There was once a time when former Tottenham boss Andre Villas-Boas was regarded as one of the finest young managerial talents Europe had to offer. Fresh from a treble-winning campaign with Porto, suggesting shades of Jose Mourinho, the Portuguese was hailed as ‘the next Special one’ when he arrived in the Premier League in 2011.
But three years and two failed coaching tenures later, the axed Spurs gaffer has been essentially laughed out of the English game. Three months on from his most recent sacking, and coincidentally, just a week after the two-year anniversary of his Chelsea departure, the question remains; why could Villas-Boas never replicate the Porto effect in the Premier League?
The answers will explain why the 36 year-old is unlikely to work in the English top flight ever again.
Let’s start by stating the obvious; Villas-Boas’s first job in England, a matter-of-months stay with Chelsea, was a complete disaster from beginning to end. The West London side ended up in sixth place under his leadership – their worst Premier League standing for exactly one decade.
At the time, it was alleged that player power and dressing room cliques at Stamford Bridge had actively worked against a manager trying to implement a new philosophy, taking advantage of his rather quiet and unimposing demeanour.
But the fact the Blues finished that season with a Champions League and FA Cup double under former assistant Roberto Di Matteo, shows there was obvious talent in the squad that Villas-Boas overlooked for the sake of promoting his own ideologies.
Then came the Tottenham tenure, and two campaigns in complete contrast. Fuelled by the impeccable form and 21 goals of Gareth Bale, the Portuguese administered the Lilywhites’ highest points total of the Premier League era in his first season at the club. But bringing us up to present day, his second term was cut abruptly short after a 5-0 home defeat to Liverpool. Prior to the thumping at the Lane, his Spurs side were averaging less than a goal per game.
AVB apologists will be quick to point out that Tottenham have suffered similar heavy defeats under Tim Sherwood, and the former Spurs boss was in some respects made a scape-goat for a failed transfer policy that he appeared to play little part in. Considering the North London club spent over £110million on seven players who had never plied their trade in England before, none of which featured in Tottenham’s last Premier League fixture, there’s certainly some weight to that argument.
But there’s one prevailing reason the former Porto manager should never, and probably won’t, manage in the Premier League again – he never quite understood it.
There are copious examples of this; for instance, Villas-Boas could never get his head around the English dislike for the Europa League. His predecessor Harry Redknapp on the other hand, described the Thursday-night competition as ‘a killer’. Some would put that down to cultural naivety, but I’d argue it’s a symptom of how AVB never fully understood the intensity of the Premier League, or resultantly why it’s prioritised over a second-string European tournament in the eyes of the fan-base.
But more than anything else, the former Tottenham manager never caught on to the Premier League’s most basic and intrinsic concept – whereas other top flights can be determined by tactics, philosophies and models that can be intellectually debated for endless hours, the English game is decided by moments.
Gareth Bale realised this – accepting the challenge of Champions League qualification, it was the Welsh wizard who ceased the moments for Tottenham last season.
In contrast, Villas-Boas would come away from uninspiring results asking what all the fuss was about, citing pass completion ratios, tackle success rates, possession statistics and shots on target. But the quality of the Premier League is so high, and the intensity behind it so unique, that one moment – one refereeing decision, one goal, one dubiously awarded free-kick, or one near miss – can change the entire psychological balance of a match in an instance. Managers are expected to act accordingly, but this emotional side of the game is a concept that the Portuguese never fully grasped.
He remained adamant that regardless of whatever dramatic events influenced any particular ninety minutes, meeting formulaic, statistical targets would eventually win Tottenham the game.
Let me give you an example – if Porto found themselves a goal down to Rio Ave, there would be little cause to panic. The crowd would not be riled, the players would be fairly confident that stepping up a gear will win them the match, the commentary and pundits would still be expecting a relatively simple Dragons win. In England on the other hand, should Chelsea, Arsenal or Manchester City concede an opening goal to a 12th place Stoke City at the Britannia stadium, the entire dynamic of the match changes in a splatter of seconds. Suddenly, the predicted result becomes in serious doubt, and an away draw doesn’t look so bad.
Intertwined with that notion is the role of the supporters. The galvanic nature of Premier League crowds is perhaps the most predominant of all its European counterparts. The twelfth man is loud, aggressive, imposing but often fickle in England, and it’s important to keep him onside – many a- Premier League game have been lost as much due to the dynamics in the stands as the events on the pitch.
The best way to do this is by playing exciting, attractive, but most importantly aggressive football. Famously, Villas-Boas demonstrated his inability to understand the psychology and intrinsic influence of spectators when he blasted the White Hart Lane faithful for their apparent lack of support during an incredibly stale 1-0 victory over Hull.
The post-match quip “We need people to be patient and support the players and give them the extra energy to go through and not the negative energy” pretty much says it all. Premier League fans don’t want patient 1-0 chess-matches – they want captivating displays, and Premier League players need to feed off the responding emotion.
Perhaps this is a romanticised view but it’s nonetheless one I thoroughly stand by. Meanwhile, there was always something dangerously unromanic about Andre Villas-Boas. We’ve seen the corporate, professional and philosophical brand of manager before in England, but the Portuguese took those characteristics to extremities. The result was a manager, almost arrogant in monotonous tone, hard to relate to in press conferences, difficult to be inspired by and fatally absent in emotive intelligence.
It takes a special kind of player to work in the Premier League and a special kind of manager too. More important than any technical, or in AVB’s case, tactical talent, it’s the emotional connection with the fans, and the mental strength to either feed or fend off the psychological nature of the match that are the most prevalent characteristics required.
Villas-Boas lacked both, and for that reason alone should leave his Premier League days behind him. The 36 year-old is a talented manager – his treble-winning Porto tenure is enough evidence of that – but his chess-board philosophies, emotionless persona and inability to grasp how moments, not tactics, win games in England, makes him intrinsically unsuited to our version of the beautiful game.