AVB’s methodical approach comes up against the limits of time

Andre Villas-Boas captured the attention of the football world in an unexpected way. By default, he would be the center of a massive collective attention, if by nothing more than by being young, attractive, and the rib of Jose Mourinho.

In their formative years, both Mourinho and Villas-Boas were under the tutelage of Bobby Robson. Villas-Boas then served as an assistant to Mourinho at Chelsea and later at Inter Milan. Not long after setting out on his own, Villas-Boas had immediate success with Porto and left on a high the following season to join Chelsea, just as Mourinho had. The similar career paths provided evidence that Villas-Boas was the clone, the second coming, or the reincarnation of his mentor. If he is not literally Jose Mourinho, then he is the embodiment of the type, cut from the same special cloth that possesses the gifts and qualities necessary for early success and the rapid rise to the top.

Hence, the expectations of an egotism displayed in biting commentary and money quotes, in the S&M with the media, or in eccentric territorial markings around the training ground. None of this materialized.

Instead, the football world was gripped by a young, attractive protégé, landing one of the biggest jobs in his field, in possession of a fully developed philosophy and an approach for implementing it that sounded nothing like ventriloquism. There was nothing brash or self-centered about the man or what he said. His vision slowly unfolded, lapping over our minds with humility and soft-spoken seriousness. In the process, Villas-Boas methodically dismantled the assumptions with minimal direct address. From the beginning, his ideas appeared to sincerely flow from whom he is instead of through whom and what he is not. Villas-Boas is not even the anti-Mourinho.

His first official press conference on June 29th restated and elaborated what he said in his exclusive interview on Chelsea TV a few days prior. This initiated the process of reiterating and expanding his ideas and vision for Chelsea that has continued throughout these two months in charge.

He spoke of “group dynamics”, “motivation”, and “empathy”—banal twaddle coming from all corners of society that no longer registers these days. These are not the words that a football manager uses to convince anyone that he knows what he is doing.

From the first day, Villas-Boas’s priority would be solidifying the squad’s relationships, molding individuals into a group, forging a foundation from which to improve and prepare rather than with a top down shake-up. Well before “transfer market” was uttered, Villas-Boas emphasized the importance of the social organization of the club, “This is not a one-man show, this is about creating empathy, ambition and motivation in everybody…Expect us to create a dynamic group of everybody getting together, with the fans getting together, with people getting excited with the motivation that is in and around us.”

This “everybody” means players too—even John Terry and Ashley Cole. For Villas-Boas, football does not exist outside of daily life in a parallel world with its own rules. Instead, football and the daily life of ordinary people are an extension of each other.

When Villas-Boas specifically addresses players, he does so as members of society, “Players need to be social role models and professional role models. I believe when you triumph as a person, you will triumph as a player.” Footballers must understand that there are consequences of their behavior—i.e. the illicit shagging of a friend’s girlfriend or say, sexting one’s attributes—
which can directly affect football’s social fabric from colleagues to the community.

This approach could be considered revolutionary. He works at the root and bond lying at the center of the game: the footballer’s ego. Naturally inclined toward closed-circuit self-aggrandizement, Villas-Boas aims to transform this individualism into a self-awareness inextricably embedded into the group dynamic. If he comes off a little abstract, too professorial, then he can also be a to-the-point boss, “The only thing I could never tolerate is an individual looking for an individual objective. The collective objective goes above anything else.”

This would certainly be received as half-baked without implicit trust behind it. Villas-Boas, before players reported to training camp, stated his full trust and faith in each one of them. Upon arrival, he validated them as people and as players, acknowledging that they possess what is necessary to succeed at the highest level, and offered them the opportunity to prove their worth (His pedagogical and developmental approach is similar to Arséne Wenger. Up to this point, he resembles the Frenchman as much as Mourinho.) This fresh approach has met with immediate approval, respect, and even emulation from his players; John Terry apparently has been inspired to enter management after he retires.

None of what he espouses is administered from afar, as a set of rules from which he is exempted. He’s “the group one”, “just one gear in this big club”, he has no “radical self”. As part of the group, he subjects himself to same conditions of opportunity and expectation. He makes this quite clear: “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.”

The opening day draw at Stoke, and the two late wins at home against West Brom and Norwich were not reflective of a new Chelsea. In the first two matches, Villas-Boas’s starting XI was identical to last year’s. There is little surprise that the performances were flat and lacked creativity. Against Norwich, Juan Mata, Chelsea’s first marquee signing, made his debut. Mata’s arrival signals that there was recognition of a structural problem that Villas-Boas had to address after having faith that the squad could produce that missing creativity without additional players. Mata’s impact on the game was significant.

Villas-Boas’s methodical approach aimed to derive his own clear understanding rather than work from an inherited one. The transformation of the club’s foundation is also a test of it strength and capability. After a thorough analysis, the foundation’s cracks and soft spots will be exposed, even if they turn out to be the same ones he could have simply received as truth.

With this initial faith in an inherited squad, Villas-Boas has the belief in his own value and capacity to shape the same material into a more successful team. If at the end of this structural analysis he determines that the he or the squad have failed to make the most of the opportunity handed to them, then it is with this same self-belief and capacity that Villas-Boas will make changes before his paced approach looks anything like a miscalculation. Juan Mata signals the first decisive response to the conclusions Villas-Boas has drawn from Chelsea’s initial performances. Other signings may follow. Luka Modric is still a target, while left-back Alvaro Pereira and versatile midfielder João Moutinho are now on Chelsea’s radar.

There is additionally a little of the owner in him—that rare something one needs to rapidly rise through the personal and professional ranks at a very young age as Roman Abramovich did in the decade before he purchased Chelsea. Abramovich will demand quick and decisive decisions from his new manager in return for the gift of patience.

There is little time for experimentation and second chances at Chelsea. Villas-Boas’s methodical and patient analysis of the squad must come to an end and offer conclusive answers. With the transfer window closing in three days, he can afford to give his squad as much time as possible to display what they have been missing, but movement in the transfer market must be decisive. The club’s deep pockets may remove the deliberation of details that end in the midnight fax, but it can’t change the deadline. The first great test of his philosophy of methodical patience and decisive action is the compression of time. Later it will become a question of judgment.

The Author

Roy Messineo

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