Villas-Boas steps into a high-pressure environment at Chelsea
André Villas-Boas downplayed comparisons with mentor Jose Mourinho
Villas-Boas takes over arguably the toughest job in world soccer
Villas-Boas expects his players to be role models on and off the field
LONDON -- André Villas-Boas' unveiling at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday morning might not have been the most spectacular press conference in Chelsea's recent history but it was certainly the longest. Weighing in at a hefty 75 minutes, the 33-year-old Villas-Boas' performance was long on charm and self-effacement and slightly short on hard facts.
AVB, as the English tabloids will no doubt start calling him, was careful to leave most things vague. Maybe he simply doesn't presume to have all the answers a few days into arguably the toughest job in European soccer. "We are open-minded people," he said in reference to himself and his coaching staff.
A few of his answers -- or nonanswers -- genuinely stood out, however. Here are seven thoughts on the most interesting parts of Villas-Boas' first "presser" in London.
1. The Anti-Mourinho. Villas-Boas has at been at pains to fend off comparisons with his mentor José Mourinho throughout his short, incredibly successful career. Here, he mastered to deal with the topic almost effortlessly. Firstly, he acknowledged that it was natural for the journalists to measure him against the Real Madrid coach, going as far as commending one hack for doing his job properly. Villas-Boas also conceded that his predecessor was an "important part of Chelsea's history, there's no getting away from that" and that his presence was possibly still lingering at the club. "Maybe he's here now, sitting on the podium with me," he joked.
But unlike the great egocentric from Setúbal, Villas-Boas downplayed his own importance at every opportunity. "I'm only one gear at this big club, this is not a one-man show", he said, adding that if he could chose his own moniker in response to Mourinho's (actually misquoted) "The Special One" tag, he'd prefer to be called "The Group One" noting "This is about creating empathy, ambition and motivation in everybody. I want to group people together and be successful."
Villas-Boas also made sure that the fallout that occurred when he decided to take the coaching job at Académica de Coimbra in 2009 -- a move seen as a kind of betrayal by Mourinho, then manager at Internazionale -- would not continue to dominate the headlines in future weeks. "Everyone knows we don't speak but there are no hard feelings," he said. "We're just two busy people who move around in this football world."
Villas-Boas knows that he will never be able to escape the shadow of his predecessor completely but de did manage to convey his message very convincingly: he's his own man, unperturbed by Mourinho's achievements. This, he must have calculated, is the footballing equivalent of simply ignoring a bully in the playground. If the press feel that the M-word gets no reaction from their 'mark' they will cease bringing it up fairly quickly.
2. John Terry. The captaincy is an issue that's often over-egged by the British media. When John Terry was brought up, Villas-Boas at first seemed to say that everything will stay as it is. "John Terry is a reference for the club, he will continue to be captain," he said, before going off on an intriguing tangent. "Players need to be social role models and professional role models," he said, "I believe when you triumph as a person, you will triumph as a player." Pressed again on Terry, Villas-Boas claimed that Chelsea had many leaders ("Lampard, Drogba") and then pointedly added that Terry will keep the armband -- "as long as he performs to his utmost." This caveat and Villas-Boas' emphasis on off-field behavior, an area where Terry has had his fair share of unwanted headlines, amount to a warning shot across the England defender's bow. Whether the new manager is really willing to serve notice on Terry's "untouchable" status at the club or is simply posturing remains to be seen but it was nevertheless a surprising intervention. Terry, Villas-Boas will remember, was a critical factor in the departure of Mourinho.
3. Style of soccer. Portuguese experts have characterized Villas-Boas as a pragmatist. But in the "Tambling Suite" he was singing from a different, altogether more romantic hymn sheet. "We are proud defenders of the beauty of the game," he claimed at one point, "we will defend to the death the philosophy of attacking football." In reality, the ideals of beauty might be "adapted to the pace and culture of English football," he admitted. But as a mission statement, it still seemed very bold, designed to excite the supporters and owner Roman Abramovich. Time will tell if this risky commitment to attacking football can be squared with the pressure of succeeding on all fronts. Once upon a time, Chelsea was of course known for playing extremely stylish albeit inconsistent soccer but under Russian ownership, entertainment without a constant supply of trophies is out of the question.
4. Pressure. "I expect to be successful; to win straight away, on a weekly basis," he said. "There's no running away from that challenge. I'd be surprised to be kept on if I don't win." All of these lines were delivered with a knowing smile and a shrug of the shoulders. Villas-Boas didn't look like a man under pressure on the podium, more like a young startup executive who just managed to sell his company to an Internet giant. And why shouldn't he be relaxed?
Being the manager of Chelsea was widely described as an impossible job in the light of Carlo Ancelotti's dismissal one year after securing the double but the club's perception as inherently dysfunctional puts Villas-Boas actually in a fairly comfortable position. If he wins things in his first year, he's vindicated. If he doesn't, but Chelsea get close, even the notoriously impatient Abramovich might think twice about pulling the trigger. The absolute worst case scenario -- dismissal before the end of his first season charge -- is hardly frightening either. Villas-Boas has claimed in the past that he doesn't want to manage for a long time. Failing at Stamford Bridge and going home with a severance package worth eight figures would allow him to retire before he's 35.
5. The Squad. Villas-Boas would not be drawn on any of Chelsea's potential targets in the transfer markets. He politely refused to speculate on new recruits "out of respect to them and the clubs they belong to." His first priority, he said, was to evaluate the existing squad after the first training sessions at the beginning of next week. "There's enough quality there," he maintained, before adding that "some "extra motivation" could go a long way to get the best out of his players. But Chelsea was also "in the position to make some powerful [moves] in the market if we think it's necessary". The club has plenty of time in the transfer market.
This was mostly a message designed to assure his existing players. Gaining their trust and respect will be key to Villas-Boas' managerial welfare, so he can't afford to unsettle them before the first ball has been kicked with threatening a radical influx of new talent. One or two Chelsea supporters might have preferred some bolder commitment to spending big this summer but Villas-Boas is a man who prefers due diligence over knee-jerk decisions. A positive side-effect of this stance: it should ensure that this preseason will have a sharpness and intensity that markedly lacking under Ancelotti's stewardship a year ago.
6. Roberto Di Matteo. Villas-Boas was generous in his praise for the former Chelsea midfielder and ex-West Bromwich Albion manager, calling Di Matteo, 41, the "perfect man for the job" of assistant manager. It's not precisely clear, however, what Di Matteo's role will entail. He's not expected to take training -- Villas-Boas and new assistant coach Steve Holland are very hands-on in that respect -- so it's safe to assume that Di Matteo will act more as a sounding-board and a kind of liaison officer for the media. The former Chelsea player is also a popular figure with players and supporters. It's impossible to know whether Villas-Boas was gently pushed to appoint this kind of figurehead or himself felt that it was a useful ploy to take some of the heat and attention of him but from the club's point of view, it makes good sense. After the dismissal of Ray Wilkins, Chelsea could do with another recognizable, smiling face among its ranks.
7. Structure. After the failed attempt to get Guus Hiddink in as sporting director with Marco van Basten as the first-team coach, Chelsea has yet to work out an effective decision-making process. Villas-Boas was open about there being discussions to that effect scheduled for next week and continued to describe himself as a nonconfrontational man happy to compromise and share power: "I have no problem working with a director of football or a technical director. The main thing is not to put someone there to disrupt the manager. The main thing is for us to build for the future."
The last two sentences were instructive. The first one warned against appointing a man with his own agenda, who would see the role as a steppingstone for bigger things. Avram Grant comes to mind. The second part can be construed as a plea for signing younger, hungrier players rather than to focus on super-stars or short-termism. It was clear that Villas-Boas is trying to shape that coming debate.
He also made clear that the final say should rest with him. "I don't see why any manager shouldn't be in control of transfers, as would happen in any other club," he said. That's particularly clever even at the price of being slightly disingenuous. At most continental clubs, managers are not in control of transfers, at least not in full control. Villas-Boas knows that, of course. But by twisting the argument slightly, he's put his paymaster on the defensive. "If you want to be a normal club, you have to cede control to me," he's saying to Abramovich, safe in the knowledge that the English media, used to all-powerful-managerial types, will support him. It's still a risky proposition though. Mourinho's dismissal, lest we forget, followed a squabble over the power to direct transfer policy.