Mourinho. He says: "Daniel Sousa interviewed me in Milan for his thesis at university and when I got the Academica job I invited him to scout because it appeared to me from that conversation this boy could go all the way in terms of scouting, in terms of management."
But Chelsea is no finishing school for clever young data crunchers. A consistent feature of Villas-Boas's diplomatic efforts so far has been to evade the sense that Abramovich is always on his shoulder. "I know exactly what the owner asks me to do. It wasn't all based on titles," he says. "I wouldn't be happy if I go a season without titles. But it goes alongside a good philosophy and a good playing style."
In other words, he was hired to get the joint jumping. "I wouldn't have taken the job if I couldn't live with a certain amount of pressure. Pressure comes when you are unsuccessful," he says. "The most challenging job I had in my short career -- in these three years! -- was Academica."
There, he took over the bottom-placed team in Portugal's top league and raised them to 11th place. "In Portugal, you go down and it's a stamp in your life. It's a very difficult stamp to get rid of."
Spread across his vision are Premier League-winning grandees with much political clout: "If I fail to adapt there will be something wrong. All of this culture and the history of the place -- I cannot be stupid enough to get across my ideas in a radical way to players who have been successful at this level. That's why I'm an open-minded person, to see what they have to say. If I see something wrong I have to shift it, regarding structure, regarding principles, regarding behaviour -- which I already did with the Sunday newspapers."
There is no sign in him of Mourinho's Messiah complex. "I have a completely different personality," he says, adding the rider: "I would like my staff to protect me if I get threatened by some big guy. It gives a sense of being to a squad." He calls the fretting over Torres and his poor scoring record "a complex media obsession" and a problem of "confidence" which will be rectified: "You think he has run dry of goals? I don't think so."
In his higher-tempo, higher-pressing 4-3-3 formation, it is midfield where he diagnoses "a sense of urgency". He says: "We play 4-3-3, we have a squad of 25. To prepare for a game you need at least six midfielders, and we have four."
He will not comment on Tottenham's Luka Modric but lights a beacon for 18-year-old Josh McEachran. "Josh can express himself in the most beautiful ways, with his passing, with vision. The knowledge he has of the game at this age is quite extraordinary. When you see Josh physically you would say this player will never make it in the Premier League but it's a lie because his brain thinks quick."
The big egos, though, are out there; and he must know this. "The only thing I could never tolerate," he says, "is an individual looking for an individual objective. The collective objective goes above anything else."
He should try that line on Abramovich. Observer
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