This article appeared in The Herald
Liverpool re-hiring Kenny Dalglish was described as a gamble. Rangers promoting Ally McCoist, their assistant these last four years, is explained in similar language. But few gambles in football seem on the face of matters as speculative as the punt taken on one Andre Villas Boas by Porto last summer.
His name was barely familiar even to his countrymen. He was 32, an age at which most players are still coming to terms with the idea that they are “experienced”. And, in fact, he had never actually been a footballer. For anyone.
There have been others who’ve been given their chance at managing big clubs without ever having played on any grand stage – Arsene Wenger is one who springs to mind – but usually there is a requirement to work one’s ticket in the lower divisions. Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa, however, is a man who knows his own mind. The Porto president handed a spiky young Jose Mourinho his first major appointment and did not live to regret it; Villas Boas was, similarly, his personal choice to succeed Jesualdo Ferreira.
Once again he has been vindicated. Porto host Spartak Moscow in the first leg of a Europa League quarter-final tonight having eliminated CSKA in the last round and fresh from clinching the Liga Sagres title with a 2-1 win at Benfica on Sunday. Before they took that punt on Dalglish, Liverpool were sniffing around Villas Boas; more recently Roma were rebuffed. The Porto native – a supporter of the club as a boy – has made it clear he wants to guide them into the Champions League next season.
So far, so much a case of Mourinho Mark II. And Villas Boas’ relationship to the “Special One” seems almost umbilical. Before taking over at bottom-of-the-league Academica in October 2009 – from which position he led them to a safe 11th place – he spent years working under the current Real Madrid manager, first at Porto, then at Chelsea, and then at Inter Milan.
The younger man has been keen to downplay this relationship, however. Rumours that his split from Mourinho 18 months ago was an acrimonious one may or may not be well-founded, but he has at times seemed annoyed at attempts to paint him as some kind of De Niro to his master’s Brando. “I am not a clone of anyone,” he has said. “I want to leave my mark on this club. We do not have the same character and personality. We communicate and work differently.”
“He’s very insistent that he’s not the new Mourinho,” the editor of the Portugoal football website, Tom Kundert, told Herald Sport. “He was in fact originally taken on at Porto by Bobby Robson and he is quoted as saying that he sees himself more as Robson’s successor. He said ‘I have English ancestry (his late grandmother was from Manchester), a big nose and I like drinking wine.'”
The story of Villas Boas’ conscription by the late Robson might well be the stuff of a Hollywood yarn. As a teenager he lived in the same building as Robson – who coached Porto from 1994-96 – and harassed the latter into reading some of his meticulous scouting reports on the team’s next opponents. The former England manager was impressed enough to offer the precocious youngster a role within the club’s observation department.
At 17, he achieved his UEFA C coaching licence in Scotland before, aged 21, becoming head coach of the British Virgin Islands. When Pinto da Costa appointed Mourinho in 2002, the latter brought Villas Boas in as an assistant, and so began his higher education in the managerial arts.
It would not be accurate to suggest the new Porto coach has simply transplanted Mourinho’s template, however. Like Mourinho he is adept at motivating players and impeccably organised, but there are major tactical differences: like Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, Villas Boas’ Porto play high pressure, passing football; his is a more fluid 4-3-3 than Mourinho’s was at Chelsea, with the wingers frequently becoming strikers.
“Where Mourinho is results driven and therefore traditionally quite defensive, Villas Boas gives his players a lot of licence,” says Kundert. “At the same time they lose very few goals. Tactically he has to be given credit.”
In the last four years, Porto have lost the likes of Bruno Alves and Raul Meireles, Lucho Gonzalez, Lisandro Lopez, Ricardo Quaresma, Jose Bosingwa, Pepe and Anderson. Benfica, meanwhile, looked a much stronger side than their domestic rivals this season: Luisao, Fabio Coentrao, Javi Garcia, Gaitan and Saviola would all walk into Villas Boas’ team.
In such circumstances, any manager who can put out a side as ruthless and tactically superior as the current Porto is bound to have Europe’s elite clubs taking note. He may not be able to keep him forever, but Pinto da Costa’s gamble has paid off. The risks for future suitors are beginning to seem negligible.