The Portuguese man once more fails to impose his ideals and philosophies on English football.
Change is the only constant. It inevitably takes its place amidst a sea of chaos, making dreams and shuttering realities. Change then stabilises, becomes the norm and creates a comfort zone. A cliché of culture and mind and thinking and doing. Then change happens again and challenges the cliché and the cliché resists it.
In the 2011 movie ‘Moneyball’ --- an adaptation of Michael Lewis’s book by the same name --- there is a scene where the Oakland A’s face their most important game of the season. On losing it, their previous analytical and statistical innovations that had broken records along the way are dismissed. The celebration of everything they’ve done well is derided with the running commentary in the background concluding “Nobody can re-invent this game”.
As such, much like Billy Beane and baseball, there is a sense that the manner of Andre Villas-Boas is an indication of re-invention. It is a re-imagination of the art of football management in English football. A self-belief and stubborn guise with succinct tactical explanations filled with counter-cultural jargon. Young, exuberant and bright. Intelligent and sophisticated and intent on applying a different ideology and philosophy upon the English game.
Except that, he can’t re-invent the English game.
That seems to be the conclusion handed out to him. Two stints in senior managerial posts in England – two failures. Two sackings on the back of poor run of results. Two chairmen who backed him with the money and expected him to produce that free-flowing, eye-catching brand of football that Porto displayed in the 2010-2011 season.
The summer of 2011 saw him waltz into Chelsea as a prince, a previous conqueror of all. A breath of fresh air like Arsene Wenger in 1996 or Jose Mourinho in 2004. Having just won the treble of Portuguese League, Cup and Europa League, he was the answer to Jose Mourinho’s shadow of defensive football.
That shadow however followed him and superseded him. In the form of John Terry and Frank Lampard, he fought to shake off and impose himself. A fight he did not win.
And it was only in the summer of 2012 that Tottenham Hotspurs gave him a reprieve back into English football. Having faltered in their run up to the end of the previous season, finishing fourth had not proven enough to guarantee the Champions League qualification. Ironically, the Chelsea Villas-Boas had left midway had gone on to win the Champions League, in the process denying Spurs the spot and thus costing Harry Redknapp his job. Enter AVB.
But now, almost one full season and nearly a half later, he is gone. The question of legitimacy propping up once more. Is he really a good manager? Was it by chance that he had that one brilliant season at Porto? And why, for all the talk of his likeability among the players do his players at times seem to have given up on him?
The answer could be that at 36 years of age, he is more of a peer than an authority. His well-groomed hair, his sense of fashion and his crispy undertone only do so much as to exemplify his
sophistication. A man who speaks with the aura of knowing what he is saying – sometimes descending to the near depths of Shakespearan soliloquy --- only seems to have gained points for reasoned intelligence and nothing else. He can explain and get his message through, but he seemingly cannot command.
Those are the facets that mean that he is still that 16 year old boy that used to leave tactical suggestions in the late Sir Bobby Robson’s mailbox. The young man who did detailed scouting reports for Jose Mourinho. He understands and perceives football circumstances and context, but he cannot change them.
Still, he is in himself of a contradictory nature. For one, he has the best win percentage of any Spurs manager. Yet, the manner of defeats to West ham, Manchester City and Liverpool were strikingly embarrassing.
Those defeats and the high score in them seemed to contradict a season that had started with a good defensive record. That defensive record was betrayed by a lacklustre attacking prowess.
For once, he had a team of other sophisticated players, but he could not make them gel. He had a goalkeeper well suited for a high defensive line, but a defence not wholly suited to the high line. A man who spent just over €100 million in the summer, but had turned Gareth Bale into a €100 million player.
It was a meeting with his old master that typified Villas-Boas completely. The 1-1 draw against Chelsea at White Hart Lane showed every side to him that manifested within his team --- fascinating triangles to take the lead but a drop off in character to sustain it.
That is where probably he is self-illusionary. That the man who learnt his apprenticeship under the pragmatism of Jose Mourinho, thinks and aspires to the aesthetes of Pep Guardiola. But unlike the Catalan manager who is an image of Plato’s proverbial philosopher prince, Villas-Boas is an image of Don Quixote.
For the enigma that is Andre Villas-Boas seems too difficult a mystery for English football to solve. The man who dreams of success has found a system that resists him and relegates his dreams to quixotic levels. He is probably the change that will forever be resisted.
image: © hurtingbombz