Andre Villas-Boas’s arrival at Chelsea over the summer was a sensation. Young, confident, and possessing a pedigree of mentorship, transformation at Chelsea was expected. But instilling new and unfamiliar ways would be palliative before firmly rooted—this was Chelsea after all, part exclusive nightclub, and part outpost of the new Moscow, an engineered beast resistant to obedience. Villas-Boas nearly made it three months before Fernando Torres’s untoward comments opened the door for his manager’s first encounter with sensationalism. The Villas-Boas era’s most tangible influence to date may be guiding Chelsea through an understated summer.
The Torres interview with the official website of La Liga was translated into English and posted on his personal website, rendering whatever he said in Spanish about Chelsea’s senior players as “very slow”. With this move, he effectively replaced the third-party publication as reliable scapegoat with his own, thereby making him both perpetrator and victim of that dastardly translation issue known as slippage. It is more likely that Torres simply undervalued the role of an editor than brazenly let loose a bilingual criticism of his colleagues. Still, he would have to answer.
Since the firebrand days of José Mourinho, Chelsea has produced their share of sensationalism; sex scandals and shootings are the prime cuts of daytime television. Historically, Torres’s comments hardly qualify as scandalous, yet under Villas-Boas’s reign of humility and self-restraint, “very slow” was sufficiently meaty for the media to grab and run toward disproportionate implications. For the first time as Chelsea manager, Villas-Boas was forced out of his low-key and contained persona to chase down his drifter striker and publicly address a club issue.
On Torres’s comments:
“We’d just talk. Just talk. To share opinion. If it was unauthorised, I’d fine him. Of course. Anyhow, it’s one player’s perspective.
“I don’t think it’s a perspective that the manager shares. I don’t have to share my players’ ideas sometimes…Maybe we just have to speak about that situation and he has to see our view as well.”
Consistent with his high regard for communication and empathy as the basis for professional relationships, Villas-Boas made it clear that he would remain a sincere and honest listener who in turn offers his take on matters without aggressive imposition, without—as he stated upon arrival— imposing his “radical-self”. Governing principles will take the lead.
When he speaks, one can see the abstract thinker in him, as if he’s visualizing the idea’s model at the same time, referencing some architectural or geometric shape hovering in front of him under a cone of light.
By way of ego, self-awareness, restraint, and motivation, Villas-Boas expansively detailed the central importance of the group dynamic and the place of the individual within it, both on and off the pitch. Aware that he can be occasionally wordy and indirect, he bookends the underpinnings and expositions with concise summaries impossible to misconstrue:
“The only thing I could never tolerate is an individual looking for individual objectives. Collective objectives go above everything else.”
His comments about Torres were similarly stern and clear, yet had an additional hard edge.
“We are going in-depth to regain the tape of that interview. We’ll see if things play exactly as they are in that interview.”
This communicator was now the interrogator. Torres’s comments were hardly incendiary or revelatory. Going outside the family always get the manager’s boxer briefs in a bunch, and Villas-Boas’s tone certainly conveyed an uncomfortable tightening. But the family does not mark the sanctified circle for him. If Torres’s translation had proved accurate, he would not have been guilty of insubordinate speech, but insubordinate action, a breach of the concept of the group, whose cohesion and health is dependent upon open communication and understanding. The possibility of the individual objective lying behind Torres’s comment could be damaging to the group.
Disclosing his request for the original text of the interview was the use of that model in his head as an investigative tool. It’s not the imposition of the radical self, but of the radical principle. Villas-Boas revealed another side of himself, for when it comes to what could never be tolerated, it is no longer about “just talking”.
This over-exposure comes about in the same week that perhaps his most hidden self was revealed. This requires a leap back five days to the previous Wednesday and Frank Lampard’s interview following England’s Euro 2012 qualifier with Wales.
A healthy Frank Lampard was left out of the match against Bulgaria before being reinstated for the Wales match. But questions were focused on his exclusion, which was particularly unusual when a second exclusion is considered. Jack Wilshere’s absence due to injury left an open slot in the lineup, or to put it another way, created a large receptacle for the speculation about Lampard’s future with England. Did the exclusion indicate that his international career was over?
There were a number of justifiable and diversionary answers at hand. At age thirty-three, Lampard could have explained his exclusion through injury and the slow, but proper recovery time for long-term fitness.
There was also the fail-safe ready-made reply, the been working hard in training everyday to get back into the squad. It would have been easy to cite player rotation and substitution policy, all teams have one, especially national sides often obliged to choose from a patchwork of available players. In addition to disarming the interviewer with mechanical dullness, stating the obvious numbs the inquest, as does the gracious compliment. He talked up the new kids establishing themselves in the squad, and could have left it there. Instead, Lampard chuckled, chose none of these options, and answered:
“People like to give off the idea that players are expecting to play every game and we’ve never been like that,” Lampard said. “We’re all professionals and driven, and our egos are only our desire to succeed individually and as a group, and we haven’t quite done that for England.
Just think that three months ago Villas-Boas was announced as the second coming of José Mourinho—the vessel for channeling his mentor’s presence in the form of clone, reincarnation, or host. It didn’t matter if it was done through science or Eastern religious ideas, Mourinho had found a way to be smuggled back into England for exclusive titillating banter and continental domination. Instead, Villas-Boas was instantly his own man, which then became just as fascinating.
From the beginning, Villas-Boas subtly demanded better listening from us. Now properly conditioned, we can hear him in Lampard’s self-effacing and substantive explanation for his exclusion. Put in terms of the tamed ego and group dynamic is a direct citation of his manager.
Generational transition is underway. England’s senior players have failed more than once to live up to expectations, yet continued to hold starting places without challenge. For the first time under Capello, England youth have an opportunity to establish themselves beyond roles as fillers and experiments. To start or hold a place in the squad, senior players like John Terry and Ashley Cole will be forced to prove themselves again or find themselves in Lampard’s shoes.
The measured transformation at Chelsea under Villas-Boas is a total mind-body rejuvenation that will come about first through perspective and attitude. The fresh worldview will be reflected in the success on the pitch and beyond, as part of group Chelsea or some other group. Here, it’s Lampard and England. Next, it could be Terry, whose ambitions to coach one day have been set alight by the Chelsea manager’s approach.
If Chelsea benefit, then England could too.
“All of a sudden now, we can see these ones sprouting up and that’s great for the fans to see and us to see as a group,” Lampard said.
As the youth rise, the timing is right for the elders to find a way to remain physically and mentally strong. By next summer, England could finally claim the expectations no longer associated with them. Villas-Boas may have a part to play in this.
Did everyone have it backwards? Maybe it was the projection of Mourinho who snuck Villas-Boas into England instead.