Thanks to Jose Mourinho’s continued success, the sharply dressed Iberian has gradually replaced the bespectacled Scotsman as the de-rigueur football manager. Eighteen months ago, Andre Villas-Boas slid effortlessly into that role with a charming, irresistible panache. He was slightly cooler and sexier than just about every other manager in world football.
He looked and smelled like Jose 2.0. It wasn’t just that both managers made their names at Porto, a Portuguese club known for its no-nonsense chairman. But also that both shared the uncanny ability to look comfortable in everything they wore, no matter the weather. Football geeks rightly pointed out that they were in fact very different: Villas-Boas played energetic, attacking football, while Jose Mourinho used a more negative… blah, blah, blah. Whether they were actually similar was irrelevant – they felt the same, and that was enough.
After Porto’s league season, Villas-Boas accepted the job of Chelsea manager, thereby completing the Jose Mourinho comparison. Not only did this man smell like Jose, but he also managed the same teams as Jose. But for some reason – maybe John Terry just didn’t like the way he breathed – Villas-Boas never gained the trust of Mourinho’s inner circle of players, the same inner circle that won Chelsea trophies in the mid-2000s but has done nothing but whine since.
At what point AVB, as he quickly became known among the British press, “lost the dressing room” was unclear. Maybe it was when Chelsea drew at Stoke on opening day. Maybe it was when a run of indifferent form ended their title challenge. Or maybe — and this is the most likely scenario — it was the moment he walked in the door. Because the thing about Chelsea, and the thing about the inner circle, was that results were secondary. It was always about a feeling. To us, Villas-Boas felt like the next Mourinho. To the inner circle, he felt like a snappily dressed imposter intent on breaking up the inner circle and building anew.
Villas-Boas has now been out of work for almost six months. In most professions, you can’t be unemployed that long and expect to stroll back in. Football’s different, though. Sure, AVB’s reputation has diminished — maybe he doesn’t fill the Iberian-manager role quite as comfortably as he used to — but the feeling is still there. Something about Villas-Boas makes you think he’ll be successful. Spurs chairman Daniel Levy clearly sees it: that’s why he recruited AVB after Harry Redknapp tried to wheel one deal too many. After all, the guy’s young, precocious and clearly talented. His modus operandi at Chelsea was a squad-wide cull, and when the squad members who were about to be culled conspired against him, he was always likely to become the next victim of Roman Abramovich’s notoriously itchy trigger finger.
At Tottenham, Villas-Boas won’t have to deal with the inner-circle nonsense. Instead, he’ll have to maneuver through awkward press conferences devoted entirely to the Luka Modric transfer and do his best to zone out the schizophrenia that permeates everything Spurs do, from transfer negotiations to team selections. Spurs’ recent late-season collapse was too traumatic, and their last-minute slip into the Europa League too devastating, not to leave behind a lot of psychological baggage badly in need of handling. Villas-Boas will have to simultaneously motivate and educate a group of players scarred by the tactical naiveté of their former manager. And then there’s Benoit Assou-Ekotto…
But Villas-Boas already knows all that. He watched Spurs implode from the comfort of some beach in the Caribbean. Perhaps the shock of seeing Mario Balotelli deny Tottenham a well-earned draw at the Etihad caused him to spill his mimosa, but nothing more. After all, anyone who has succeeded in cultivating a Mourinho-style persona must be calm and self-assured. Villas-Boas won’t be daunted by the job in front of him, he’ll be excited by it. Tottenham are a glamorous club based in a glamorous city. Last season’s coach, Harry Redknapp, is popular but not irreplaceable – ultimately, the FA preferred Roy Hodgson, who, however impressive he looked schmoozing with Andre Agassi in Centre Court’s royal box, is hugely underwhelming as a football manager. Moreover, Villas-Boas, presumably, starts his new job with the full support of the board of directors, something he never had at Chelsea.
If the stars align, Spurs could be brilliant next season. Jermain Defoe can score goals by the bucketful. Brad Friedel never, ever misses a game. And Ledley King is still one of the best defenders in the Premier League, even though — and this is just a suspicion of mine – he no longer has a knee in any meaningful sense. But the stars would definitely have to align. Any team that relies on Rafael Van Der Vaart’s enigmatic talent is always apt to, well, lose.
No matter the outcome, Villas-Boas will sit, or squat, in the dugout, confident in his own ability. The occasional fly will land self-consciously on the sleeve of his well-ironed, ludicrously clean dress shirt. One glance from AVB, and the fly will hesitate for a moment, before rushing away to tell its peers whose shirt sleeve it just landed on. Whether Villas-Boas is indeed a great manager is, at this point, irrelevant. He feels like one, and that’s half the battle.