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Saturday, January 22, 2011

Andre Villas-Boas interview

Living the dream, the man who stood up to Mourinho

The Times
Matt Hughes

Once a protégé of the Special One, Porto’s successful coach is now being eyed by the likes of Liverpool, Matt Hughes says

The remarkable story of André Villas-Boas could have been taken from The Boy’s Own Paper or the myriad similar publications aimed at daydreaming youngsters in the more innocent days of the previous century, which would have been appropriate because he seems to possess an English fairy godmother. Or two, to be precise.

Without the friendship between Margaret Kendall, his English grandmother who moved to Portugal to start a wine business, and the late Sir Bobby Robson, Villas-Boas may have been watching tonight’s match between Beira-Mar and Porto from the press box rather than the visiting team’s dugout. With respect to many friends and colleagues in the Fourth Estate, that would have been a waste.

The most extraordinary aspect of Villas-Boas’s journey, however, is not its unusual origins, but the distance he could have left to travel. At the age of 33, in his first full season in coaching, he possesses the best record in Europe, superior during this campaign to those of Sir Alex Ferguson, Pep Guardiola and his other mentor, José Mourinho, one of the many reasons they are no longer close. The idea of future battles between master and apprentice appears to have been too much for Mourinho to contemplate.

Under the leadership of their rookie coach, who was appointed after only 23 matches in charge of Académica last season, Porto were the last team to be beaten anywhere in Europe this season, their solitary defeat at the start of this month coming in the League Cup. As a result they are eight points clear at the top of the table, having won 14 of their 16 matches, a huge improvement from last season, when they trailed in third behind Benfica and Sporting.

Villas-Boas was a curiosity among Mourinho’s backroom staff when he joined Chelsea’s twilight zone of opposition scouting in 2004, where his youth and English links would have given him an interesting tale to tell had he been allowed to speak, but he has since developed into a leading figure in his own right. Liverpool are likely to consider an approach if Kenny Dalglish does not stay on as manager beyond the summer, while several Italian clubs are also monitoring his progress. Having been given the job of his dreams only recently, Villas-Boas is in no hurry to leave Porto, but he will hanker after new challenges before too long, particularly a return to England.

“My expectations are to have a career I can be proud of,” he said when we met in Oporto yesterday. “I want to win this championship, I want to win more competitive leagues, but I also want to explore different leagues. I like other types of social and cultural behaviour, and am looking for that kind of stimulus.

“The Premier League is one of the most exciting leagues in the world. It’s not new for me what the Premier League means as I was there before. To get a job in the Premier League, you have to show you have quality, and I feel I still have to learn and evolve to get that kind of job. I want to work in other leagues, but this is a position I always wanted in my life and am not ready to give it away easily. I know I’m lucky that I got my dream job so quickly.”

That dream was born after a meeting with Robson, who invited him to attend Porto’s training sessions and even arranged for him to attend coaching courses at Lilleshall while under-age, but really developed after Mourinho joined the club in 2002 and gave him responsibility for compiling scouting reports on the opposition. There is a slight sadness in the air as he discusses the cooling of their relationship, which he is unwilling to address in detail, although that is offset by the sense of liberation at being allowed to be his own man.

“I’m associated with José, naturally, because I worked with him, but it’s not something I promote,” Villas-Boas said. “We have different personalities and different views towards the game. I respect José, but don’t want to be a Mourinho clone. I want to be able to work freely, without restraint, without worrying what he thinks.”

The shadow of Mourinho will hang over him until he starts to win silverware of his own, despite his insistence that their similarities are superficial. Although they rarely speak after Mourinho took umbrage at his decision to leave Inter Milan and was further annoyed by his return to Porto, Villas-Boas is full of praise for a man he believes will be remembered as the best coach of all time.

“There’s curiosity in two careers that look the same, but are not,” he said. “José is a PE teacher. I was unable to go as far in my studies as him as I took another route. To go back to university would have taken time and I was excited by the stimulus of an early start.

“We both coached young guys, but evolved differently. José went into professional football in a position on the pitch, whereas I observed the game. It’s very easy to compare things, but if you look at our personalities and what we have achieved, it’s very different. I don’t see myself reaching that level of success.

“José is a person who extracts the best from you. He expects you to be the best at what you do, which keeps you on your toes. You have to constantly perform for him so he can perform and bring success. I was happy to be part of such a technical set-up.”

Villas-Boas was always going to follow his own path, with sources at Chelsea recalling that the redheaded twentysomething was the only member of Mourinho’s coterie prepared to challenge him in public. Whereas the rest of his coaching staff would leap up from the dinner table at the first sign of restlessness from the boss, Villas-Boas would often stay and linger over his coffee, an early — if trivial — sign of defiance.

His footballing philosophy is also different, one closer to Arsène Wenger’s view of the game as a grand spectacle rather than Mourinho’s grim, strategic battle. This more relaxed approach has been welcomed by Porto’s young players, who had little time for the authoritarian style of his predecessor, the 64-year-old Jesualdo Ferreira.

“I love creativity in my players and the unpredictable part of the game,” Villas-Boas said. “I believe that for the players to express themselves to their full potential, they must be able to take choices during the game. I’m not a dictator. I give them freedom of choice, bearing in mind the foundations of our organisation. I believe that with freedom the players can achieve their potential and make better decisions.”

This attitude chimes with Robson’s oft-expressed belief that football is a simple game, while the former England manager would also have been heartened by the progress of an unknown career coach with no playing history in this celebrity-obsessed era.

“Bobby gave me the stimulus to start my career,” Villas-Boas said. “I was planning to go into sports journalism, but had the opportunity to confront him about my club, how they were doing and the way the team played. Only an open-minded person like Bobby would accept such arrogance from a young kid.

“This is the job I always wanted to have. It’s my own club, my own town and the club I always defended as a boy. It will always be a gamble for someone as young as myself, but I was sure I’d be able to give the club success. I think there’s a new respect for coaching. As José used to say, you don’t have to be a piano to be a good pianist. People can rise in the game via various different routes.”

Whatever his future holds, Villas-Boas has already demonstrated that some boys’ dreams do come true.

Life and times

• Born in Oporto on October 17, 1977

As a 16-year-old met Bobby Robson, who arranged for him to watch Porto training sessions and take his FA coaching badge at Lilleshall

Began coaching Porto’s youth teams at 17 before spending a year as director of football of the British Virgin Islands, at 21

Appointed head of the opposition observation department at Porto in 2002 by José Mourinho, whom he followed to Chelsea and Inter Milan

Left Inter in 2009 to take his first coaching job in Portugal at Académica, averting relegation

Appointed coach of Porto, where he has set a club record of 36 matches unbeaten this season

Background

Both men are from wealthy families, with André Villas-Boas boasting a count and a baron among his relatives, although he was not born into footballing aristocracy like José Mourinho, whose father was a Portugal goalkeeper. Villas-Boas’s chief advantage in life has been his intelligence and industry, as well as having the sheer nerve to approach Bobby Robson at such a young age.

Image

If not a natural pin-up like Mourinho, the younger model possesses a similar sense of style, usually wearing dark suits and white shirts, with a hint of stubble adding gravitas to his youthful complexion. At 33, he is 14 years younger, but the sensible side-parting in his auburn hair is reminiscent of Robert Redford, in contrast to Mourinho’s silver fox likeness to George Clooney.

Temperament

As with many redheads, Villas-Boas possesses a fiery temperament, with a Mourinho-esque disdain for authority. Frank Rijkaard tried to punch him after one of Chelsea’s volatile clashes with Barcelona and it was Villas-Boas’s testimony that led to the infamous Anders Frisk affair at the Nou Camp six years ago. He has been outspoken in his criticism of Benfica in Portugal this season, although his language is less colourful than Mourinho’s.

Playing style

Villas-Boas has stayed faithful to the 4-3-3 formation that has brought Mourinho success in four countries, but places more emphasis on attacking football. Villas-Boas shares Arsène Wenger’s view of football as entertainment, with his players given freedom to express themselves and Porto’s wingers encouraged to play farther up the pitch in support of a central striker.

Trophies

Given that Villas-Boas is in his first full season of coaching, he cannot hope to compete with Mourinho’s extraordinary haul of two Champions League titles, a brace of domestic championships in Portugal, England and Italy as well as several cup triumphs, but he has not started badly. He has broken one of Mourinho’s records, helping Porto to set a club record of 36 matches without defeat. Silverware should follow.

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Defying belief however, is a market Benitez has cornered quite well. The moment you think Benitez is clueless, he defies it by pulling off a result of majesty, like the one achieved in Madrid. The moment he is hailed a genius, he masterminds toothless surrender to a team going nowhere. In the ongoing Anfield power struggle, just when he was cornered by the firing squad, the Spaniard's demise at Liverpool looking practically assured with the ominous suspension of betting by the bookmakers, he squeezes out through a narrow trapdoor and eliminates Rick Parry. Rafa Benitez is Keyzer Soze.
- Just Football blog: The Curious Beast that is Football 28 Feb 2009