There is an old saying in football that a new manager meeting his players for the first time should tell himself as he scans the room: “These are the bastards who cost the last guy his job.” As a protégé of José Mourinho, André Villas-Boas knows all about the kingmaking powers of this Chelsea side.
On a day now racing closer, Villas-Boas will stand up in front of John Terry’s alternative Chelsea government and hope not to be welcomed merely as Mourinho’s former gofer. Roman Abramovich has opted for a Russian doll of a solution to his own brutal sacking of Carlo Ancelotti. Chelsea’s owner has opened the Mourinho doll and pulled out the smaller Villas-Boas one inside. This, at any rate, could be the feeling among an entrenched squad, unless the new man can assert his authority over both team and owner and avoid becoming the sixth managerial casualty of the Abramovich era.
Knowledge is power to the plainly clever Villas-Boas but to be well known to the current players is not necessarily an advantage. He will need them to shed their memory of him as Mourinho’s dossier man and start to see him as the fastest rising star on the continental scene. That perceptual leap will require more than the Europa League title Villas-Boas picked up with Porto last month. Only a handful of coaches automatically dazzle a dressing room into submission with their records and Chelsea’s new young general is not yet among them.
The same age as Drogba and Frank Lampard, Villas-Boas makes the jump earlier than Mourinho — who had won the Champions League with Porto — and without his old mentor’s bag of political tricks. Mourinho was able to present himself as a major catch for Chelsea and asserted his “special” characteristics the moment the first microphone was switched on. Shrewdly, he chose not to enter Stamford Bridge as the grateful recipient of a promotion from the Portuguese league but as a genius who was entitled to expect complete autonomy in the running of the team.
It worked for a while but soon Mourinho was being crowded by Abramovich appointees and began losing his battles with the owner.
There can be no Hollywood entrance for Villas-Boas and no hope of being left alone to manage, unless he wins the Champions League in his first season. This summer Chelsea have pursued a number of high-profile players without first putting a manager in place.
By an unlikely turn Villas-Boas might also be the first manager to be asked whether he feels the burden of a transfer fee. This question, which is usually put to costly centre-forwards, is bound to distort judgments of his work as Abramovich paid Porto a reported £13.3-million compensation to release him from his contract. A prodigious payer of compensation packages to outgoing managers, Abramovich is having to dole out handsomely just to get them to the table.
For Villas-Boas to surmount these obstacles he may need to be at the head of reforms to break up the Mourinho legacy. That means a demolition of player power and an influx of younger talent who can be shaped in the new manager’s studious image. Drogba and Nicolas Anelka would be the most obvious candidates.
But the biggest internal challenge is how to control Terry, who pronounced on Guus Hiddink’s suitability from the England camp recently and often talks like the chief interviewer rather than the club captain.
Abramovich is known to have been asking about Villas-Boas for a while. His arrival brings a distinct change of emphasis away from household names in favour of academic intelligence. That should shift Chelsea’s thinking from short-term drama to long-term planning but that presupposes Abramovich has hired a manager to think ahead and not just one he can more easily push around.
This is what makes the swoop on Portugal so captivating. Villas-Boas left Chelsea as Mourinho’s buddy and data analyst and returns as master. As costume changes go, this is the hardest in living memory. The possible appointment of Hiddink as director of football, meanwhile, casts Villas-Boas in the role of first-team coach rather than old-school manager, with Abramovich and Hiddink choosing which players to buy, and the current Turkey manager nicely poised to descend one floor in the lift should Villas-Boas flame out.
A more Machiavellian type than Hiddink would have young André looking in his wing mirrors from day one. Sir Bobby Robson taught Mourinho and Villas-Boas the dangers of working with colleagues who coveted the top job. This time the man in the dugout can be reasonably confident Hiddink would not want the manager’s post except as emergency cover: a service he performed in 2009 before returning somewhat gladly to the international stage.
To hire a manager who is still young enough to play for Chelsea might appear the greatest gamble of Abramovich’s reign, except that power is being spread rather than invested in a single prodigy. In the end they are all beholden to the oligarch who recently blocked the view of St Mark’s Basin in Venice by parking his £115-million yacht in one of the city’s prime lagoons.
Mourinho fancied himself, endlessly, but Villas-Boas, too, must like what he sees in the mirror to take all this on. You admire and fear for him in equal measure. —