André Villas-Boas and the Evolution of the Manager

Andre Villas-Boas may be the first manager of his kind. Modest and ambitious, inseparable and detached from his club, he understands the new dictates of global football.


Andre Villas-Boas discusses his vision for Chelsea.

Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in the summer of 2003. He was unknown, a minor character in dying Sovietology circles. Biographies of him were (in ways still are) aggregated factoids of his acumen, influence, and criminal activity accompanied by a thumbnail photo represented by that default outline of a headshot. From a football perspective Abramovich’s motives for purchasing Chelsea were unclear. He had no known relationship to the game or to the club. Why did an oil and gas billionaire choose the football business over the countless business options available to him?

Things are clearer from the business and life perspective. By 2003, Russia had outgrown the initial “new Russia” label. The oligarchs’ free-for-all of the Boris Yeltsin era had given way to Vladimir Putin who turned them into public enemies. To avoid the fate of now-imprisoned Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Abramovich went clean. He sold off his assets, resettled in London, and turned his business interests to owning a football club. Chelsea FC was the best business deal at the time, and a pleasurable small business venture. England provided security and generous tax breaks for his wealth, and London offered the quality of life for his family. He may have severed associations to a murky entrepreneurial past, but he brought with him a softer version of the unpredictable and ruthless practices.

André Villas-Boas, hired last week to replace recently sacked Carlo Ancelotti, is the seventh manager in the eight years of Abramovich ownership. Of the top clubs in Europe, only Real Madrid has burned through more managers over the same period (José Mourinho is currently the tenth).

This culture of management, refined at Real Madrid, revolves around the dictates of football’s global economics whereby the inseparability of profit and success—measured in trophies—is not only the guiding principle of the club, but a principle unabashedly carried out in a fully transparent policy. By choosing not to publicly hide or sugarcoat the sacking of a manager for his immediate failure to live up to expectations, the management can display strength and its commitment to winning. Recent scalps include: Fabio Capello (one season), Bernd Schuster (a season and a half), and Manuel Pelligrini (one season) and three managers serving a year or less from 2004-2006. Chelsea’s temporary staff is almost as impressive: Ancelotti (two season), Luis Felipe Scolari and Avram Grant (seven months).

Whether or not Chelsea can make ground in this ignominious category is dependent on how much they wish to emulate their esteemed rivals by establishing a similar culture of management. Abramovich’s background and temperament are well fitted for creating a similar environment, which seemed to be fully developed and implemented with Mourinho’s departure. It was the succession of managers that followed Mourinho who were perhaps slow to understand or unwilling to accept the real terms of their position. Judging from Ancelotti’s Zen-like matter-of-fact stance on his future indicated that he understood quite well, if not at the outset, then somewhere along the way. The belief in a long-term tenure may have been as faint as the opportunity the club offered, but it was enough to keep these managers from running the club each day as if was their last.

The week between Villas-Boas’ hiring and his first official public press conference was relatively quiet for Chelsea’s standards. Villas-Boas made no immediate plunge into the transfer market; unlike his mentor there was no self-declared arrival over and above the formal customary announcements made on his behalf; his strutting around the facilities produced no eccentric territorial marking of his presence as a sign of things to come.

But the first few days of a 33-year old Mourinho protégé appointed manager at one of the biggest clubs in Europe could never be a quiet week. His every action was watched closely; even his constipation would have made waves. Most notable was the £13.3m fee required to prise Villas-Boas away from his former club Porto, an unprecedented new avenue for clubs to wield the power of financial excess. Then there was Villas-Boas’ first imprint, the late cancellation of the friendly against Dutch side Vitesse Arnhem four days into his tenure. His first words, exclusively offered to Chelsea TV were general, self-effacing, and interesting to some extent, but in this introductory forum, “group dynamics”, “motivation”, and “communication” were closer to steamed vegetables than the anticipatory meatiness they were forced to be in the meantime. Word and deed were put to Talmudic analysis both in search of his uniqueness and any indication that he was the clonal second coming of Mourinho.

The second feature of this culture of management is the manager’s psychology and attitude. A Real Madrid manager accepts the job with a clear sense of mortality. They do not entertain the possibility of cheating the sack; there is no future to envision. Chelsea managers on the other hand, have not had to acknowledge or fully accept that they are terminal from day one.

In his press conference, Villas-Boas expanded on his initial remarks offered in his Chelsea TV exclusive. He doesn’t offer a plan, but outlines a vision for the club and his position within it:

“This is not a one-man show, this is about creating empathy, ambition and motivation in everybody. Maybe I should be called ‘the group one’ as I want to group people together and be successful…Don’t expect something from one man. Expect us to create a dynamic group of everybody getting together, with the fans getting together, with people getting excited with the motivation that is in and around us. It is not about my arrival.”

When pressed for detail, or in other words, asked if the implementation his quasi-utopian community model would fail up against the deeply rooted individualist culture of superstars, which his vision addressed without explicitly naming, his reply was impressively consistent. In reference to fitting the slumping and incongruent Fernando Torres into the squad, Villas-Boas explained, “We faced a similar situation with [Radamel] Falcao at Porto, who didn’t find the net in pre-season and was frustrated, but we didn’t fine-tune the team to provide for him,” he said. “It’s about fine-tuning the whole organisation of the team.”

The attempt to carve out a more horizontal management structure and group sensibility in a rigid top down ego-driven environment, is a way to reorganize a collection of individuals into individuals as part of a group, address his inescapable youth, and create mutual respect and communication among players and management.

The social organization of the club points directly to the foundation of football as a team sport that has been obscured by the over-valuation of the individual through wage structures and contracts, the anointment of superstar and celebrity status, and the galactico’s supercession of the team concept. Most importantly, Villas-Boas attempts to reinstate this idea with himself included as part of the foundation. There can be no talk of group dynamic without the understanding that he is “one gear in this big club.”

Villas Boas is the first manager under Abramovich to understand the club’s culture of management. Prerequisite is an understanding of mortality. He witnessed the fates of his predecessors, “There’s nothing new in the idea that changes needed to happen. The people who have left did so after tremendous success, and we pay respect to them. Change happens in any structure.” And beyond this, an understanding of his own mortality, “Who expects to stay as Chelsea manager if they don’t win anything? You are expected to be successful straight away, to win straight away and on a weekly basis. There’s no running away from that challenge. That’s what I face. I’d be surprised to be kept on if I didn’t win.”

He doesn’t fears this truth. His advantage comes from accepting the circumstances and being very public about it from the start. Yet this differs from the kind of mortality of a Real Madrid manager, which is shaped by the survivalist’s strategy of every-man-for-himself. When one is special, mortality is equal to the end of the world. As part of the group, Villas-Boas’ mortality isn’t a world-shattering end. The group lives on. It is minimized and almost another banality of daily life. His vision is built by the day.

Public acknowledgement positions him to lose nothing from being sacked and to gain everything if successful. Like all football managers, he wants to shape the team in his own image and through his own self-governing philosophy. He appears deeply modest and sincere, liberated from the trap of his ego, but deeply ambitious. Arriving at Chelsea with less than two years as a top-flight manager at tiny Académica and later at Porto is a move that his limited experience could not be prepared. His colleagues, friends, and family all cautioned against the move, but he ignored this conventional wisdom for the opportunity of a lifetime. He and his family have moved four times in as many years. They will be prepared if it quickly becomes necessary to move again.

7/1/11

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